Why is it that, in America in 2017, the question of how not to normalize Nazis provokes heated debate? Is there a way to discuss the everyday life of fascists without normalizing? Although there are no quick and easy rules to follow, there are lessons—plenty of them—to be gleaned from history. The most powerful lessons emerge from the press coverage of the Third Reich, especially the soft-focus profiles of Adolf Hitler published in the 1930s. These stories set the journalistic gold standard for how not to write about Nazis.
Yet, as the row triggered by a recent New York Times profile of the “Nazi sympathizer next door” reveals, many of us are still not sure what it means to avoid normalization. Richard Fausset wrote about Tony Hovater, a white nationalist living in Ohio, in a style that enraged thousands of readers. In their eyes, the focus on the commonplace—Hovater’s wedding registry at Target, say, with its muffin pan and pineapple slicer—resulted in distraction rather than analysis. The Times’s national editor Marc Lacey defended the need to illuminate “the most extreme corners of American life and the people who inhabit them.” But in a follow-up piece, Fausset himself admitted that the “quotidian details” he’d collected didn’t explain much about Hovater. Perhaps that was the point: Human lives and motives are opaque. Some readers applauded him for his journalistic courage and the newspaper for breaking new ground.
But this “everyday life” approach to understanding why ordinary people turn to fascism isn’t new. Since the 1970s, scholars of the Third Reich have used Alltagsgeschichte, the history of everyday life, to document individuals’ experiences and attitudes at the grassroots level of society. Their work reveals how deeply Nazi ideology penetrated into everyday life and its practices. Today, there are many excellent books—such as Peter Fritzsche’s Life and Death in the Third Reich—that deepen our understanding of how and why ordinary Germans became Nazis.
Above all, Alltagsgeschichte exposes the complexity of human agency. To shed light on the choices people make—why one person might condone or participate in hateful acts, while another resists—historians consider the impact of specific social ties, institutions, and living and working environments. Although Fausset traveled to New Carlisle to encounter Hovater in his own milieu, it all seemed rather vague. There was little sense of the place itself, beyond the big-box stores and chain restaurants nearby. Except for his wife and a couple of friends, people around Hovater barely seemed to exist. Family members, former teachers, employers, and coworkers remained offstage. The social sphere that seemed most important to Hovater himself—the online world of hate groups—flitted in and out of the picture.
In light of the deep connections that Alltagsgeschichte has revealed between public and private spheres, we should be wary of any account that views domestic life as a “politics lite” zone or as otherwise straightforward. Fausset, having been given access to Hovater’s living room and bookshelves, was mystified that he was unable to read his subject’s “soul,” especially since he told us that Hovater had been “exceedingly candid” with him. But had he, really?
For an article that focused on white nationalists’ desire to appear normal to “normies,” Fausset, inexplicably, did not delve into what it means to perform normality. Was it just by chance that Hovater revealed to a Times reporter that he is “a big Seinfeld fan”? Or that he let him into his home in the first place in order to show that he was not all that different from us “normies”?
The Times has been caught in this trap before. In the 1930s, when Hitler needed to expand his political base in Germany and gain the trust of foreign leaders, he and his PR team invented an off-duty persona for the Führer that proved immensely successful in rebranding him as a relatable, even likeable, guy. This performance was decidedly domestic, playing out on the stages of Hitler’s three residences—the chancellery in Berlin, a luxury apartment in Munich, and his mountain retreat in the Bavarian Alps. Hitler, an engaged client, hired his friend and interior designer Gerdy Troost to gut-renovate all of them.
From 1935 to 1939, The New York Times ran four stories on Hitler’s homes. On August 20, 1939, the paper published a glowing account by British journalist Hedwig Mauer Simpson of Hitler’s private life on the Obersalzberg. Ignoring the German troops massing on the Polish border, Simpson described the Führer’s beautiful rooms and domestic routine as well as providing details about the ripeness of the tomatoes on his table and his love of gooseberry pie. It was all so ordinary.
