The Wall Street Journal

September 18, 2015, The Wall Street Journal

Decorator to a Genocidal Regime

New study of Hitlerian use of design to project image to the masses


By Despina Stratigakos
Yale, 373 pages, $40

Soon after Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933, he bought a huge, luxurious carpet for his office. He liked to tell visitors that it was intended for the League of Nations headquarters in Geneva but that the organization had been unable to pay for it. Thus the dictator who withdrew his country from the league presented himself as having literally pulled the carpet out from under the international body.

This politically charged floor covering, along with such subjects as the white porcelain he preferred in bathrooms and his aversion to synthetic fabrics, is examined by the architectural historian Despina Stratigakos in “Hitler at Home,” a study of the Nazi leader’s preoccupation with using the design of his domestic spaces to project his private persona to the masses.

Much has been written about Albert Speer’s monumental schemes, but this book offers a new perspective on architecture and design under the Third Reich. Focusing on three dwellings—the Munich apartment where Hitler received British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1938, the Old Chancellery in Berlin and the Berghof, Hitler’s retreat in the Bavarian Alps—Ms. Stratigakos puts the spotlight on Hitler’s interior designer, Gerdy Troost. She has “slipped beneath the historian’s radar,” the author believes, thanks to the emphasis placed on Nazi public spaces where overblown proportions aimed to intimidate and unnerve visitors. By contrast, Ms. Stratigakos argues that Hitler’s private sphere had elements of cozy comfort and that his decorating psychology was “grand yet homey, a world leader yet an average Joe.”

At the Berghof, where Hitler spent over a third of his 12 years in power, Troost provided a pine-clad dining room with an air of rusticity (offset by SS men serving meals in white uniform) and a chilling Great Hall topped by a lofty coffered ceiling and a Gobelin tapestry stretched across one wall. As World War II raged on the Eastern Front, Hitler was ensconced at the Wolf’s Lair, his headquarters in East Prussia, but yearned to return to his mountain base: “The man who had driven millions from their homes could not stop talking about his own,” Ms. Stratigakos writes.

According to Troost’s personal papers, deposited at the Bavarian State Library after her death at age 98 in 2003, Hitler’s spatial imagination was fueled by images of luxury ship interiors. Some of these trans-Atlantic liners were fitted out by Troost’s husband, Paul, Hitler’s favorite architect until his death in 1934. In all his residences, Hitler insisted on the best materials. “The Führer,” Ms. Stratigakos writes, “would neither sit nor stride on rayon.” The historian knows whereof she speaks, having examined Troost’s still surviving book of fabric swatches, including one for an animal print marked with the handwritten initials “EB” for Hitler’s mistress, Eva Braun.

Troost designed not only Hitler’s interiors but also the certificates of gilded parchment awarded for service to the Reich, ornate presentation boxes (encrusted with jewels plundered from occupied Europe), and a custom set of china for the Berghof with an orange-and-gold basket-weave pattern. She was also responsible for the oversize globes installed in the Berghof’s Great Hall and the Berlin Chancellery—so memorably parodied by Charlie Chaplin in “The Great Dictator.”

Many previously unpublished illustrations and floor plans appear in the book, testaments to how Hitler sought to use his homes to foster an image as statesman and man of culture. Ms. Stratigakos writes that the obsessive bachelor Hitler and his publicists strove to use interior design to present a “heterosexual masculinity, refined but not ostentatious taste, and German roots . . . making Hitler seem both warmer and less queer.”

Ms. Stratigakos acknowledges that it may be foolhardy to read too much into Hitlerian decorating choices, commenting that a 1935 New York Times article about the renovation of his Munich apartment “gave the impression of a man so devoted to art and culture that even the color of his pillows spoke to his idealism.” The author herself struggles when describing the work Troost did on the apartment, referring to its “subdued tone” and “understated refinement.” The work involved removing the original Jugendstil decoration and replacing it with stark rectilinear forms, with a result that was “modern and spare,” complemented by specially designed door handles, light fixtures and radiator covers, as well as a highly costly 12-by-26-foot Persian carpet with woven images of deer, panthers and flowering apple trees.

In photo albums compiled by Eva Braun, now in the U.S. National Archives after their confiscation by the American army, Ms. Stratigakos found a shot (printed above) that Hitler’s companion labeled as a detail of her room at the Berghof. It shows a burled wood chest of drawers over which looms a large framed portrait of Hitler, his isolated face hovering eerily before a pitch-black backdrop and resembling an otherworldly totemic mask. The photograph looks like an outtake from a luridly styled feature in World of Interiors.

The sometimes-dubious approach taken by foreign media in covering Hitler’s homes comes under Ms. Stratigakos’s scrutiny. The New York Times ran four features about them between 1935 and 1941, including one that appeared in the newspaper’s magazine on Aug. 20, 1939, only days before the German invasion of Poland. This article about the Berghof praised its interiors as being “furnished harmoniously, according to the best of German traditions,” and mentioned Hitler’s fondness for chocolate and gooseberry pie. The domestic idyll bore no relationship to a separate report that same day on the paper’s front page about German troops massing along the Polish border. Other photo spreads appeared in Life magazine, Newsweek, the Washington Post and Vogue, with Life noting of the Berghof in October 1939 that “the furnishings are in very good taste, fashioned of rich materials and fine woods.”

Ms. Stratigakos concludes that interior design played its part in whitewashing Hitler’s image in both the U.S. and Britain. American readers were uncertain about the necessity of fighting Hitler and clung to “the reassuring image of a German leader who appreciated domestic elegance, as if a taste for good design somehow militated against barbarity.” Such coverage of the aesthetic sensibility of tyrants and their consorts is perennially fraught terrain, as seen most recently in Vogue’s 2011 article about Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad, which described her “energetic grace” and Christian Louboutin shoes just before her husband, Bashar al-Assad, unleashed a bloody crackdown on his opponents.

But at World War II’s end, it was inside one of Hitler’s homes that Vogue managed to vividly capture the demise of the Führer’s sway. In its July 1945 issue, the magazine published an article by the photographer Lee Miller, who had arrived in Munich with Allied troops after documenting the carnage at the Dachau concentration camp. The journalist spent the night in Hitler’s abandoned apartment, where she posed for a photo taken by Life magazine photographer David Scherman as she soaked in the toppled leader’s bathtub, with the mat below smeared by her boots dirty with mud from Dachau, as if attempting to cleanse herself of evil wrought from within Troost’s painstakingly staged domestic realm.

Troost never faltered in her devotion to Hitler or her insistence that he bore no personal guilt for Nazi crimes. Decorator to a genocidal regime, she was initially classified after the war as a “major offender” and faced a denazification tribunal. Protracted proceedings resulted in just two years of probation and a fine of 5,000 deutsche marks, after which she resumed her work, receiving commissions for a hotel in Amman, Jordan, and private residences in West Germany.

—Mr. Wise is the author of “Capital Dilemma: Germany’s Search for a New Architecture of Democracy.”