Photographs of Hitler that were literally buried underground are now available in snappy bright albums on Life Magazine’s Web site. Four themed Web galleries (intimate portraits, Hitler among the crowds, Hitler’s interiors, and Hitler’s childhood) contain images by Hitler’s personal photographer and close friend, Hugo Jaeger. The Web site is somewhat hard to navigate — reaching the end of one Web album prompts the disconcerting automated suggestion, “You might also like: Hitler, Up Close” — but the photographs themselves and the captions that accompany them are well worth the effort. Jaeger was among the first to pioneer the technology of color photography and Hitler once said, “The future belongs to color photography.” In this case, color photography owns the past as well. There’s something undeniably jarring about seeing Hitler’s ruddy pink cheeks rather than the usual grainy grey skin tone of the old textbook images.
The color also gives us unique insight into Hitler’s abysmal interior decorating skills. One image shows dining room tables piled high with sickly pick and green flowers and nearly every interior showcases floral patterns and gold chandeliers. A photograph of an indoor swimming pool on Hitler’s cruise ship shows a crudely painted mural of three naked women riding a grinning whale. It might just be the quality of the film, but everything looks sappy and sticky, even mawkish. It’s certainly not the harsh clean decorating you would expect from such a man.
The story of how the photographs surfaced is just as alluring as the pictures themselves. It was 1945 and the Allies were making their final push towards Munich. In a small town to the west of the city, Jaeger stood nervously by as six American soldiers searched the house in which he had been hiding. The soldiers found a leather suitcase and gathered round to open it.
Jaeger’s heart must have pounded as they undid the clasps: Inside the suitcase were hundreds of color transparencies that proved Jaeger’s close relationship to the dictator. The soldiers threw open the suitcase with a shout of surprise. They had discovered a bottle of cognac placed on top of the incriminating images. They forgot to keep searching and instead they shared the cognac with Jaeger and the owner of the house. His life narrowly saved by his alcohol, Jaeger didn’t risk getting caught again. He packed the photographs into 12 glass jars as soon as the soldiers departed and buried them on the outskirts of town. He came back to check on them several times after the war, digging them up and reburying them each time.
He finally brought them to America in 1955, where he placed them inside a bank vault. Ten years later, he sold them to Life magazine. Only a small fraction of the 2,000 photographs in his collection have since been published. Now, for the first time ever, 51 of those images are available online.