Hitler at Home

Adolf Hitler was an extreme anti-Semite, convicted traitor, and leader of a violent paramilitary force. In a remarkable press campaign, the Nazis reinvented him as a genial Bavarian gentleman.

Covers of Heinrich Hoffmann's books on Hitler
Left: Cover of Heinrich Hoffmann’s Hitler Away from It All (Hitler abseits vom Alltag). [Bavarian State Library] Right: Cover of Heinrich Hoffmann’s The Hitler Nobody Knows (Hitler wie ihn keiner kennt). [Bavarian State Library]

The Invention of the Private Hitler

It was in the spring of 1932, in the midst of presidential elections, that the National Socialists discovered the publicity value of Adolf Hitler’s private life. The electoral campaign pitted Hitler, then leader of the second-largest political party in Germany, against Paul von Hindenburg, the elderly incumbent revered by Germans as the war hero of Tannenberg, and the Communist leader Ernst Thälmann. On March 13, German voters returned a strong lead of over seven million votes for Hindenburg, throwing the National Socialists, who had expected Hitler to be swept into the presidency, into despair. 1 Hindenburg’s failure to win an absolute majority, however, led to a runoff election the following month, and in the period between the two presidential elections the Nazis seized on a new representational strategy. 2 Although Hitler would lose the next round, the campaign, along with the worsening economic crisis, increased his support among the German people by over two million votes, to a third of the electorate. 3 Having proved its broad appeal, the image of the private Führer would become a staple of National Socialist propaganda until the start of World War II.

The coming out of the Führer’s personal life marked a distinct departure from earlier National Socialist publicity, which had focused on Hitler’s role as agitator of the masses and leader of a militant political movement. In the runoff election, the need to cast a wider net pushed Nazi Party propaganda toward a celebration of their candidate’s personal attributes. Hitler’s youth and dynamism, epitomized by his much-advertised campaign flights across Germany, became a selling point. Against the aura of aristocratic dignity that clung to the remote, eighty-four-year-old Hindenburg, the Nazis offered the modernity and glamour of a candidate who took to the skies to meet face-to-face with the German people. More daringly, Nazi publicists brought Hitler’s private life into the limelight to emphasize his moral and human character and thereby win over the bourgeois voters and women who earlier had overwhelmingly supported Hindenburg. 4

Given the circumstances of Hitler’s private life, this was truly an audacious move. He was a middle-aged bachelor with few family ties and no known romantic relationships. Unsavory rumors about his domestic life and sexuality had flared in September 1931 after his niece Geli Raubal shot herself in her uncle’s Munich apartment. Indeed, until the turnabout in 1932, National Socialist publicists had diverted attention away from or suppressed stories about their leader’s private life. Yet even as they continued to fight reports that could harm Hitler’s reputation, the Nazis began to construct for public consumption their own version of the private individual. The image of “Hitler as private man” would now be reconfigured from a liability into an asset.

The title of a 1932 photo album by Heinrich Hoffmann — Hitler’s official photographer — announced the shift. The Hitler Nobody Knows appeared in mid-March, shortly after the first election. While conceived earlier and perhaps independently, it nonetheless functioned as an effective tool in the campaign to appeal to a broader public through the recently discovered “private Hitler.” 5 On the cover, Hitler was shown in a Bavarian jacket and floppy-brimmed hat, reclining in the grass in the mountains with one of his dogs by his side. The image, together with the book’s title, signaled to the reader that the camera would reveal a different Hitler and thus fulfill, as claimed on the dust jacket, the “yearning” of his “countless millions of followers” to know more about his personal life and “wide-ranging interests and aptitudes.”

The text also asserted the “documentary truth” of Hoffmann’s work, a statement intended not only to instill confidence but also to refute the less-flattering accounts published by critics. In fact, as Germans would learn in the postwar years, Hoffmann’s distorted and highly edited vision of Hitler’s life bore little resemblance to reality; images of Hitler’s companion Eva Braun, for example, would be banished from such portrayals, even though by the mid ’30s she had become a fixture of his inner circle.

Heinrich Hoffman postcard of Adolf Hitler
Heinrich Hoffmann, postcard titled “The Führer as animal lover.” [Bavarian State Library]

The dust jacket copy suggested that the book would serve as a visual complement to Hitler’s Mein Kampf and, much like a family album, the book began with photographs of Hitler as a baby (with a birth announcement “pasted” in the corner), the house where he was born, his parents, his school and army days, and his rise as orator and politician. In documenting Hitler’s contemporary life, Hoffmann included photographs that appeared to be candid shots — for example, Hitler stopping for a picnic lunch on the way to give a speech or chatting with a worker who approached his car. Relatively few images show an urban scene; Hitler’s so-called private life played out mostly in a pastoral landscape.

Hitler was shown at his mountain retreat on the Obersalzberg dressed in casual clothes, including lederhosen, and enjoying leisure activities, such as walking his dogs, reading outdoors, and talking with a neighbor’s child. Here, a caption stated, away from the “noise and restlessness of the cities,” Hitler could relax and recover from the “stresses and strains” of political struggle. Yet these images were by no means apolitical: a photograph of Hitler sitting in the grass reading the newspaper and grinning broadly was accompanied by a caption indicating that he was amused by the “fables” printed about him by a hostile press: “champagne feasts, Jewish girlfriends, a luxury villa, French money …” 6 The viewer is invited to share in this intimate moment and laugh along with him.