The Times was not alone in such coverage. Before the war, human interest stories about the private Hitler appeared regularly in the German and English-language media, the latter including Vogue, Homes and Gardens, Life, and even the dog lovers’ American Kennel Gazette. The setting for these “at home” profiles was almost always his mountain house, which had the advantage of the Alps’ breathtaking backdrop against which Hitler was photographed in leisure activities. In 1934, the German Press Association revealed that the most popular photographs sold that year to foreign and domestic media markets were of the Führer at home, playing with his dogs or with children.
These soft-focus profiles, which left violence and other ugly realities out of the picture, both fed and responded to readers’ hunger, in the era of the rise of celebrity culture, to know more about the private lives of famous people, whether politicians or Hollywood stars. The deeply rooted cultural belief that we reveal our true selves at home gave these accounts the veneer of authenticity. And it was precisely this uncritical attitude that allowed not only Hitler’s PR team but also Hollywood agents to use such domestic profiles to mold their clients’ images and sweep any unpleasantness under the rug.
But the appeal of Hitler-at-home stories went beyond curiosity about how the other half lives. In fact, their representation of the German leader as a “good man,” whose simple tastes and joys were not that different from ordinary men’s and women’s, reassured readers at a politically unsettled time, when another global war seemed to be approaching. The gracious host depicted in these puff pieces was never interrupted with rude questions about concentration camps. Nazi propagandists insisted that Hitler’s homes existed outside the sphere of politics, and the journalists that covered them largely obliged this view.
When the war ended, the fascination with Hitler’s homes continued. Journalists returned hoping to find clues in the wreckage explaining how one man had brought the world to the edge of annihilation. They poked around the rooms of his mountain house, ruminating on his bedroom furniture and the mouthwash in his bathroom cabinet. But these quotidian bits and pieces were now mute, only adding to the seeming incomprehensibility of his evil. At no point was there an accounting of the role the media had played before the war in helping to normalize Hitler through flattering profiles of his everyday life.
Lee Miller perhaps came the closest. In April 1945, Miller, a photojournalist for Vogue, was moving with Allied troops in the final days of the war in Europe. On April 29, the Dachau concentration camp was liberated and Miller, in shocked disbelief, photographed the scenes of horror around her. Afterwards, Miller and a group of soldiers found and occupied Hitler’s Munich apartment, where they stayed for several days.
Miller was unnerved to discover the familiar and the commonplace at the end of the road from Dachau. As she wrote in Vogue, it had been easier to imagine Hitler as a “machine-monster,” but here amid his bric-a-brac and chintz drapes, “he became less fabulous and therefore more terrible.” The evidence of Hitler’s “almost human habits” made Miller sick. But rather than turn away from it, she pushed her discomfort further. In the words and images she chose to publish, Miller sought to close the distance between this seemingly banal domestic environment and the concentration camp just 12 miles from Hitler’s door. Most famously, a photograph of Miller naked in Hitler’s bathtub, with her Dachau-muddied boots placed prominently on the bathmat in front of her, conveyed the impossibility of ever being clean again.
Critics of Fausset’s profile focused above all on the feebleness of the connections drawn between Hovater and the broader political landscape of the alt-right, and between his actions and violent hate crimes. Why, they asked, hadn’t Fausset pressed Hovater on his role in the Traditionalist Worker Party, a white nationalist group involved in the Charlottesville violence, or on his views on the car attack that injured 19 people and killed Heather Heyer?
Violence was also absent in the images that accompanied the article. A photograph of Hovater grocery shopping particularly infuriated readers. As one commenter noted, “Our grandfathers didn’t ship off to war in the 1940s to fight Nazis, only to have the New York Times follow Nazis around at the grocery store. Nobody out here cares what TV shows they like, what brand of tortillas they buy.”
Fausset and the Times are absolutely right to confront us with the evil in our own backyards. But the discomfort such profiles elicit must compel us, like Miller, to go deeper. In response to the Times’s story, Yoni Appelbaum and Jamelle Bouie redirect our attention to a long national history of ordinary men and women using violence to keep black families from moving in next door or meting out mob justice for perceived infractions of the racial order. These journalists question the incongruity at the heart of Fausset’s article, undermining what we mean when we say “normal.” In the end, the mundane commonality that rattles is not the shared love of muffins suggested by Hovater’s wedding registry, but rather this other shared history of hate. If we keep getting confused about this, perhaps it’s because we haven’t dug deep enough.