Some of the most iconic photos of Adolf Hitler show him at his most intense, eyes alight with frenetic energy as he addresses an audience or salutes a crowd. Equally haunting, however, are another set of images that are oft-forgotten: In the years preceding World War II, news outlets worldwide ran profiles of the Nazi leader that portrayed him as a country gentleman — a man who played catch with his dogs, had refined taste in décor and took post-meal strolls outside his mountain estate.
Architectural historian Despina Stratigakos illuminates how Adolf Hitler’s propagandists – an inner circle of designers and publicists – carefully constructed Hitler’s private realm to soften his public image prior to World War II. “They were able to engineer a complete transformation of Hitler’s public persona,” says Stratigakos, associate professor and interim chair of architecture.
On August 29, 1939 – 12 days before Germany invaded Poland to start World War II and six years after the first Nazi concentration camp opened at Dachau – the New York Times published an article describing day-to-day life at Hitler’s estate on the Obersalzberg, a mountain retreat near the Austrian border.
The chalet was “furnished harmoniously, according to the best of German traditions,” the article stated. Unstained wainscoting and handwoven rugs combined to “create an atmosphere of quiet cheerfulness” in the Führer’s study. Hitler had a tomato garden and a fondness for chocolate, the story said. He liked to take an afternoon nap.
A 1938 profile in Homes and Gardens, a British magazine, ran a three-page feature on the same estate, relating that the home was “bright” and “airy,” with a jade green color scheme. It noted that Hitler “had a passion for cut flowers,” and considered his gardeners, chauffeur and air-pilot “loyal friends.”
Hitler’s makeover coincided with major renovations of his three residences — the old chancellery in Berlin, his Munich apartment and his mountain home. The Nazi leader was intimately involved in each project, working closely with his designer, Gerdy Troost, on the interiors.
The team used architecture as a tool for manipulation, according to Stratigakos. They crafted spaces that, like movie sets, evoked the right emotions. Then, they invited reporters in for tours where they saw Hitler in a setting that felt exclusive and emanated domesticity and warmth.
The media’s adulation of Hitler on the eve of war shows how lifestyle stories that are considered “harmless fluff” can serve as powerful propaganda, Stratigakos says. She notes that while many historians have dismissed Hitler’s personal life as irrelevant, his private persona was in fact painstakingly constructed to further his political ends.