But The Hitler Nobody Knows served a still deeper political purpose: to recast Hitler, through the vehicle of his private life, as a “good” man. The foreword by Baldur von Schirach, head of the Hitler Youth and Hoffmann’s son-in-law, underscored that intention. The German people, Schirach wrote, demanded of their leader the same lofty moral values in private life as in public work. Hitler’s embodiment of this synthesis, Schirach claimed, elevated him to the status of such national heroes as Goethe and Frederick the Great: “I would like to denote two characteristics that for me are the most striking traits of Adolf Hitler’s nature: STRENGTH and GOODNESS. And it is these very qualities that are apparent in the pictures of this book.” Schirach hoped the images, the glimpses of Hitler’s “personal experiences,” would reach an audience beyond National Socialist circles, and would convey the sentiments of those who had worked under Hitler “and thereby learned to adore and love him.” In pseudo-religious terms, Schirach promised that Hitler’s “secret” would be revealed to “whoever reads these images, as confessions, with an open heart” — namely, “here is manifest not only a rousing leader, but also a great and good man.” 7

Germans knew that Hitler was an extreme anti-Semite, convicted traitor, and leader of a paramilitary force of violent street brawlers. How, then, did Schirach and Hoffmann manage their remarkable reinvention? In short, with an appeal to values rather than to ideology. Hitler was described as a man of Spartan habits and great self-discipline: “It is hardly known that Hitler is a NON-DRINKER, NON-SMOKER, and VEGETARIAN,” Schirach exclaimed in the foreword. “Without imposing his ways in the slightest on others, including those in his immediate circle, he adheres strictly to his own rules for living.” 8 Schirach reinforced this in his captions. “This is how the ‘fat cat’ lives!,” one declared sarcastically under an image of a tired-looking Hitler at the end of a seemingly modest meal. “Marxist liars,” it continued, “tell workers that Hitler revels in champagne and beautiful women. In reality, Hitler does not drink a drop of alcohol! (Hitler is also a nonsmoker.)” 9

Hitler’s self-discipline, Schirach noted, was also evident in his enormous industriousness. Not only was he responsible for leading the party, but he also undertook “the most arduous trips” to speak “today in Konigsberg, tomorrow in Berlin, the next day in Munich, all of this with a minimum of sleep, for the Führer usually works until the early hours of the morning.” 10 Schirach’s words found visual expression in photographs showing Hitler on the road, being greeted by supporters, stopping for a quick rest, and, in one instance, slumped over asleep in the car beside his driver, “exhausted from the efforts of a huge rally.” 11 These on-the-road images were undoubtedly meant to provoke admiration for his work ethic and compassion for its personal toll. And like the campaign by airplane that was to follow, it conveyed Hitler’s direct personal bond with the German people.

Heinrich Hoffman photos of Adolf Hitler
Left: Heinrich Hofffmann, postcard of the Berghof, ca. 1936. Right: Heinrich Hoffmann, photograph of Hitler escorting the “favored birthday girl” to his Obersalzburg house, from Hoffmann’s Youth around Hitler (Jugend um Hitler). [Bavarian State Library]

Beyond work, Schirach also addressed Hitler’s hobbies. “His greatest pleasure is his library of about 6,000 volumes, all of which he has not just leafed through, but also read,” Schirach wrote. “Architecture and history are the most strongly represented in this library. Hitler is also an unassailable authority in both these domains. Art, and especially music, is for him a life necessity. His statement, ‘If the artists could guess what I will do for German art, I would not have an opponent among them,’ indicates the depth of his intention to cultural action.” 12 A photograph at a medieval cloister, titled Hitler, the Architect, caught the Führer demonstrating his architectural expertise to an audience of Nazi storm troopers. Images of Hitler’s watercolors, painted when he was a soldier during World War I, purported to display his “great talent” for architecture. And if he never became a professional architect, he was, the book proclaimed, “architect of a new Volk.” 13

The passage on Hitler’s hobbies, with its emphasis on the many books in his library and the peculiar insistence that he had read them all, reveals the desire to present the Führer, who had left school at sixteen, as an educated and cultured man. Bildung and self-improvement, together with self-discipline, a strong work ethic, and modesty, formed the core moral values of the German middle classes. The components of the “good” Hitler were thus artfully assembled with an eye to courting this constituency of voters and persuading them to abandon their allegiance to Hindenburg.

Other qualities ascribed to Hitler were meant to appeal across social and political divides. Commenting on a photograph of Hitler at a window overlooking the mountains, Schirach described his “yearning for nature,” which he could rarely fulfill, for “his life is struggle and work.” Associating Hitler with Alpine scenery made him seem vibrant and tapped into the popularity of nature sports in Germany. Moreover such a stance seemed (wrongly) to be safely removed from his controversial ideological platform — while many voters found Hitler’s racism distasteful and his talk of revolution frightening, it was difficult to be against hiking or nature.

Likewise, photographs of Hitler with his dogs conveyed a love of animals, as does this caption by Schirach: “He loves them almost as much as they love him.” (“A subtle distinction,” a critic racily quipped, “that safeguards the distance between master and creature, despite the intimacy.” 14) The book also portrayed Hitler’s apparent fondness for children and suggested it was mutual. “The young love him,” read the caption to an image of Hitler surrounded by young boys. “Everywhere children crowd around him to bring him flowers.” 15 Hitler was hardly the first politician to tug on voters’ heartstrings by posing with children, but with the aid of Hoffmann he would raise this public relations ploy to a new level of exploitation. Being seen in the company of adoring children was especially useful for a bachelor politician seeking to appeal to female voters and to soften the aggressively masculine image of his party.

Heinrich Hoffman postcard of the Berghof
Heinrich Hoffmann, postcard of the Great Hall, Berghof, ca. 1936. [Bavarian State Library]

On April 4, 1932, when the runoff campaign officially began, Joseph Goebbels, who would become propaganda minister of the Third Reich, published an article in the National Socialist newspaper Der Angriff (The Attack) that echoed the themes introduced in Hoffmann’s book. The real Hitler, Goebbels claimed, was artistically gifted, but had renounced architecture and painting to lead the German people out of their misery. “Adolf Hitler is by nature a good man. It is known that he has a particular fondness for children, to whom he is always a best friend and fatherly comrade.” Goebbels even claimed that it was concern for the welfare of German children that had spurred Hitler to political action. He also lauded Hitler’s comradely bond with colleagues as well as his intellectual tastes, artistic sensitivity, simple lifestyle, modesty, and work ethic. “This is Adolf Hitler as he really looks. A man who enjoys the highest love and devotion from all those who know him not only as a politician, but also as a person.” 16

The left-leaning press countered the personal and sentimental appeal of the National Socialists’ campaign with the distancing power of sarcasm. On March 19, 1932, Vorwärts (Forward), the central organ of the Social Democratic Party, republished an advertisement for The Hitler Nobody Knows that had appeared in Der Angriff. Seizing upon the book’s claim that “Hitler’s countless millions of followers” hungered for a glimpse into their leader’s personal life and were gratified by the “many thousands of pictures” taken by Hoffmann, Vorwärts rewrote the promotional text, ripping a hole in the presentation of Hitler as modest and humble and exposing the book as empty illusion.

