Nazi Family Values: Disturbing keepsakes of the most inhumane figures in history
February 12, 2012
The title of this article is not without irony. Some readers might think of Springtime for Hitler, the intentionally absurd and preposterous Broadway musical at the heart of the classic film by Mel Brooks, The Producers. However, the words are also meant in their most literal sense. Among Nazi memorabilia there exist albums of photographs that once belonged to high Nazi officials. Such albums are visual records of the careers of these officials, as telling as any curriculum vitae, and contain more information than any mere list of “accomplishments” can. Found in the ruins of Berlin at the close of World War II, these and other such albums left Germany through channels both official and unofficial. What matters now, more than sixty-five years later, is not the story of their discovery and transport out of Germany but their ultimate fate. Some were acquired by repositories such as the Hoover Archives, where today they can be consulted by historians and other researchers, especially those interested in what might be called the psychic structure of the Nazi state.
Such items appear to have been of little or no interest to researchers immediately after World War II. Then, historians naturally had larger questions on their minds, not the least of which was the need to establish the broad outlines of what had transpired in such a vast and complex conflict. They sought to understand how such a mass horror as the Holocaust had been organized and implemented, and how the Nazi movement that perpetrated this horror had begun and taken hold in Germany. Their focus was on the usual criteria of who, what, when, where, and why. Personal effects such as the photo albums of Nazi officials were considered curiosities at best, trivial objects in the grander scheme of things.Documents and photos provide clues to the mental landscapes of these individuals.
These albums now no longer appear to be only minor trophies of war. The complexity of World War II and the Holocaust, and the enduring interest in the study of totalitarian societies, means historians and others continue to write on these subjects and may well do so indefinitely. There are always new facets, new pieces of the puzzle. Documents that reveal details about certain Nazi leaders also provide clues to the mental landscapes of such individuals, persons whose idiosyncrasies are now deemed worthy of study. The photo albums of Hitler’s associates—the extended Nazi family, as it were—now seem compelling rather than superfluous, illustrating more than the immediate scene or persons they depict.
The Hoover Archives has a small number of such photo albums: two that once belonged to Heinrich Himmler and another belonging to Julius Streicher, both among the most notorious figures in the higher echelons of the Third Reich. Filled with photos that were taken, selected, and arranged by personnel working for Himmler and Streicher, the albums have handmade covers, some with intricate designs, exemplifying what might be called the art of the Nazi book or album. They are odd relics, but the photos inside are more than just odd—they are informative.
THE POWER OF VISUAL ART
Both the Nazis and their Soviet counterparts developed sophisticated means to influence public opinion, and both totalitarian regimes made use of artists skilled in advanced techniques of cinema, design, and photomontage. The Hoover Archives has numerous examples of the art of the Nazi poster, instruments of propaganda intended to mobilize the German people first to vote for Hitler and then to support his plans for conquest and annihilation. A number of the posters illustrate the Nazi demonization of Jews as subhuman or else as all-powerful beings; in either case, they are shown as monsters or demons, as enemies worthy of persecution.
A content analysis of the photo albums of Himmler and Streicher is not as straightforward as the one for Nazi posters, but the albums’ “messages” are not recondite, either. What you see in Himmler and Streicher’s photos is the real deal: echt Nazis—the genuine articles, not those who joined later out of conformism or self-interest. Moreover, one sees little difference between the private Himmler or Streicher and their public or official personae. They seem to be Nazis on parade at all times, or at least fulltime bosses and wielders of authority.
Himmler hardly needs an introduction. As Reichsführer of the SS, Himmler was one of the Nazi chieftains, overseeing the entire security apparatus of the Third Reich, including the Gestapo, and one of the architects of the mass murder of Jews and others in Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe. Himmler directed the infamous Einsatzgruppen (special task forces) whose troops killed as many Jews as they could by shooting, and who were relieved of this bloody task only when it was deemed more efficient, and less wearing on German troops, to instead use mobile gas vans, and finally, the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
In his collection of essays, Ethics and Extermination: Reflections on Nazi Genocide, British historian Michael Burleigh describes the “creed” of the SS as being one of “mindless obedience.” Himmler’s empire of punishment and death, as Burleigh records it, grew with the establishment of the concentration camp at Dachau in 1933 and culminated in the creation of “the massive complex at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the apogee of industrialised mass murder.” Himmler’s career in mass murder almost staggers belief, and there is perhaps no other Nazi official more closely identified with perpetrating the Holocaust.
Julius Streicher, much less well known, was also an important member of the Nazi hierarchy. A founding member of the Nazi party, Streicher participated in Hitler’s unsuccessful Beer Hall Putsch in Munich in 1923, and became an important propagandist and publisher of the newspaper Der Stürmer, which whipped up hatred for the Jews. Streicher’s anti-Semitic passion even led to his publishing three children’s books in which Jews are the villains. In reward for his service to Hitler and the movement, Streicher was made gauleiter of Franconia (a region of Bavaria). He remained one of Hitler’s few intimates until very nearly the end of the Third Reich.
Susan Sontag’s memorable article on the Nazi films of Leni Riefenstahl, “Fascinating Fascism,” provides a good entry point into the meanings that can be mined from an examination of evidence such as that provided by the albums. Sontag makes the seemingly obvious but important point that “in both fascist and communist politics, the will is staged publicly, in the drama of the leader and chorus.” She includes remarks by Nazi ideologue and propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, in a passage worth quoting in full:
Politics is “the highest, most comprehensive art there is,” Goebbels said in 1933, “and we who shape modern German policy feel ourselves to be artists . . . the task of art and the artist [being] to form, to give shape, to remove the diseased and create freedom for the healthy.”
One can now turn to specific examples from the albums of such “artists” to see what they had in mind when Goebbels spoke of eliminating “the diseased” and creating “freedom for the healthy.” At the end, the reader should have a good idea of just what a “healthy” official of the Third Reich was, and what values he espoused among his family of fellow Nazis.Totalitarian regimes readily embraced art, propaganda, and cinema, turning them into veritable weapons of mass destruction…