Hitler in Paris: How a Pho­to­graph Shocked a World at War

Don Nar­do
  • Review
September 4, 2014

This book is part of a series that exam­ines whether any one pho­to from a cru­cial moment in his­to­ry can trans­form people’s under­stand­ing of the world. Tak­ing cen­ter stage in this title is the icon­ic pho­to­graph of Adolf Hitler and two asso­ciates pos­ing in front of the Eif­fel Tow­er in new­ly defeat­ed France. The author places the pho­to in con­text by explain­ing briefly Hitler’s dom­i­nance in Europe and the tra­jec­to­ry of World War II. He then goes back in time to trace Hitler’s child­hood and rise to pow­er and, in a par­al­lel arc, the child­hood and ris­ing career of Hitler’s favorite, long­time pho­tog­ra­ph­er, Hein­rich Hoff­mann. It is a riv­et­ing nar­ra­tive, the book’s lay­out is clean and well orga­nized, and the pho­tos through­out are pow­er­ful. The author has found an inter­est­ing lens (no pun intend­ed!) through which to view famil­iar events and images. 

Iron­i­cal­ly, the author’s objec­tiv­i­ty does not always work in his favor. Hitler may be one of the few peo­ple in his­to­ry who should not get an even­hand­ed char­ac­ter descrip­tion. While not gloss­ing over his bru­tal qual­i­ties, the author adds: Yet he also had qual­i­ties that had plain­ly helped him achieve his suc­cess as a nation­al leader. Hoff­man, who knew him for more than twen­ty years, called him a charm­ing and wit­ty con­ver­sa­tion­al­ist.’” As far as Hoff­man is con­cerned, his asso­ci­a­tion with Hitler over­shad­ows, for many, his sig­nif­i­cance as a pho­tog­ra­ph­er — but the author points out that Hoff­mann claims not to have known about all of the Nazi abus­es, and not to have approved of those he did know about. Haven’t we heard this before? The state­ment goes unchal­lenged. One British pho­tog­ra­ph­er who is quot­ed seems to give Hoff­mann a pass, say­ing the rela­tion­ship between the two men was per­son­al, not polit­i­cal. But Hoff­mann prof­it­ed great­ly from his work with Hitler and though he lived more than a decade after the war end­ed, nev­er apol­o­gized in any way. To this review­er, it’s a mis­take not even to raise the issue of the ethics of hav­ing an ongo­ing rela­tion­ship with a bru­tal dic­ta­tor and a front-row seat to events, enjoy­ing its fruits and build­ing a career on it, then eschew­ing all respon­si­bil­i­ty. Actu­al­ly, the book is the per­fect depar­ture point for a guid­ed class dis­cus­sion for mid­dle grade read­ers, and that is prob­ably a much bet­ter way to use this book than hav­ing read­ers digest it on their own. 

Rec­om­mend­ed for guid­ed read­ing with a teacher or group leader for ages 10 – 14.

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