Listen up, millions, your longing is satisfied! You see the great Adolf of the Morning in pajamas and of the Evening in tails, you see him painting his nails, you see him pomading his side part, you see him eating, drinking, speaking, writing! For the last ten years — that is, since he turned thirty-three — the great Adolf has spent the better part of his life having his picture taken, and so in less than four thousand days “many thousands of pictures” have been produced, thus, evidently, several each day.

This is how Adolf has worked quietly for his people and satisfied their desire. Though they have not eaten their fill in a long time, they can now glut themselves looking at Adolf Hitler! Heil! 17

But despite such biting critiques, The Hitler Nobody Knows sold and sold: over 400,000 copies in multiple printings by 1942. Hoffmann published several more books on the theme of the off-duty Führer, and added a brisk business in postcards with similar motifs, also selling such images to the German and foreign press. In 1937, Life magazine devoted a feature to Hoffmann’s photographs of Hitler with children; the American editors admitted the images were propaganda, but nonetheless reproduced them, complete with sentimental captions. 18 As historian Toni McDaniel has argued, the American media’s preoccupation before 1938 with maintaining “balanced” coverage of Nazi Germany resulted in a confusing image of Hitler, particularly in the “sugar-coated” stories that appeared in newspapers and magazines about the private man, a subject that fascinated the American public. 19 By the mid-1930s, according to the German Press Association, the most sought-after images of Hitler portrayed not the powerful leader of the Reich giving speeches or reviewing his troops, but rather a plain-living gentleman with a soft spot for dogs and children. The private Hitler invented for the 1932 presidential elections had become a global celebrity.

In 1937, Life featured photographs of Hitler with children, with sentimental captions; the editors admitted the images were propaganda.

The Hitler Nobody Knows established for public consumption the main characteristics of the Führer’s private persona. After 1933, the setting for its performance focused heavily on Haus Wachenfeld, his chalet on the Obersalzberg. The house in the Bavarian Alps, as envisioned by Hoffmann and other National Socialist promoters, embodied “the good life” promised to the German people by the Nazi Party. Here in the expansive Lebensraum and pure mountain air, where the sun shone and blond children frolicked, the Nazis propagated the idea of a domestic “utopia” that stood for the nation. Through officially sanctioned representations on postcards and in magazines, books, and exhibitions, and even in “spontaneous” pilgrimages to the Obersalzberg, Germans were encouraged to revel in the rustic house that symbolized the larger reward to come. Not unlike the witch’s house in Hansel and Gretel, it was an alluring and dangerous lie.

The Squire of Berchtesgaden

For more than thirty years, William George Fitz-Gerald, journalist and novelist, traveled the world to report on the political affairs and peoples of diverse nations. From road building in the Peruvian highlands to Haile Selassie’s armed forces in Ethiopia and Japan’s growing impact on overseas markets, the range of Fitz-Gerald’s interests seemed limitless. 20 Under the pseudonym Ignatius Phayre, he delivered eyewitness accounts considered informed and insightful, earning him the trust of editors and readers across the political spectrum. 21 Today he is remembered, if at all, for his series of glowing articles about a visit to the mountain home of his “personal friend” Adolf Hitler.

From 1936 to 1938, Fitz-Gerald sold his Hitler story to at least seven periodicals with national or international audiences: Country Life (1936), Current History (1936), National Home Monthly (1936), Saturday Review (1936), Windsor Magazine (1936), American Kennel Gazette (1937), and Homes and Gardens (1938). 22 Whether perusing Homes and Gardens in Leeds, Current History in Boston, or the National Home Monthly in Winnipeg, English-language readers across the globe eagerly absorbed the details of Fitz-Gerald’s visit with Hitler, whom he dubbed the “Squire of Wachenfeld.”

With his international experience, Fitz-Gerald seems, at first glance, an unlikely champion of Adolf Hitler. Fitz-Gerald was capable of writing with passion about the oppressed. In a 1919 article on “Race-Hatred in the United States,” he condemned the lynching of African Americans; he reported also on the abuse of African American prisoners, the suppression of the black vote, and the arbitrariness of the color line. 23 Some fifteen years later, he raised awareness about the continuing practice of slavery around the world, describing the auctions of men, women, and children, and criticized the colonial powers that turned a blind eye to these realities at home and abroad. 24

Yet despite these sympathies, Fitz-Gerald’s sentiments were ultimately anti-democratic. Like many in this period, he hoped for the emergence of “the long looked for Leader.” In his 1933 book, Can America Last?, he argued that “all classes, from bankers to gangsters, are well aware that Democracy has broken down, and that only the stern … Master, can lift the United States out of its rut of ruin and decay.” 25 Traveling in South America, Fitz-Gerald admitted he felt “something like veneration” for the Peruvian president and political strongman, Augusto Leguía. He credited Leguía’s success in modernizing his nation to his insistence on “public order,” while ignoring the cost to political freedoms. 26 When Fitz-Gerald turned to writing about Hitler, he seems to have judged him on similar terms.

The remilitarization of the Rhineland in March 1936 and the Olympic Games in Berlin in August that same year focused world attention on Germany and its leader. Fitz-Gerald capitalized on the interest by publishing multiple articles about his visit to Haus Wachenfeld. The personal connection between author and subject was a major selling point: “Holiday with Hitler: A Personal Friend Tells of a Personal Visit with Der Führer — with a Minimum of Personal Bias” read the heading of the July 1936 article in Current History. Writing after events in the Rhineland had triggered international anxieties about another war, Fitz-Gerald pondered the difference between the dictator whom British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin claimed had the power to lift the “‘black shadow of fear from Europe” and the man who eagerly greeted his plane as it landed on the Obersalzberg. “But was it really such omnipotence as this that hurried towards me with the same springy gait I knew so well, with that hearty smile of welcome, and a chubby hand raised in the salute? It seemed incredible.” 27

 Ignatius Phayre article on Hitler
Title page of Ignatius Phayre’s November 1938 article in Homes and Gardens.

