To write a new book about someone as notorious as Adolf Hitler, the author needs a good angle. When Despina Stratigakos came across a bill for Hitler’s drapes, she knew she was onto something. Soon she will reveal how those drapes – and the rest of his household – were part of the Third Reich’s most effective propaganda campaigns.
Stratigakos, an associate professor of architecture at the University at Buffalo, leaves next month for Munich, where she will spend two years researching and writing her new project, “Hitler at Home.” The book, set to be published in 2015 by Yale University Press, focuses on what Stratigakos calls a “surprising gap” in studies of Hitler: How he carefully constructed his homes, and the details of his domestic life, to charm and mislead the public as the horrors of Nazi Germany mounted.
It’s an overlooked subject that could break new ground for architectural scholarship, and the understanding of Hitler himself.
“Given that little has been written on this topic, I have mere surface knowledge of the importance of Hitler’s domestic architecture,” said associate professor Beth Tauke, a colleague in UB’s architecture department. “Dr. Stratigakos’s work is the first in-depth study on this topic, and no doubt, it will raise awareness of its significance and impact on the shaping of the Third Reich.”
Architecturally, the Third Reich is most famously represented by the public works of Albert Speer, like the Nazi party rally grounds in Nuremberg. These constructions carried the image of Hitler as the great leader – imposing, theatrical, all-powerful. He “was proficient in his use of [Speer’s] public architecture to promote his fascist ideas,” said Omar Khan, chairman of UB’s architecture department. “Most architects are familiar with this bombastic work.”
But Stratigakos said Hitler’s homes were built for the opposite effect. They were intended to humanize the dictator by revealing his “private life” – or rather, an “ideological construction” of it. “By looking at his homes, you see a counter-architecture that was used to balance out, with great calculation, the image of Hitler,” she said. During his regime, “there were these two ideas of Hitler: You had the great leader, and the common man. That’s what made his image so seductive – you had those two images interwoven.”
As an academic, Stratigakos specializes in modern European architecture, while also striving to highlight the achievements of female architects and designers, who she said are “pretty much ignored” in scholarship. Her first book, “A Women’s Berlin: Building the Modern City” (2008), examined the role female workers and patrons had in shaping Germany’s capital around the turn of the 20th century. More recently, she collaborated in designing and launching the Architect Barbie doll, which toy manufacturer Mattel released last year after nearly a decade of delays. The doll was “another way to bring issues of women and architecture to light,” she said.
The transition from Barbie to Hitler might be jarring, but “Hitler at Home” is an ideal follow-up for Stratigakos. “It’s an opportunity to explore some of the issues I’ve been interested in anyway, and to reach a different audience, because it’s Hitler,” she said. “People who might otherwise not be interested in domestic architecture will be interested because of him.”
The book will focus on two residences that defined Hitler: his apartment in Munich, where he lived through the 1920s, and the Berghof, his opulent house in the Bavarian Alps. He obsessively maintained and revamped these spaces for years with his interior designer, Gerdy Troost, who is also a major focus of the book. Stratigakos was first intrigued by Troost while researching European female designers for her doctoral dissertation. While most of her subjects were barely documented, Troost had a personal file with tens of thousands of documents from her time with Hitler. “She saved everything. I found a receipt for toilet paper – one Reichsmark,” she said. “The memory of those files never went away.”
Troost’s work, for better or worse, made her one of the most powerful female designers in the world. She was the wife of Paul Troost, Hitler’s first architect of choice. When Paul died in 1934 and was replaced by the infamous Speer, Gerdy took over his remaining projects. She caught Hitler’s attention, and soon he was extensively commissioning her services. Hitler “respected her very much,” Stratigakos said, and he “was a very engaged client. He would meet with her weekly and they would discuss what’s going to be in the home – the colors, the fabrics, the art. It was all very carefully thought out.”
Hitler famously had a lifelong admiration for fine arts, and dreamed of being an architect or artist long before finding his way into politics. But for those having trouble imagining the Fuhrer fretting over fabrics and furniture, Stratigakos can relate. “Sometimes I’m looking at [this material] and I wonder, how is this man planning to take over the world when he’s concerned with this level of detail in his home?” she said. “It’s like, seriously? This world domination war going on, and you’re renovating?”
But Hitler was fully aware of this striking contrast – and he exploited it to his advantage.
Starting with his Munich apartment, he realized the potential his homes had for enticing colleagues and strangers. Stratigakos said he delicately fine-tuned this “first real residence” to shift from his early “rabble-rousing, undomesticated” image to “presenting himself as a statesman” to impress high-society peers. (After taking power, Hitler commandeered the entire building for his own use.)
But the Berghof – an enormous and elegant vacation home – was what really captured the public’s imagination. Hitler and Troost drafted several incarnations of the house before deciding on a structure that would present him as “a country gentleman, a good neighbor, a man of taste, a sophisticated man,” Stratigakos said. The facade was escalated by a worldwide propaganda effort. Postcards and pamphlets like “Hitler in the Mountains” (which is easily found on Google) showed him kindly receiving guests, playing with children and relaxing around the estate. A strategically controlled media campaign gave foreign journalists access to the home, and before World War II, publications like Life magazine and the New York Times featured glowing write-ups of the Berghof. An article in the British magazine Homes and Gardens, published less than a year before the war began, reported that there “is nothing pretentious about the Fuhrer’s little estate,” and compliments Hitler as a courteous host who “delights in the society of brilliant foreigners.” It also notes his friendly rapport with his gardeners, who “are not so much servants as loyal friends.”
Stratigakos said she wants her book to show how “seemingly innocuous things can be used to charm or fool us.” But even decades after the fall of Nazi Germany, that task can be tricky. “I have to be careful how I present it, because the propaganda was very effective,” she said. A Montreal native, she was raised by parents who fled Nazi-occupied Greece. When she told her mother about “Hitler at Home,” Stratigakos said she “was very supportive, but she gave me one warning: ‘Do not make him look good.’
“There’s always the conflict between his self-presentation and what happened.”
In Munich, she’ll conduct archival research and interviews with people connected with Hitler’s homes, including members of Troost’s family. One thing she can’t do much of, though, is sightsee. The Berghof was bombed and burned in 1945, and after a decades-long process of further demolition, only the foundation stones remain. The Munich apartment was looted after the war, but the building is saved under historical preservation. It is now, of all things, a police headquarters.
Stratigakos visited the apartment several years ago, and said it “was very hard to be in that space.” She remembers talking with the police commissioner, who was still wary of the conflicting power the space holds. For historians and tourists, it’s an attraction; for neo-Nazis, it’s a site of pilgrimage.
“[The police commissioner] would like for that history to disappear,” she said. “But as a historian, I would like to make it visible. I think it’s more dangerous to forget, in the sense that the people who are most dangerous are the ones who will not forget.”