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Why you should care about how Hitler decorated his homes

Adolf Hitler und Eva Braun in 1942 at the Berghof, Hitler's home in the Obersalzberg, Bavaria, Germany. (Bundesarchiv)
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Adolf Hitler is a man who is, quite rightly, infamous for many things. Tasteful decorating choices are not one of them.

However, on Aug. 20, 1939 – just 12 days before the start of World War II – the New York Times magazine wrote a lengthy profile of the Nazi leader's life at his mountain estate. The article noted that the Bavarian home, known as Berghof, was furnished with "unobtrusive elegance" – with "unstained sanded wainscoting" and a "patternless carpet of hand-woven rugs."

This wasn't a one off. Perhaps what's more remarkable is that it wasn't just the New York Times  writing about the stylishness of the fascist leader's abodes. A number of American and British publications were – including The Washington Post. On Jan. 2, 1941, Preston Grover wrote a story for The Post describing Hitler's various wartime homes and paying particular attention to the German fuhrer's apparent love of good silverware.

What explains this odd fixation with Hitler's home decor? That's one of the questions that Despina Stratigakos, a historian at the University at Buffalo, set out to answer in her new book "Hitler at Home." In this recently published book, Stratigakos studies the intersection between architecture and power: Her work examines not only how the Nazi leader decorated his residences, but how these residences were used to change public perception of Hitler's private life.

Stratigakos was kind enough to answer some questions about her book and Hitler's home decoration below.

WorldViews: Can you tell me a little about why you decided to write the book?

Despina Stratigakos: The book began with a baffling piece of archival evidence. As a graduate student in Berlin, I was researching the careers of women in architecture active in the early part of the 20th century. I came across the Nazi party files of Gerdy Troost, Hitler’s interior designer. What caught my eye immediately was the bizarre juxtaposition of artifacts in her files: invoices for renovations to Hitler’s homes and sketches for furniture filed together with letters from people pleading for her help, including Jews interned in concentration camps.

Why, I wondered, were they asking Hitler’s decorator for help? I couldn’t make sense of what I was seeing in the files. What did Hitler’s velvet curtains have to do with the Holocaust? It took a long time for me to piece together the story and to understand how Troost had been part of a larger propaganda machine to remake Hitler’s image from tyrant to gentleman, and the power she had once possessed as part of his inner circle.

In his early years, it doesn’t seem like Adolf Hitler cared for interior design – you mention that he didn’t have a home of his own until he was in his late 30s. How would you describe his homes up till this point?

For two decades after leaving Linz in 1908, following his mother’s death, Hitler did not have much of a home. As a young man in Vienna, he lived in shabbily furnished rooms, slept on park benches, and claimed a bed in a men’s hostel. In 1920, as an ex-soldier, he sublet a small room from a couple in a poor neighborhood in Munich, where he remained until 1929.

So – what caused the big change for Hitler?

Hitler’s domestic turn began in the late 1920s, when the Nazi Party needed to broaden its appeal, particularly to the middle classes, by appearing to be more mainstream in both its message and leadership.

The death of his niece Geli Raubal on Sept. 18, 1931, also forced Hitler to confront his domestic image [Ed. note: Raubal killed herself while living in Hitler's Munich apartment]. The sensationalistic press stories that erupted with her suicide — including speculation as to what, exactly, the relationship had been between uncle and niece — put Hitler and his image makers on alert.

In 1932, in the midst of a crucial election battle, Nazi publicists brought Hitler’s private life into the limelight in order to emphasize his moral and human character and thereby win over bourgeois voters and women. Given the circumstances of Hitler’s private life — a middle-aged bachelor with few family ties and no known romantic relationships — it was truly an audacious move.

After he came to power, Hitler used domestic architectural makeovers to shed any vestiges of his image as rabble-rouser to emphasize his new status as statesman and diplomat.

How effective were these efforts at changing Hitler’s public image?