Seeing his bareheaded host arrive, “the unruly ‘browlock’ broken loose,” Fitz-Gerald remarked that “Hitler might have been a hired gardener. Clad in an old tweed coat, tightly buttoned and too short for him, and shabby trousers that did not match, he was waving a crooked stick wrenched from a cherry tree.” In Fitz-Gerald’s telling, not only did Hitler not look like an omnipotent dictator who held the fate of Europe in his hands; he did not act like one either — at least, not on the Obersalzberg, his “one and only ‘home.’” 28 Fitz-Gerald thus enticed readers away from the frightening and alienating image of a thundering, “messianic” Führer, and offered instead a portrait of the country gentleman, a comforting and recognizable figure, especially for British and Commonwealth audiences.

Like Hoffmann’s “The Hitler Nobody Knows,” Fitz-Gerald’s “Squire of Wachenfeld” was a “shy, retiring man” and “a very modest — even a simple, humble soul.” 29 As the Führer’s “personal friend,” Fitz-Gerald claimed to have the insight and access to introduce readers to this other, private Hitler. Depending on the publication, Fitz-Gerald altered the details to suit its audience’s tastes. For Homes and Gardens, he described the Führer’s curtains and the food he served his guests; for Current History, he offered vignettes of Hitler’s youth in Austria. But whatever the variations, the articles shared common themes, with the aim of transforming public perception of Hitler.

To begin, there were the clothes. Far removed from Berlin politics and Nazi rallies, Berchtesgaden was a place for civilian attire, like that “old tweed coat,” which suggested both the unkempt bachelor and the landed gentry. 30 Fitz-Gerald noted that Hitler’s “coarse tweed” suits were “made by a ‘London’ tailor” in Munich. 31 A jaunty tone was struck by the mention of Hitler hiking in “plus fours,” a style of sporting breeches popularized by the Prince of Wales. 32 Such clothing befitted the mountain retreat, which encompassed, according to Fitz-Gerald, a working farm. “A little farming is done here with well bred stock. The Leader also grows wheat and alfalfa; while his cherry orchards are famous all along the Austro-German frontier.” 33 Fitz-Gerald further informed the reader that Hitler bred dogs on his estate; in Homes and Gardens, he stated that “all visitors are shown their host’s model kennels, where he breeds magnificent Alsatians.” 34 Though Hitler did not hunt or shoot animals, Fitz-Gerald alludes to these aristocratic pastimes through a reference to his dogs, one of whom was misidentified as a retriever — a type of gun dog favored by the English nobility. 35

Hitler’s breeding of dogs was the subject of the January 1937 feature, “Hitler Says His Dogs Are Real Friends,” in American Kennel Gazette. (The magazine had a tradition of stories about “great men” and their canine pets; an earlier great-man subject was Abraham Lincoln.) Fitz-Gerald emphasized Hitler’s rigorous attention to the purity of his German shepherds. “From all parts of the Reich, Alsatian-lovers offer Hitler their best strains as an honored gift. But he prefers to follow his fancy and buy his own. Otherwise, Haus Wachenfeld might become an asylum for mongrels, much as the White House gardens were under President Theodore Roosevelt, who was offered dogs by the hundred during his political tours from ocean to ocean.” 36 Roosevelt’s White House had, indeed, been home to many pets; still, the comparison carried not-so-subtle racial overtones about the weakness of the United States as a heterogeneous nation.

Presented as gentle and mildly eccentric, Hitler was fashioned into the image of the charitable landowner tending to his tenants.

Farming, shooting, dog breeding —all evoked the culture of the English aristocracy. Fitz-Gerald drew similar parallels between the gentry’s rooted identity in their estates and Hitler’s own deep bonds to the Obersalzberg — so near his Austrian homeland, upon which the German leader could gaze (longingly) from the vantage of his mountain chalet. Hitler felt emotionally connected to this land where, Fitz-Gerald claimed, he could be himself. “You love this place?” Fitz-Gerald asked, “watching this very ‘different’ man with surprise, as he jested and told funny yarns to his friends out on the moonlit balcony after dinner.” Hitler replied, “I am happy here. … High up on these sunny slopes, I feel I can breathe and think — and live! The very thought of all that reek and rattle of towns often appalls me as I recall it here. So does all the fuss, all the guarding, and cheering, and flower-pelting with the tedious routine of bureau and official life. Besides, I fancy the folks esteem me. You see, I’m just ‘one of them’! They know I can enter into their joys and woes.” 37

In Nazi propaganda, the Obersalzberg was envisioned as the meeting place of leader and nation. Fitz-Gerald readily took up the idea, but localized it with distinctly English idioms. This passage, from Current History, in which the squire visits his villagers, is typical: “A smiling Führer would tap on an open door. Entering — perhaps at meal-time — he would inquire what the brood of babes had to eat (four is the minimum family he likes to see). And of course, he must dilate on the vitamin-values of his own milk soups, cinnamon-rice, potato-pancakes and the rest. 38 Presented as gentle, caring, and mildly eccentric, Hitler was fashioned into the archetype of the charitable landowner tending to his tenants.

