Though it's incomprehensible now—after decades of historical excavation, in-depth biographies, and international war crimes trials— there was a brief time that the name Adolf Hitler recalled something other than evil. He was a country gentleman, according to often-flattering profiles in publications like The New York Times, which profiled Hitler at home with his dog at his mountain retreat in Obersalzberg, Bavaria, near the Austrian border. A 1939 article noted the "atmosphere of quiet cheerfulness" exuded by his estate. Released right before the beginning of WWII, it was one of many reports from the era that examined the private life of Germany's most reviled dictator.
According to Despina Stratigakos, an architectural historian and interim chair of Architecture at the University at Buffalo, it was these often-fluffy profiles, advanced by a publicity campaign that painted a picture of Hitler's life amid elaborately staged interiors, that attempted to soften and sell his image to the outside world. Stratigakos's forthcoming book, Hitler at Home (Yale University Press), chronicles how architecture and interior design played a key role in the Nazi propaganda machine. Expensive renovations at Hitler's three main residences—the chancellery in Berlin, his Munich apartment, and his mountain home in the Alps—were used to portray him as modest, not machinating. "There were photos that didn't make it into the book because I felt they were too effective," she says.
Stratigakos took up the subject after unearthing receipts from Gerdy Troost, a relatively unknown German architect and interior designer who was a member of Hitler's inner circle. The file she found contained receipts for home décor purchases alongside letters petitioning Hitler's interior decorator for political help. The book grew out of an effort to reconcile this juxtaposition, to figure out what a receipt for Hitler's velvet curtains means.
"How was it that Hitler, who people knew who was a horrible man in the late 1920s and early '30, had transformed by the mid '30s into this charming, cultivated neighbor?" she says.
Years of research by Stratigakos revealed that Troost and others in the Nazi party had carefully crafted Hitler's domestic image. Propaganda-master Joseph Goebbels and photographer Heinrich Hoffmann, who profited enormously from images of the Führer at home, pushed a perception of the private Hitler as someone you'd love to have as your neighbor. The push was aided by the growth of mass media in the 1930s, which birthed the true beginnings of modern celebrity culture—Architectural Digest had just started profiling the homes of the famous—so the timing was ideal. There was a hunger to get inside the minds of great men through their homes, according to Stratigakos. By 1934, the German Press Association reported that images of Hitler at home playing with his dogs were the most popular photos of him purchased by the media, both at home and abroad.
By the mid-1930s, Hitler's mountain home was one of the more recognizable in the world. "They used his domestic life to change his image, and the propaganda went hand-in-hand, and happened at the same time, they remodeled his domestic space," she says.
The publicity campaign about the private Hitler began in earnest in early 1932, when the ascendant powers-that-be in Germany realized they needed to appeal to the middle class. Hitler's private life was a problem—his niece had recently committed suicide, and he was a bachelor who didn't have much family, or a public girlfriend—so they worked to craft a more likable image.
As opposed to the monumental architecture of Albert Speer that many associate with the Nazi Party, Troost said her stylistic model was very English: a simple, modest middle-class style emphasizing craftsmanship and German materials. Hitler was careful not to emulate the aristocracy politically or stylistically. According to Stratigakos, journalists who cover his homes often wrote about how surprised they were to find a dictator's home was well-done but not extravagant.
"It's a new kind of modern style, not the gleaming steel and glass of the Bauhaus," but one that "accommodates people's desire for richer colors, more fabric and textures," she says. "It's a softer modern look."
The sums spent on this project were "astronomical," she says. Hitler dedicated significant budget toward renovating the Chancellery at the height of the Depression, when the rest of Germany was held to stringent austerity measures. At the time, many interiors were finished with synthetic material due to resource shortages, but Hitler always got the real thing. The propaganda about Hitler being a modest man is still a narrative that is repeated today, Stratigakos says, but the money spent on his homes suggest otherwise. He was also clearly engaged as a client, occasionally fighting with Troost over design details when she wanted to dial down the extravagance of, say, an oversize picture window for his mountain home.
"There's a distinction between the architecture of the Führer and Hitler's domestic settings that soften him," she says. "The god-like figure isn't relatable, but if you have someone who's both god-like and also induces empathy, on the hand, you look up to him, and on the other hand you can have tea with him. That mix is very powerful. A lot of the domestic imagery has him with common people, often with children. Awe and empathy work together really well."
Squeamishness aside, Stratigakos feels that there are lessons to be learned from how this domestic publicity campaign successfully manipulated Hitler's image—at least temporarily.
"I want people to be critical of the way people try to soften politician's images," she says. "It's not just media fluff. I actually think these kinds of makeovers of political figures, which are distracting, can be dangerous. I think that still goes on."