They were wildly successful — among the Nazi Party’s most effective propaganda campaigns. A man once known as an extreme anti-Semite, convicted traitor and leader of a violent paramilitary force had, by the mid-1930s, transformed into a Bavarian gentleman who loved dogs, sunshine and gooseberry pie.

Your book focuses a lot on Gerdy Troost, Hitler’s decorator. How much was she responsible for Hitler’s interior decorating style? And how would you characterize that style?

Gerdy Troost played a key role in conveying, through the carefully arranged domestic interiors she designed for Hitler, an image of her client as a man of taste and culture. She designed the interiors of the Old Chancellery in Berlin, his Munich apartment and his mountain retreat on the Obersalzberg. Even Albert Speer [the preeminent Nazi architect] acknowledged her considerable influence over Hitler’s decorating tastes. Her style blended modern and traditional elements. She herself described it as designing in the “English style of living,” by which she referred to earlier British-inspired design reform movements in Germany that had valued the quality of materials and craftsmanship over showy display.

In general, were these extravagant projects?

Financially, yes. But stylistically, the projects were driven by a desire to convey the inhabitant’s modesty and good taste — quality over showiness. Many reporters and diplomats, invited to see the homes, were suitably impressed, commenting on how Hitler had remained unchanged by power.

Do you see any political message in the styles Troost and Hitler chose for his homes?

Yes, they were filled with political messages. When the Old Chancellery was renovated in 1934, the dominant object in the main reception hall, where Hitler entertained foreign diplomats and reporters, was a vast Persian-patterned carpet. Hitler liked to tell the story that this luxurious carpet originally had been ordered by the League of Nations for its new Geneva headquarters, but when it was completed, the league was short of funds and could not pay, so he acquired it for his official residence. He thus presented himself — no doubt, with mocking reference to having withdrawn Germany from the league in October 1933 — as literally pulling the carpet out from under them.

The Berghof featured German materials, a point emphasized to reporters. These native materials included Untersberg and Thuringian marbles as well as walnut and oak. Hitler’s Munich apartment overflowed with references to Richard Wagner, whom Hitler idolized as the greatest of all German artists, and about whom he said that to understand National Socialism, one had to first understand Richard Wagner.

Hitler’s homes received a lot of attention in the U.S. and U.K. press. How were the Nazis able to organize this press?

I don’t think the Nazis had to organize much — there was tremendous public interest in the “private” Hitler.  In 1934, the German Press Association, reporting on domestic and foreign markets for German photojournalism, stated that the most sought-after images were of Hitler at home playing with his dogs or with children. It also noted that American newspapers preferred to buy Hitler pictures with a “human interest” angle.

The rise of celebrity culture in the 1920s and '30s undoubtedly helped to sell these stories. 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. Hitler was a dictator, but he was also a marketable celebrity. The fascination with celebrities sparked curiosity about the houses of the rich and famous — a curiosity the press was eager to satisfy.

Do you think it had a palpable effect on international opinion of Hitler?

Yes, and it continues today to some extent because those stories still circulate.

Germany’s cultivation of Hitler’s international image appears to have been quite different to that of Mussolini and Stalin. Was Hitler breaking the mold here by cultivating the image of his private life?

Hitler broke new ground in making his domestic spaces a political stage, both in terms of his image and his actions. He spent more than a third of his 12 years in power at his mountain home. Even a war did not seem reason enough to give up those comforts, and after 1939, the Berghof became a military headquarters from which he conducted battles and planned strategy. Hitler, it has been said, pioneered the work-from-home movement, and the Great Hall was at the center of his intention to rule an empire from the comfort of his living room sofa.

Have dictators in following decades attempted to follow Nazi Germany’s strategy?

After Syrian President Bashar al-Assad married Asma Akhras, the couple welcomed the Western media into their Damascus home. News outlets, such as ABC News, praised the couple for their unpretentious lifestyle, especially their modest house. The couple insisted on the normality of their domestic lives. Vogue gushed that the Assads household “is run on wildly democratic principles.”

Vogue has since attempted to scrub online traces of its article, but the story — along with many others — remains proudly posted on Assad’s Web site.

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