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Book review History Politics

Hitler Was My Friend: Memoirs of Hitler’s Photographer (1955). Heinrich Hoffman

Hoffman’s memoirs offer an entertaining glimpse at life in the Nazi inner circle, and at Hitler himself. A light, brisk, anecdotal narrative chronicles Hoffman’s own artistic career, and the course of his professional relationship and personal friendship with Hitler. This modest, self-avowedly apolitical work nevertheless offers some key insights into Hitler and his associates, and makes for entertaining light reading.

Historian Roger Moorhouse’s introduction to the memoirs of Heinrich Hoffman – Hitler’s court photographer, and one of the key figures in developing the official image of the Third Reich – asks: Can art in the service of evil still be good? Hoffman’s skills as a photographer are self-evident; in sheer volume, too, his zeal in documenting events before and during the Third Reich is remarkable. Given Hoffman’s own insistence that he was a completely apolitical creature, a more pertinent question seems to be: Does pleading – or even really being – apolitical, while serving and glorifying a regime with one’s art, excuse one from indirect culpability in atrocities committed by that regime?

Heinrich Hoffman was born into a family of court photographers; his own apprenticeship and early career took him around Germany and Europe. Eventually, he founded a string of studios with a hundred-odd employees. Hoffman was both older than Hitler, and more established in his profession, when he met the NSDAP chairman in the early 1920s. Their acquaintanceship began when the photographer tried to bag a photo of Hitler to sell to a newspaper; their friendship lasted until Hitler died. (Hoffman visited Hitler in the Reich Chancellery bunker in April 1945.) Hoffman narrates his memoirs episodically, as a series of brief, almost invariably amusing anecdotes; the chapters are organised first by period, then by topic (“Religion and Superstition”; “Hitler and Women”).

Hoffman’s impish sense of humour, and his sympathetic eye for (most) of the figures he writes about, are especially notable given that he wrote these memoirs after his interrogation, incarceration, and total dispossession by American and then Bavarian courts postwar.

Hoffman rubbed shoulders with “the upper 10,000” during both the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich; he is a bit of a gossip. We read about Kaiser Wilhelm showing up pre-Great War to be photographed in a series of uniforms; about Hitler requesting Hoffman to destroy photos of himself in shorts – and also practising gestures for his speeches – and Hoffman disregarding these orders; and about Hoffman holding his own in dinner-table banter contests with Goebbels. Hoffman’s eye for the trivial offers a lighthearted account from the fringes of the inner circle during a tumultuous epoch.

It was only politically that Hoffman was on the fringes; personally, Hoffman claims to have had a unique relationship with Hitler: to have filled a void in Hitler’s personal loneliness, and to have kept him in touch with public sentiment after near-absolute power – and then the failure of the war – had largely insulated Hitler from reality. Similar claims of a personal, entirely apolitical intimacy have been forwarded by others; their authenticity need not trouble us here. Hoffman was present at key moments in Hitler’s life: e.g. when Hindenburg named him Chancellor (though Hoffman had to wait in the anteroom, and failed to photograph the moment); after the suicide of Hitler’s beloved niece Geli, when Hitler was beside himself with grief; and during the signing of the German-Russian Pact. Hoffman claims Hitler sent him to this last event, not only as official photographer, but to register his own impressions of Stalin; Hoffman hints that Hitler didn’t trust “those fatheads at the Foreign Office” (likely indicating German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop). Hoffman was also present when Britain declared war on Germany. Hoffman, who had heard Ribbentrop repeatedly reassure Hitler that Britain would fail to act this time, too – witnessed Hitler’s shock when Britain did act.

Several anecdotes document the appeal Hitler had: not only for those seduced by his politics (married women wrote to Hitler begging him to father their children, and at least four women attempted suicide on his account), but also for those who were indifferent, or even hostile, to Nazism. Hoffman documents the politically naïve Duke and Duchess of Windsor, former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, and Hoffman’s own second wife – all being charmed by Hitler’s “gracious manner, finding it both pleasing and attractive.” The latter was to become an outspoken critic of Hitler’s war, earning herself house arrest: yet even she fell under the influence of Hitler’s well-documented personal magnetism. These details help explain why not only millions of Germans, but also many foreign observers, were charmed by Hitler well into the 1930s – and thus offer a contribution to the study of the popular appeal of dictatorships.

