- Hitler at Home by Despina Stratigakos
Hitler at Home
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015.
x + 373 pages, 84 color and black-and-white illustrations.
ISBN: 978-0-300-18381-8, $40.00 HB
Hitler at Home is a very good book about a very evil man. Despina Stratigakos’s 383-page tome explores three dwellings renovated by German chancellor and leader of the Nazi party Adolf Hitler in the mid-1930s: the Old Chancellery in Berlin, an apartment in Munich, and the Berghof, a mountain retreat on the Obersalzberg in Bavaria. The argument of the book is that amid the international rise of celebrity culture and the house museum, domestic architecture served as a powerful tool of propaganda that shaped Hitler’s rise to power.
The book is divided in two major parts. The five chapters in part 1 look at Hitler’s domestic architecture and the career of his chief designer, Gerdy Troost; the six chapters in part 2 center on the reception and eventual fate of Hitler’s homes, focusing on Munich and Obersalzberg. While part 1 might be described as straight-up architectural history, part 2 explores the complicated, little-studied afterlife of buildings where horrific things have occurred, in this case the planning for the execution of millions of Jews and others, and the devastation wrought by World War II. Not surprisingly, the book elicits strong emotional responses.
A distinctive feature of Stratigakos’s book is the operation of gender. For Hitler a woman’s role was in the home, taking care of her husband and children, despite the fact that he was a bachelor most of his life (he married his longtime lover Eva Braun forty hours before they both committed suicide in 1945) and had no children. Hitler also did little to promote women within the Third Reich. Given his conservative view of women, it is thus both unexpected and delightful that the first book to look at Hitler’s home life is a feminist analysis.
Four specific feminist-inspired methodologies stand out. First, Stratigakos focuses on a woman: Hitler’s designer. Best known as a scholar of women architects, Stratigakos gets at Hitler’s trio of home-renovation projects through the archives of his interior designer, Gerdy Troost, who, following the death of her architect-husband Paul in early 1934, took over Atelier Troost. Second, Stratigakos relies heavily on floor plans and furniture arrangements as windows onto how Hitler saw himself. This emphasis on interiors, interior views, room use, adjacencies, and furniture arrangements, in my opinion, has been a technique used particularly effectively [End Page 130] by feminist historians to analyze women’s agency in shaping domestic space. Using it to look at a powerful man is brilliant. The third feminist methodology is the focus on renovation, which has long been associated with women’s roles in making the built environment. Before-and-after photographs of room interiors are masterfully analyzed by Stratigakos to show how Troost tweaked room sizes, orientation, views, and decoration to flatter her notorious client. The fourth feminist method is the wide array of nonbuilt sources Stratigakos engages to get at the reception of the houses, including financial invoices, memoirs of those who visited the houses, published photography books, popular magazines, and even political cartoons. These sources have been central to feminist analyses of buildings, which rely on reception to a larger extent than does traditional architectural history.
The houses are presented chronologically, starting with the Old Chancellery. Although the least significant of the three abodes, its “dramatic interior vista” (32), the hanging of large narrative tapestries, and a general decluttering of the arrangements set the tone for all three projects, according to Stratigakos. Hitler had originally considered the building, which was the official residence of the German chancellor since 1871, too shabby to inhabit. The juxtaposition in the renovation of grand public spaces and intimate, homey ones, Stratigakos argues, shows how Hitler’s ego held the place together: “The apparent disjointedness at the level of design may not have bothered a client like Hitler, who believed that he himself was the integrating factor” (35).
In his luxurious, strategically placed Munich...