Fitz-Gerald’s retellings of his Obersalzberg sojourn did not entirely ignore the political activities at the house, but framed these in ways palatable with the image of the benevolent squire. Hitler, he wrote, would leave the house “soon after dawn, clad in plus fours, and with his retriever Muck, or else his trained Alsatian Blonda, trotting at his heels. One or the other of these will be carrying on his back a little hamper containing tomato sandwiches and fruit, with a couple of bottles of mineral water. Then amid the pines, or on some commanding knoll beside a cross and wayside shrine, Herr Hitler will sit down to ponder his problems and speeches.” 39 Politics were thus reduced to abstractions and submerged into narrative distractions, as Fitz-Gerald led readers’ attention away from the substance of those “problems and speeches” to the contents of a picnic basket. Fitz-Gerald had spent decades probing the actions of politicians and diplomats, but that analytic mindset is wholly absent in his account of the goings-on at Haus Wachenfeld, which portrayed Goebbels as a droll raconteur, Joachim von Ribbentrop as a wine connoisseur, and Ernst Hanfstaengl as a piano player. 40

The Making of a Myth

With care and craft, Fitz-Gerald thus transformed the dictator into the squire. The reassuring story he told, however, was riddled with inaccuracies. Some of these might be attributed to artistic license. To add a dash of modernity, Fitz-Gerald furnished Hitler’s estate with an imaginary landing strip for the airplanes that, he claimed, the Führer used to commute between Berlin and the Obersalzberg. 41 Just as imaginary were the cherry orchards and wheat fields, crops which could never be sustained at the alpine altitude, 42 and the early morning hikes on the Obersalzberg, where Hitler’s day typically began around noon.

But some of Fitz-Gerald’s errors are more serious and troubling, for by the mid-1930s the Obersalzberg was no mere scenic retreat. By then the quaint old Haus Wachenfeld was being expanded into the sprawling Berghof; the mountainside was being fortified into a militarized resort for the Nazi inner circle, including Hermann Göring, Martin Bormann, and Albert Speer; and most of the local inhabitants had been forcibly evicted. 43 In other words, there remained few neighbors for the “squire” to call upon, and the notion that the Führer might leave his heavily guarded compound to knock on villagers’ doors and discuss the “vitamin-values” in milk soup and potato pancakes was deeply implausible. But the most damning inaccuracy of all is the journalist’s very claim to have visited Haus Wachenfeld in spring 1936; for in that year the old chalet was a large and unlivable construction site and Hitler was not in residence.

The ludicrously flattering stories should have raised suspicions, for by the mid-’30s, the pathological violence of the Nazis was well known.

Digging even deeper, it becomes apparent that many of Fitz-Gerald’s narrative details are copied — sometimes verbatim — from other sources, ranging from Time and the Daily Telegraph to Heinrich Hoffmann’s propagandistic books, especially Hitler in His Mountains. 44 Even allowing for authorial exaggeration, the extent and scale of the inaccuracies and plagiarisms in Fitz-Gerald’s Obersalzberg stories make the question of authenticity unavoidable. Could it be that Fitz-Gerald, who had begun his career as a novelist, was never Hitler’s guest at Haus Wachenfeld? Indeed, could the entire account be an elaborate fabrication? Former Irish Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald, writing about his uncle William George, wrote that “the latter part of his life was spent as an invalid in London, where he died in 1942.” 45 Perhaps Fitz-Gerald had been well enough in the mid-1930s to travel to Germany, or perhaps he fantasized the story about his country holiday with Hitler from a sickbed in London. Whatever the case may be, the fact remains that Fitz-Gerald plagiarized sources, including Nazi propaganda, for his reports and passed it all off as his own firsthand experience. This, in turn, raises another unsettling question: How could the editors of so many reputable journals and newspapers have missed the warning signs? The ludicrously flattering anecdotes should have raised suspicions, for by the mid-1930s, the pathological violence of the National Socialists was well known.

The rise of celebrity culture in the 1920s and ’30s undoubtedly helped Fitz-Gerald to sell his story. Rapid advances in radio and film were making famous entertainers and politicians seem both larger-than-life and part of the family, and the new technologies were at once creating and feeding a voracious appetite for information about the daily lives of these intimate strangers. 46 Hitler may have been the dictator casting the “black shadow of fear” over Europe, but he was also a marketable celebrity.

Vogue magazine article on Hitler
Vogue (U.S.), August 15, 1936, feature on the homes of Hitler, Mussolini, and Eden. [Condé Nast]

The fascination with celebrities sparked curiosity about the houses of the rich and famous — a curiosity the press was eager to satisfy. In the 1930s, Architectural Digest introduced a regular feature on the homes of Hollywood movie stars and directors. In a similar spirit, in August 1936, the American edition of Vogue took its readers, attuned to the worlds of fashion and style, on a virtual tour of the houses of three “makers of foreign policies”: Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, and British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. Stretching the commonly held belief that our possessions reveal our “true” selves, the magazine asserted that one could read the psychology of nations in the domestic decor of its “great men.” “All of these rooms are obviously characteristic of man and country — Anthony Eden’s London house, British and reticent, impersonal as British diplomacy; Hitler’s chalet, German, jumbled, and gemütlich; and Mussolini’s villa, decoratively violent, magnificently proportioned, the home for a nation’s impressive pride.” 47

Photographs and captions focused on domestic functions: “Where Hitler dines,” “Where Mussolini plays his violin,” “Where Eden sleeps,” and so forth. The article featured an image (by Heinrich Hoffmann) of the dining nook at Haus Wachenfeld. “On the side of a mountain, the chalet has a suburban neatness, with a sun porch and canaries, and its rooms, like this one, a cozy podge of clocks, dwarfs, and swastika cushions.” (One wonders what Jewish readers might have thought of Vogue’s insistence that this interior “is obviously characteristic of man and country.”) On the whole, the illustrations seem to have been chosen to reinforce national stereotypes. Thus in contrast to Hitler’s gemütlichkeit, Mussolini’s “flamboyant rooms” in the Villa Torlonia embodied an “imperial floridity.” Eden’s rooms “reveal with their bright chintzes, their careful translations of the eighteenth century, only an oddly expressionless, but aristocratic good taste.” 48

Hitler may have been the dictator casting the ‘black shadow of fear’ over Europe, but he was also a marketable celebrity.

Vogue thus justified the voyeuristic pleasures of peering into the private lives of these famous men with stylistic analyses of national temperament. Compared to Fitz-Gerald’s wildly romantic and barely disguised propaganda, Vogue’s treatment seems innocuous. But the magazine was treading a dangerous line. In August 1936, just as this edition was appearing, Hitler was presiding over the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Berlin, which had been threatened with an international boycott as evidence of the Third Reich’s racism and anti-Semitism mounted. The Nazi regime, sensitive to its international image and eager to secure the foreign currency of tourists, countered allegations of discrimination by allowing one Jewish athlete to join the German team and by temporarily removing anti-Semitic materials from the capital’s public spaces. 49 In this context, Vogue’s feature, with its carefully comparative and neutral approach, reinforced the normalizing effort by blurring the political differences between two brutal fascist dictators and an elected member of Parliament, and by shifting attention from political ideology to interior design. In 1945, in the final days of World War II, Vogue would publish Lee Miller’s photographs of Buchenwald and expose its readers fully to the consequences of those ideologies. But in 1936, swastikas were simply pillow decorations.

