Richard E. Schneider carefully spread the broken pieces of the glass photo negative on the light table at the National Archives and, wearing green rubber gloves, put them together like the parts of a puzzle.
A ghostly image emerged that Schneider recognized. “The face, and the mustache, and those eyes,” he said. It was Adolf Hitler, sitting stiffly in an upholstered arm chair, his German shepherd at his side.
He wore pinstriped pants, a dark suit coat and a tiny swastika lapel pin. His hair was combed back, and he looked as if he was headed to the opera. A piano, suggesting refinement, sat in the background, and light illuminated one side of his blank face.
It was an eerie likeness, apparently dating to 1923, when Hitler was 34, that could be one of the earliest published of the infamous Nazi dictator in public life.
And it is one of 1,270 images that Schneider has just digitized from a trove of 41,000 glass negatives created by Hitler’s personal photographer and key propagandist, Heinrich Hoffmann.
Most have probably never been seen before with this clarity, he said.
“What makes this digitization project special is that the ensuing image has been reproduced from the original negative, rather than it being a copy or copy of a copy,” Schneider said in an email. “This results in unmatched quality.”
Plans are to make the photographs available online soon, according to Billy Wade, a supervisory archivist.
Many of the fragile glass plates were broken and had to be reassembled. “There were more shattered plates of [Hitler] than perhaps any other subject," Schneider said. "I don’t know if that was purposeful or coincidental.”
Putting them back together “was a little scary, as if I could hear him say, ‘Danke [thank you] for making me whole again.’ ” he said. “Anytime I came across a picture of him looking at me, it sent shivers.”
“And remember, [Hitler] may not have been anything … if it weren’t for the millions of people that rejoiced in his every word — thus, the foreboding rally shots,” he said.
Schneider, a special projects preservationist at the National Archives, began studying and digitizing the glass negatives last summer and finished last month.
Hoffmann, in whose Munich studio many of the portraits were made, took thousands of Nazi photographs, starting in the 1920s.
His pictures helped craft the image of Hitler as the benevolent and heroic savior of Germany who was loved and admired by millions. Children, the working man, young people, dogs, all adored Hitler, according to Hoffmann’s portrayal.
“He single-handedly shaped the personal side of Hitler’s ‘Fuhrer Image,’ ” the German historian Heike B. Gortemaker wrote.
It helped that he had exclusive access to the Nazi inner circle. In a group photo taken by a different photographer, Hoffmann is seen with Hitler and much of the Nazi political and military hierarchy.
In crowded beer halls, concert halls, jammed auditoriums, inside offices, outside buildings, Nazis in all their livery assembled before Hoffmann’s camera.
Hitler posed, too. In a business suit. In uniform. In a trench coat. In lederhosen. In jack boots.
Hoffmann was a seasoned photographer when he joined the Nazi party in 1920 — membership card #427 — and made most of his early pictures using the old-fashioned glass negatives.
He had photographed German social, legal and religious figures, as well as actors, painters and musicians.
After the war, his negatives were confiscated by the Army and went to the National Archives in 1962, according to Wade.
The photographs are frightening examples of early Nazi propaganda — of carefully staged group pictures, portraits and scenes at political rallies as Hitler campaigned for election and the halls were hung with Nazi banners.
“Germany Shall Live," the banners say, “Don’t Buy from Jews," and “Jews are our Misfortune.”
Audiences look on, some giving the “heil Hitler” salute, while others do not. Almost always, the venues are full, often standing-room-only.
Hoffmann and his assistants later photographed the 1936 Berlin Olympics, taking thousands of pictures, he wrote in his 1955 memoir, “Hitler Was My Friend.”
He went with Hitler to Poland when the Nazis invaded in 1939. And he chronicled the surrender of France near Compiegne in 1940, in the same railway car where Germany capitulated in 1918, ending World War I.
“Now it’s our turn,” Hoffmann said an exultant Hitler told him.
Hoffmann claimed in his memoir that Hitler eluded photographers in the early days and destroyed one of Hoffmann’s negatives after the photographer staked him out.
Later, Hoffmann, by then an intimate friend and part of Hitler’s traveling retinue, agreed not to publish any pictures of him until he got Hitler’s okay.
But at an outdoor rally in September 1923, another German photographer, Georg Pahl, took a picture of Hitler and disappeared into the crowd.
Hitler then summoned Hoffmann and agreed to come to Hoffmann’s Munich studio. “The time has now come, and … you shall take your photographs,” Hoffmann said Hitler told him.
The 1923 negative that Schneider reassembled, as well as others featuring Hitler in the same clothes and in the same armchair could be one from that sit-down.
(Pahl, meanwhile, reportedly was blacklisted by the Nazis.)
Hoffmann took full advantage and made a fortune producing a stream of illustrated propaganda books: “With Hitler in Poland,” “With Hitler in Italy,” “Hitler Off Duty” and “The Hitler Nobody Knows.”
Hoffmann claimed in his book that he eventually ran afoul of Hitler’s sinister gatekeeper, Martin Bormann, and was edged out of the inner circle around 1944.
After the war, Hoffmann was arrested and convicted of war profiteering, and he spent five years in several German prisons.
One of them was only 15 miles from his old haunts in Munich.
It was the former Nazi concentration camp at Dachau.
Read more Retropolis: