- - Monday, November 9, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

HITLER AT HOME

By Despina Stratigakos

Yale University Press, $40, 371 pages, illustrated

How did Adolf Hitler go from a figure of fun often likened to Charlie Chaplin’s tramp to the leader so beloved by the bulk of Germany’s population, no matter what they claimed in this regard after he had brought unheard-of mayhem, destruction and shame on them and their nation? If that’s the biggest question as to his meteoric rise, one not far behind is how he managed to shuck off his thuggish image, which was also a natural consequence of the brutal methods applied by his Stormtroopers to quell opposition? We all know about the purge of the acolytes who were as unsavory in their private lives as they were rebarbative in their public activities, a bloodbath known as the Night of the Long Knives in June 1934, but the efforts given to making the fuehrer respectable was elaborate, indeed hydra-headed. But perhaps none of these strategies will be as surprising as that revealed in this well-researched and convincing study by Despina Stratigakos, a professor of architecture at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, remaking the image of this savage monster as a cozy, domestic homebody.

By studying his many residences, from his elegant private apartment in Munich to his official residence in Berlin and his mountain eyrie in one of the most dramatic corners of the Bavarian Alps, the Obersalzberg, Ms. Stratigakos demonstrates authoritatively the great efforts undertaken to provide homes suggesting respectability, somehow combining grandeur with homely comfort. There was a lot to paper over in Hitler’s private as well as his public life. Although not, as many people suspected, homosexual, like so many of those purged in the 1934 bloodbath, his sexual tastes were apparently as perverted as his political and social practices. They were almost certainly a factor in driving his longtime mistress Geli Raubal (decades younger and his niece) to suicide in that same Munich apartment, little more than a year before he assumed power as Germany’s chancellor. The Nazi master-propagandist Josef Goebbels was the ultimate proponent and executor of the big lie, and this domestic disinformation was a part of that larger whole.

The cornerstone of Ms. Stratigakos‘ book is her identification of the interior designer who was so crucial to this enterprise, Gerdy Troost. In her way, she seems to have been as important in presenting a respectable face of Hitler as the much better-known Leni Riefenstahl, whose films glorified the fuehrer as a charismatic leader, and whose adoration matched hers. The author describes Troost as “besotted” and, reading this effusive outpouring shortly after meeting Hitler, who could disagree:

“One can well love and adore this unique human being, but never do justice to the true measure of his greatness and profundity. Only the future will be able to appreciate it. I am unspeakably happy and gratefully proud to be able to witness the actual hour of birth of the coming Weltanschauung and the coming faith.”

Posterity might characterize it rather differently, using a good old American expression about slapping a lot of paint on a pig. There is, however, no doubting the efficacy of hoodwinking not only pretty much an entire nation, but as we see, foreign visitors as well. An advance man scouting for a visit by British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin was so entranced by what he saw that for him, Ms. Stratigakos writes, “this home environment suggested a familiarity and stability that had nothing to do with a dangerous radical. And this was precisely the message that Hitler and his spokesmen sought to transmit.”

All this did what it was supposed to, during the dozen years of the Third Reich, in whitewashing Hitler’s personal greed and acquisitiveness of treasure from his better-off victims as well as diverting attention from his monstrous crimes of genocidal cruelty and indiscriminate, as well as specifically directed, slaughter. Once it was over, though, the truth began to be revealed: “Within weeks of the Allied capture of Hitler’s homes, then, a very different image of the private Fuhrer began to emerge. Secrecy, luxury, and crime replaced accessibility, modesty, and morality.”

Yet even then, Ms. Straigakos goes on to write, the baneful effects of this aspect of the big lie were put to the lamentable service of twisted exculpation: “The revelations of the magnitude of the Nazis’ deceptions could be used to conveniently excuse German and non-German audiences alike for having previously been taken in by Hitler’s publicists. Rather than contemplate the disturbing possibility of complicity in having once enjoyed and willingly accepted the earlier images of the Fuhrer as a modest man and kindly neighbor, despite ample evidence to the contrary, it was easier to see oneself as yet another of his ‘selected dupes.’ “

As befits an academic analyst, Ms. Stratigakos has filled her book with revealing facts and, although she manages to maintain a calm, analytical stance, there is no mistaking her passionate contempt and justified leitmotiv of despising throughout her hard-hitting text. At the outset, she pays a heartfelt tribute to her mother, “who experienced Nazi brutality as a child in occupied Kefalonia and who will never be free of it. When I told her about my plans for this book, she remained silent for a while and then asked me for one thing: ‘Please do not make Hitler look good.’

“I have kept those words in mind throughout,” she writes. Reading this book, you can tell that she kept her promise and that she has also honored her mother and many other sufferers as well as victims by writing it in such a heartfelt manner.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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