New York Times Magazine, Hitler propaganda
Cover of the May 30, 1937 New York Times Magazine. [New York Times]

In those same years, the New York Times Magazine grappled repeatedly with the topic of Hitler’s domesticity, returning time and again to the Obersalzberg. In October 1935 it ran a short but admiring article, “Hitler His Own Architect: He Practices His Art on a Simple Chalet.” Noting Hitler’s early aspirations to become a professional architect, the magazine credited him with the renovations to the house (still minor at that point), which it lauded for its modesty and tastefulness: “Haus Wachenfeld … differs in no way from thousands of other Bavarian chalets except for the enlargements and the fact that it is furnished more simply and in rather better taste than the average home of the Bavarian peasant.” 50

A year and a half later, in May 1937, the magazine featured on its cover a stunning photograph of Berchtesgaden with the tagline: “Where Hitler Dreams and Plans.” Otto Tolischus, the Berlin correspondent who contributed the three-page report, began with a clear-eyed assessment of the significance of Hitler’s mountain residence:

Germany is administered from Berlin, capital of the Third Reich. It is inspired and spurred onward from Munich, capital of the National Socialist movement. But it is ruled from a mountain top — the mountain on which Fuehrer and Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler has built himself a lofty country residence where he spends the larger part of his time and to which he always retires to ponder events and to make those fateful decisions that so often startle the world.

Der Berghof, as this residence is now called, is rapidly becoming a place of German destiny. 51

Describing the expansion of Haus Wachenfeld into the Berghof, Tolischus suggested that this destiny might not be a happy one. “The presence of the head of a mighty nation,” he noted, “is already transforming the rustic and unsophisticated simplicity of the place and is giving it — more sensed than seen — a formidable and a martial air.” 52

On the Obersalzberg, the construction of new SS barracks and the measures taken to turn Hitler’s residence into “an impregnable fort” contributed to the new “martial air.” Mystery surrounded the Berghof. “Nobody is authorized to talk about it; no publication about it is permitted except for a few official photographs and some lyric but vague explanations of them; even the workers who constructed it have been pledged to silence.” Rumors circulated that the house was equipped with gas-proof bomb shelters and “girded by anti-aircraft guns.” Around the wooded estate, “little turrets which look quite romantic” were actually guard posts, and the “entire mountain side, covering several square miles” had been enclosed with a high barbed-wire fence. The Nazi elite had homes within the protected perimeter, “but everything else, including a children’s sanatorium and a score of peasant homes, has been removed from it.” Berchtesgaden was “reported to have been cleansed of all ‘unreliable’ elements,” and tourists were required to answer a battery of police questions. These precautions were “so elaborate … as to convince the native populace that Berchtesgaden is destined to become the real national capital in case of war.” 53 With surprising accuracy, given the shortage of information, Tolischus thus became one of the first reporters to alert English-language audiences to the militarization of the Obersalzberg region.

But his cautious and skeptical tone changed when the focus turned from the house to his host. “With safety and privacy thus assured, Hitler is able to relax, and to his visitors he shows himself here from his most charming side.” Readers learned about Hitler’s nonpolitical daily routines, about leisurely breakfasts of “milk, bread, oatmeal, honey and cheese” and walks in the mountains, about the Führer’s vegetarian habits and sweet tooth. After lunch, Tolischus reported, Hitler retreated to a “special studio built at the Berghof,” where he indulged in “his favorite hobby — architecture.” Evenings were spent “around the fireplace in the big hall in the company of his guests” and might include a musical performance or, more often, an informal discussion about current events. The latter helped Hitler to gauge the public mood in making his decisions. 54

Nothing in the dreamy fable of ‘Herr Hitler at Home’ reflected the realities of a continent on the brink of war.

On this narrative tour of the Berghof, the reader is thus led away from the disquieting fortress being prepared for war to a gentler place of domestic culture. The shift in how we readers are asked to view Hitler at home enacts the very process of seduction Tolischus sought to expose: our anxieties are soothed away by descriptions of the host’s “charming side.” And so we are offered two polar views of Hitler’s domesticity: the fortress, with its repressed freedoms and military secrets, and the home, with its “comradely” warmth and fireside chats. Are we readers supposed to fear the fortress or hope for an invitation to the home?

Tolischus’s article may have been contradictory but it was not uncritical. It comes as a surprise, then, to read “Herr Hitler at Home in the Clouds,” which appeared in the New York Times Magazine on August 20, 1939. The article, by an obscure writer named Hedwig Mauer Simpson, recapitulates the now familiar history of how Haus Wachenfeld became the Berghof and how this reflected the Führer’s “consolidated” powers and an accommodation of governmental and diplomatic functions, making the residence “less private” in nature. But quickly the focus pivots to the reassuring routines of “ordinary life,” to those mountain walks and vegetarian meals with gooseberry pie, and to those admirable interiors, “furnished harmoniously, according to the best of German traditions.” Once again we read about an elegant dinner, with ladies in evening dress and Hitler in a “dark lounge suit,” followed by coffee “in front of a blazing log fire.” Hitler’s guests came “from all kinds of German circles, as well as from foreign countries,” and apparently the host was “a good listener.” “Non-political-minded persons will often tell him inadvertently, or by implication, things which his trained staff usually keep from him.” 55

Yet even as the Times Magazine was featuring this Berghof idyll, the front page of the paper was capturing the altogether less harmonious world of August 20, 1939. Several of the stories reported on the growing unrest in Europe. About 100,000 German troops had massed on the Polish border as the Slovak army, which had pledged cooperation with Hitler, began its own mobilization. “Squads of police” had been sent to Bratislava’s Jewish ghetto to protect residents from beatings and vandalism by the German minority. Pope Pius XII, speaking to pilgrims in Italy, made a “fervent plea for peace” and expressed hope that Europe’s statesmen would avert war. Lord Halifax, the British foreign secretary, cut short his vacation and returned to London. Switzerland strengthened garrisons along its German and Italian borders. 56