Equally entertaining are cameos of Hitler’s inner circle. Goring avoids the sycophantic atmosphere at the Berghof, and considers himself exempt from Hitler’s decrees: for instance, habitually outbidding Hitler at auctions for paintings Hitler wants. At the other end, Martin Bormann worms himself far up Hitler’s bottom: ostentatiously joining the semi-vegetarian in eating “raw carrots and leaves” in Hitler’s presence, then devouring pork-chops in private. Goebbels is sensitive about his clubfoot, juliennes with his razor tongue any dinner-guest he dislikes, and makes transparent overtures to coopt the independent Hoffman into his Propaganda Ministry: but bears no grudge, and shows great intelligence as well as personal courage. We read of rivalries and machinations within the inner circle: perhaps most ominously, Bormann’s attempts to isolate Hitler at the Berghof, to cut him off from all unpalatable news, and to get his own programme approved.

Even from the fringes, Hoffman’s insights into inner circle mechanics are insightful. Hitler himself is moderate about religion until the failure of the war – and a series of assassination attempts – harden him; a pragmatist, he knows that he, like previous expansionist rulers, will need the church on his side in wartime. Others in the party, notably Hess and Bormann, are more eager to persecute the church, passing decrees on their own authority which Hitler sometimes must countermand. Similarly, we learn that the infamous book-burnings and the Exhibition of Degenerate Art (modernist art, and art by Jews) were Goebbels’s brainchildren, and were heavily criticised even within party circles. On the anti-Semitic front, too, we know that Hitler, passionate anti-Semite as unpalatable he was, was outstripped by several fellow Nazis. Hoffman chronicles Bormann officiously nosing out Jewish ancestry among Hitler’s household staff, and among Hitler’s juvenile friends at Obersalzburg, and dismissing them on his own authority, much to Hitler’s annoyance.

Hoffman’s views on Hitler’s relations with women are particularly interesting. Accounts vary regarding Geli Raubal, Hitler’s half-niece. What most commentators agree on is that she was Hitler’s one great love. While Hanfstaengl, for instance, elsewhere dismisses her as a frivolous flirt, Hoffman characterises her as lively but serious, popular but reserved. In stark contrast his Hoffman’s consistent denigration of Eva Braun: who worked for most of her short adult life for Hoffman’s studio. He characterises Eva as being an officious and ineffective housekeeper, empty-headed, and unremarkable. But he concedes that her final sacrifice (joining Hitler in suicide) redeemed all her failures. Hoffman’s assessment of Eva Braun agrees with others’: Speer for instance remarked that “history would be disappointed by Eva Braun.”

The Epilogue chronicles, in the same good-tempered tone, Hoffman’s experiences postwar: first he was interrogated as a witness; then he was tried for his role in looting art from Jewish owners. Photographs of Hoffman in his later years chronicle his rapid physical decline under these experiences much more frankly than his own words do. (He died in 1957, two years after publishing his memoirs.)

Hitler Was My Friend chronicles the rise and fall of the Third Reich in a series of crisp, humorous anecdotes from the perspective of a politically indifferent close personal friend. These anecdotes about the personal relationships, ideological disagreements, and machinations behind the scenes offer insights into the heart of a powerful, popular, destructive, and repressive regime. Hoffman’s memoirs constitute a key resource for historians, and an agreeable read for a casual reader.

Read Hitler Was My Friend here. Read in soft copy to save paper.

Switching to soft-copy books has made my note-taking easier, my reading more critical, my books more accessible. Read better, save paper, save room on your overflowing bookshelves, and (in most cases) save money too. Try switching to soft copy today.

I’ve been reading a fair bit about Hitler and the Third Reich for a novel: which began as a fictionalised account of interwar Germany from a person on the fringes of the inner circle, but which has now become a more generalised analysis of the role of popular support, and dire material circumstances, in creating and maintaining dictatorships. I’ll be posting reviews of a few more books on this topic that I’ve read recently. Then I’ll close the Third Reich chapter and switch back to regular programming, i.e. mostly fiction.

By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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