September 1, 2015
Hitler at home: How PR made the Führer more likeable
Although he is probably history’s most infamous figure, Adolf Hitler is not someone with who the word "celebrity" can be easily associated. Yet a carefully orchestrated PR campaign, which was readily accepted by the international media, meant that even as late as 1939, lifestyle pieces portrayed him as a likable chap who had a refined and cozy home life and took care of his garden.
Even The New York Times presented him as a country gent who played catch with his dogs and took after-dinner strolls around his mountain estate.
University at Buffalo historian Despina Stratigakos describes, in a new book entitled Hitler at Home, how those who worked closely with him managed to change his image from one of an oddball loner to that of an admirable gentleman.
“They were able to engineer a complete transformation of Hitler’s public persona,” says Stratigakos, quoted by Futurity. “They accomplished this by focusing on his private life—by showing him playing with his dogs and with children, and at home in architectural spaces designed to evoke a feeling of warmth. By the end of the 1930s, news stories around the world described him as a caring, gentle individual with great taste in home décor.”
“It was dangerous because it made him likable,” she adds. “After reading these stories, people would feel like they knew the ‘true’ Hitler, the private man behind the Führer mask."
Locational and architectural settings were an important part of the facade.The New York Times’ article commented that Hitler’s estate on the Obersalzberg, a mountain retreat near the Austrian border, was “furnished harmoniously, according to the best of German traditions," creating "an atmosphere of quiet cheerfulness” in the Führer’s study.
The piece described how Hitler was someone who enjoyed chocolate and had a tomato garden. A man “who can eat a gooseberry pie or a well-done pudding with relish." (What kind of sicko eats pudding with relish, anyways? Ah, okay – they meant “enthusiasm”).
The perils of PR
This was not only an image conveyed in the United States, where Hitler still seemed like a primarily European problem. A 1938 profile in Homes and Gardens, a British magazine, described Hitler’s home as being "bright” and “airy,” with a jade green color scheme. It noted that he “had a passion for cut flowers,” and thought of his gardeners, chauffeur, and air-pilot not as servants, but as “loyal friends.”
“All kinds of publications—from serious political journals to Lifemagazine and even American Kennel Gazette, a dog magazine—were publishing stories about the ‘real’ Hitler,” Stratigakos says. “In 1934, the German Press Association reported that images of Hitler at home playing with his dogs or with children were the most popular images purchased by the media in Germany and abroad.”
Yet much of what people were unwittingly observing was cunning PR. Along with the mountain home, other residences the German leader occupied (like the old chancellery in Berlin and his Munich apartment) were worked on like movie sets to give them the right backdrop.
The 1930s were a time when celebrity and lifestyle stories were quickly gaining popularly. Today, Stratigakos says, we still believe our domestic spaces reflect the inner person—the person someone “truly” is. That association is easily manipulated, she adds.
Her book is as much a warning about the continuing dangers of slick PR as it is about Hitler.
“The 1930s marked the rise of celebrity culture, in the era of talking movies, radio and new lifestyle magazines,” Stratigakos explains. “People developed a strong desire to know what the private person was like behind the public facade. Hitler’s propagandists took advantage of the new celebrity culture and even helped to shape it."
“Journalists seek out these behind-the-scenes stories because people demand it,” she concludes. “This still holds true today, and I believe that we need to be much more critical of the industries that focus on home or lifestyle news. They really do have influence.”
Feature image: Wikimedia Commons