It is difficult to imagine readers’ reactions as they paged through the newspaper and arrived at the magazine. Nothing in the dreamy fable of “Herr Hitler at Home in the Clouds” reflected the frightening realities of a continent on the brink of war. The article was illustrated with recycled photographs, showing Hitler hiking on the Obersalzberg, as well as with an editorial cartoon by the London-based artist David Low. The drawing depicted Hitler, looking pensive, seated at a table between the lovely female figure of Peace and the ominous, shroud-covered figure of War. It bore no relationship to the article and was probably added by an editor in an effort to bridge the chasm between the realities depicted on the front page and the fanciful story in the magazine. Still, one wonders about the Times’ decision to publish, at this highly fraught moment, what was in essence an ode to life at the Berghof. Portraying Adolf Hitler as a gracious host and gooseberry-pie enthusiast perhaps made it easier to hope that the news reports on the front page were exaggerated or alarmist. Twelve days later, when German forces invaded Poland, the readers of the New York Times, along with the rest of the world, discovered that they were not.

Editors' Note

This essay is adapted from Hitler at Home, which will be published this month by Yale University Press. It appears here with the permission of the press and the author.

  1. John Toland, Adolf Hitler (New York: Anchor, 1992), 263.
  2. Rudolf Herz, Hoffmann und Hitler: Fotografie als Medium des Führer-Mythos (Munich: Fotomuseum im Münchner Stadtmuseum), 194, 243. My discussion of this critical shift in National Socialist propaganda is indebted to Rudolf Herz’s study of Heinrich Hoffmann’s broad role in the creation of the Führer myth.
  3. Ian Kershaw, Hitler, 1989–1936: Hubris (New York: Norton, 1999), 363.
  4. Herz, Hoffmann und Hitler, 190-194, 242-248; Ian Kershaw, The “Hitler Myth”: Image and Reality in the Third Reich (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 41-42; Anna von der Goltz, Hindenburg: Power, Myth, and the Rise of the Nazis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 156.
  5. Herz, Hoffmann und Hitler, 194, 197. As Hitler’s official photographer, Hoffmann had extensive access to the German leader, and from the thousands of images at his disposal, he selected 100 for the book.
  6. Heinrich Hoffmann, editor, Hitler wie ihn keiner kennt (Berlin: Zeitgeschichte, 1932), 40.
  7. Baldur von Schirach, “Zum Geleit,” in Hoffmann, Hitler wie ihn keiner kennt, x-xi. (Capitals in the original.)
  8. Ibid, xiii. (Capitalization in the original.)
  9. Hoffmann, Hitler wie ihn keiner kennt, 69.
  10. Schirach, “Zum Geleit,” xiii-xiv.
  11. Hoffmann, Hitler wie ihn keiner kennt, 61.
  12. Schirach, “Zum Geleit,” xiv.
  13. Hoffmann, Hitler wie ihn keiner kennt, 88, 14-15.
  14. Kurt Reinhold, “Der Unwiderstehliche,” Das Tagebuch, May 28, 1932, 839.
  15. Hoffmann, Hitler wie ihn keiner kennt, 75.
  16. Joseph Goebbels, “Adolf Hitler als Mensch,” Der Angriff, April 4, 1932, supplement.
  17. Vorwärts, “Der Vielgeknipste: Adolf in allen Lebenslagen,” March 19, 1932. In his foreword to Hoffmann’s book, Schirach attempted to deflect such criticism with a long statement about how Hitler hated being photographed and did so only for the good of the party; much of the foreword, ironically, was devoted to framing Hitler as the photographer’s unwilling subject. See Schirach, “Zum Geleit,” xi-xiii.
  18. Life, “Speaking of Pictures: Jugend um Hitler,” December 6, 1937, 6-7, 9.
  19. Toni McDaniel, “A ‘Hitler Myth?’ American Perception of Adolf Hitler, 1933-1938,” Journalism History 17, no. 3 (1990), 46-53.
  20. Ignatius Phayre, “The Man of Peru,” North American Review 225, no. 843 (1928), 564-68; Ignatius Phayre, “Italy’s Military Problems in Abyssinia,” English Review 61 (1935), 270-81; Ignatius Phayre, “Japan’s ‘World-War’ in Trade,” Quarterly Review 264, no. 523 (1935), 1-21. For a brief biographical note on Fitz-Gerald’s world travels, see “By Way of Introduction,” North American Review 225, no. 5 (1928): n.p.
  21. See, for example, the positive reviews of Fitz-Gerald’s first book, America’s Day (1918), in Saturday Review, “America of Today,” December 7, 1918, 1132–33; and New Age, “America’s Day,” February 27, 1919, 282.
  22. Ignatius Phayre, “Hitler as a Countryman: The ‘Squire’ of Wachenfeld,” Country Life, March 8, 1936, 322-24; Ignatius Phayre, “Holiday with Hitler: A Personal Friend Tells of a Personal Visit with Der Führer — with a Minimum of Personal Bias,” Current History 44, no. 4 (1936), 50-58; W.G. Fitz-Gerald, “On Holiday with Hitler in His Summer Chalet,” National Home Monthly, November 1936, 10-11, 27, 29, 45; Ignatius Phayre, “Hitler at Home,” Saturday Review, March 21, 1936, 362-63; Ignatius Phayre, “With Herr Hitler in his Holiday Home,” Windsor Magazine, June – November 1936, 35-51; Ignatius Phayre, “Hitler Says His Dogs Are Real Friends,” American Kennel Gazette, January 1, 1937, 5-7, 164; Ignatius Phayre, “Hitler’s Mountain Home: A Visit to ‘Haus Wachenfeld,’ in the Bavarian Alps,” Homes and Gardens, November 1938, 193-95.
  23. Ignatius Phayre, “Race-Hatred in the United States,” Observer, August 3, 1919. Despite his contempt for such violence, Fitz-Gerald’s own racism is apparent throughout the article.
  24. Ignatius Phayre, “The Slave-Trade To-Day,” English Review 60 (1935), 55–65.
