Hitler's Face

From his emergence on the German political scene in 1914 and subsequent public infatuation with him, to his fall in 1945 and the growing revulsion as his horrific acts were revealed to the world, Adolf Hitler's visage, Claudia Schmölders argues, was the first political image manufactured for the modern media.

Hitler's Face
The Biography of an Image

Claudia Schmölders. Adrian Daub, Translator

2005 | 240 pages | Cloth $37.50 | Paper $24.95
History | Cultural Studies
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Table of Contents


1. Models 1913-1918
2. Warrants and Projections 1918-1923
3. Iconizations 1923-1929
4. Self-Images 1929-1939
5. Shock Pictures 1939-1945
6. Picturing Horror 1945-1949


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


In 1973, Walter Kempowski published the results of a limited survey conducted on about two hundred West German citizens: "Did you ever see Hitler?" As might be expected, the responses were mixed. Some still recalled the excitement, some the hatred, some also the complete apathy with which they had perceived Hitler. In many cases the encounter was a childhood memory, not critical as such, but rather part of recollections of ritual splendor, of propagandistic clamor. Very few responses made immediate reference to Hitler's physical appearance. Those older than 35 at the time of the survey seemed to react to it as a physical imposition. "He had really big, deep blue eyes, eyes like Fredrick the Great must have had," some observed; "The women turned out the whites of their eyes and fell down like wet rags. They lay there like slaughtered calves, sighing heavily. Joy and fulfillment," another respondent wrote; yet another one: "I was shaken in a negative way, I had never such a characterless face, I still don't understand it (…). Sometimes I think that it was a void which other people filled up."

Should one even remember Hitler's physical appearance? A recent wave of movies seems to suggest that there is indeed demand for this. The great biographies of the last decades — from Joachim Fest's Hitler biography to Ian Kershaw — appeared in German without the dictator's picture on the dust jacket; that taboo seems to have been broken, not least by US motion pictures. Hitler's face is once again used in everyday politics: be it as a bugbear, be it as a caricature, the latter being actually more frequent. Fest's criticism of these new tendencies applies much more to visual recall than to recent biographies: they take insufficient account of the evil in this figure, ultimately underestimating it. But can the evil in Hitler actually be visualized? Is there such a recognizable 'face of evil' — if not of the evildoer, then at least of this evildoer? Hitler's hate-filled contemporaries seemed to believe there was. They spoke of his "excremental visage," of the "brute mask," of the "mask of the Gorgon," of a "panoptic basilisk gaze," and finally of the empty "nothingness."

Today, at a time when not only entertainment, but above all science, are obsessed with visuality, we would have to agree with such formulations. They arrest evil in obviousness. Once again, scientific studies purport to demonstrate that one quarter of a second of visual exposure [Anschauung] is sufficient for the apprehension of a person's character. However, we don't know only of hate-filled descriptions of Hitler's face, but much to the contrary downright entranced ones. There is a symbolic trap here. If Hitler's face were, in accordance with the above testimonials, in fact an index of the evil in Hitler's heart — what would we say the brutal abjection of the Jewish face in film, photography, and caricature from 1918 to 1945 showed? Would we not run the risk of sanctioning that visual demonization? More recent movies and TV series about 'Hitler's willing executioners' skirt that trap by a set of devices. Usually, they borrow from the toolkit of TV news: eyewitness interviews supplement historic depictions of the actors and the places of action, which are in turn commented on by a narrator. No biography could deliver such immediate object lessons of suffering and catastrophe.

The 'silent image' biography mostly relies on, i.e., photography, seems by contrast completely detached, almost unobtrusive, however dramatic its content. The recent exhibition on the Wehrmacht has once again shown that in order to be documents, 'silent images' depend on individual translation by their consumer. The consumer has to learn and know how the pictures came about, what their context is, how they were used. Without language, the picture is incomprehensible. For example, none of the known photos of Hitler shows him in any kind of indicative context, say, next to a corpse or in a concentration camp, or in the commission of an act of sadism. The pictures do not as much as show him rifle in hand, only sometimes with a dog whip or, over and over, of course as public speaker in frenetic pose. Contemporary caricatures rather than these photographs speak directly to the calamitous thoughts, projects, and actions of this man. All references to these by Hitler's photo-biographers and interpreters are projection; virtually every picture adduced to prove beyond a doubt Hitler's "schizophrenia" or "lupine nature," can, without a knowledge of the relevant historical facts, be interpreted entirely differently. No face bears more eloquent witness to the desire for and the impotence of physiognomic interpretation, than this face, in which half a nation between 1919 and 1938 wanted to recognize pure, undiluted futurity, amongst them the most educated Germans. "How could someone so uneducated rule Germany?" the philosopher Jaspers asked Heidegger in 1933. "Education is unimportant, just look at his marvelous hands," Heidegger reportedly replied.