  25. Ignatius Phayre, Can America Last? (London: Murray, 1933), ix, 308-309. Fitz-Gerald explicitly evoked the racial meaning of the word “master,” claiming that “even the Southern negroes now favour a more despotic sway.”
  26. Phayre, “Man of Peru,” 567, 565. Fitz-Gerald, according to his nephew Garret FitzGerald, “offered his services as a public relations officer to various South American governments, apparently with some success” (See Garret FitzGerald, All in a Life, [London: Macmillan, 1992], 4.) The article on Leguía thus may have been a paid endorsement. Nonetheless, the sentiments expressed accord with the broader ideological stream of Fitz-Gerald’s writings.
  27. Phayre, “Holiday with Hitler,” 50–51. (All italics in the original.)
  28. Ibid., 51.
  29. Phayre, “Hitler as a Countryman,” 322, 324. For a broader discussion of the prewar British newspaper coverage of Hitler, see Ian Kershaw, Making Friends with Hitler: Lord Londonderry, the Nazis, and the Road to War (New York: Penguin, 2004), 25–64.
  30. Phayre, “Holiday with Hitler,” 51; Fitz-Gerald, “Summer Chalet,” 10.
  31. [W. G. Fitz-Gerald], “A Dictator at Home: Herr Hitler as Host and Village Squire,” Launceston Examiner (Tasmania), May 30, 1936.
  32. Amy T. Peterson and Ann Kellogg, eds., The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Clothing through American History 1900 to the Present, vol. 1 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2008), 267; Phayre, “Hitler as a Countryman,” 324; [Fitz-Gerald], “Dictator at Home.”
  33. Phayre, “Hitler as a Countryman,” 324.
  34. Phayre, “Hitler’s Mountain Home,” 195. The picture was originally published in Hoffmann, ed., Hitler wie ihn keiner kennt, 37.
  35. Phayre, “Hitler as a Countryman,” 324.
  36. Phayre, “Dogs Are Real Friends,” 6.
  37. Phayre, “Holiday with Hitler,” 58.
  38. Ibid., 54. See also Phayre, “Hitler as a Countryman,” 324; and Phayre, “With Herr Hitler,” 46–47. For more on the ideal attributes and history of the country squire, see P.H. Ditchfield, The Old English Country Squire (London: Methuen, 1912).
  39. Phayre, “Hitler as a Countryman,” 324.
  40. Phayre, “Holiday with Hitler,” 52; Phayre, “Hitler’s Mountain Home,” 195.
  41. The closest airport to the Obersalzberg was at Ainring, near Freilassing. It opened in 1934 for government business. Train travel, however, was the more common form of transportation to Berchtesgaden. On the Ainring airport, see Susanne Rolinek, Gerald Lehner, and Christian Strasser, Im Schatten der Mozartkugel: Reiseführer durch die braune Topografie von Salzburg (Vienna: Czernin, 2009), 252–55.
  42. As Martin Bormann discovered when he established an unviable farming complex on the Obersalzberg in 1938. See Albert A. Feiber, “’Filiale von Berlin’: Der Obersalzberg im Dritten Reich,” in Die tödliche Utopie: Bilder, Texte, Dokumente, Daten zum Dritten Reich, ed. Volker Dahm et al., 5th edition (Munich: Institut für Zeitgeschichte, 2008), 77.
  43. On the expulsion of the Obersalzberg’s inhabitants, see Ulrich Chaussy and Christoph Püschner, Nachbar Hitler: Führerkult und Heimatzerstörung am Obersalzurg, 6th edition (Berlin: Links, 2007), 94–107.
  44. Compare, for instance, the story about Ignatz Westenkirchner in Phayre, “With Herr Hitler,” 36–37, with “Adolf and Ignatz,” Time, January 1, 1934, 13–14, and “Bless Me Natzi!,” Time, January 8, 1934, 21. See Peterborough, “Baroque,” Daily Telegraph, April 25, 1935, and compare to Phayre, “Hitler as a Countryman,” 322. See Hoffmann, ed., Hitler in seinen Bergen. Fitz-Gerald mined Hoffmann’s books as a source for anecdotes, picking up details or references and elaborating them into stories. Reading the two authors together often produces a strange echo effect.
  45. FitzGerald, All in a Life, 4.
  46. See Amy Henderson, “Media and the Rise of Celebrity Culture,” OAH Magazine of History 6, no. 4 (1992), 52.
  47. “Mussolini, Hitler, and Eden — In Retreat,” Vogue, August 15, 1936, 70.
  48. Ibid., 70–71. The image of Haus Wachenfeld was taken before the 1935-36 renovation.
  49. See David Clay Large, Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936 (New York: Norton, 2007).
  50. “Hitler His Own Architect: He Practices His Art on a Simple Chalet,” New York Times Magazine, October 13, 1935, 15. Large portions of this text reappear almost verbatim in the articles that Fitz-Gerald published on Hitler’s home the following year. These similarities and the lack of a byline for the Times piece raise the question of whether he was its author; so does the fact that Fitz-Gerald contributed to the New York Times, in the 1920s, under the pseudonym of Ignatius Phayre. However, given the numerous instances of plagiarism evident in his reports on Hitler, I am inclined to believe that he plagiarized rather than wrote this article.
  51. Otto Tolischus, “Where Hitler Dreams and Plans,” New York Times Magazine, May 30, 1937, 1.
  52. Ibid.
  53. Ibid., 1–2.
  54. Ibid., 2, 16.
  55. Hedwig Mauer Simpson, “Herr Hitler at Home in the Clouds,” New York Times Magazine, August 20, 1939, 5, 22.
  56. “War Moves Go On,” “Pontiff Still Sees a Chance for Peace,” “Coup Fear Takes Halifax to London,” and “The Developments in Europe,” New York Times, August 20, 1939, page one.
Despina Stratigakos, “Hitler at Home,” Places Journal, September 2015. Accessed 02 Oct 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/150915

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