This marks the point of departure for the present investigation. This book reverses the relations of the biography. Instead of using elements of visuality as illustrations, it makes visuality the point of departure. It tells the story of Hitler from his march on Munich to his end in Berlin from the perspective of the contemporary, who confronted Hitler as living spectacle, before having any real idea of the history unfolding before his eyes; it tells the story from the viewpoint of the "spellbound" spectator, who venerated Hitler in his photographic, filmic, later even painterly mises-en-scene as a national icon [Inbild]; finally, this book tells the story from the perspective of that para-science, which dominated the theory of bodily cognition in Germany between 1918 and 1945: physiognomy. Physiognomic biography is always also the biography of physiognomy. Our subject will be the theoretical conditions of physical perception, also the acoustic kind, which set in motion a history of fascination, which in turn eventually gave way to a history of hatred. The preconditions for this undertaking are auspicious. After all, no epoch devoted itself so fully to questions of physical appearance and effect as did the period between 1918 and 1945; no epoch, lacking orientation, was so obsessed with its own mirror image. And no dictator thrust himself upon his voters with the sheer corporality of Hitler, with his increasingly virtuoso visual propaganda, with his voice, with his stare eye to eye. "From the first moment on his eyes fascinated me. They were clear and big, calm and confidently fixed on me. But his gaze did not come from his eyeball, it came from much further in, I thought perhaps from infinity. One couldn't read those eyes. But they spoke, they wanted to speak. They didn't ask, they talked." Thus comments Otto Wagener, one of many who succumbed to Hitler's gaze.

As is well known, the shift in politics to immediate corporeality, inaugurated by the declaration of war of August 1 and followed by the most dire consequences, was pushed ahead rabidly by the ideologues of Volk in the Weimar Republic. Disagreements during gatherings were resolved through brawls, personal thugs and paramilitary units (SA) were created, and enemies were murdered without much thought. Besides this crude corporeality, which Hitler used to style himself as "a man of action not of ink," there was a more refined strand of corporality, which itself began to sublimate physical cognition philosophically. It provided the intellectual backdrop for the technological revolution of the media, photography, film, pictorials, and radio. Phenomenology and the theory of forms, profound acoustics, but in particular a "physiognomy of weltanschauung" (Peter Sloterdijk) accompanied Hitler's rise and the increasing sophistication of his propaganda. As such, the interpreters of this persuasion are as fitting an example as there will ever be for what Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw has termed German society's "working towards the Führer." Since the 18th century there prevailed in Germany a tradition of reading physiques, in science and in art, in literature and in politics. A tradition which existed so emphatically only in Germany. Around the same time Hitler came to Munich this tradition was modernized for the beginning of the "short century" (Eric Hobsbawm): as the physiognomic gaze on the "great man" and the "German Volk" with the deranged goal of understanding these two as one and the same.

Looked at from this angle, Hitler's undeniable charisma appears in a new light. Moreover, however, so do anti-Semitic hermeneutics of the physique. Although the racial theories of the 19th century had done painstaking spadework, although Nazi biology and propaganda conditioned the population ceaselessly, the hateful contemplation of the Jewish physiognomy in the press and on postcards, in films and on posters, between 1922 and 1945 took its format from the contemplation of the idealized German face in all its various aspects. It was the fanatical devotion engendered here that gave the hateful glance on the Semitic "counter-type" (Erich Jaensch) its edge. Thus the latter cannot be thought without the former. Nonetheless research has in recent years focused on the ostracism of the Jewish face rather than on the senseless adulation of the German face — or Hitler's face, for that matter, certainly less hateful [hässlich] than deserving hate [hassenswert]. Both constructions, however, have their proper places in the canon of our memory.