In Hitler’s Bathtub – Lee Miller’s War

On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, we have commemorated this historical event in our podcast with the homage to an exceptional artist whom we would like to present to you here.

The podcast exists so far only in German language, its text version you will find below:

Lee Miller in Hitler’s apartment at 16 Prinzregentenplatz.
Photographed David E. Sherman after exact instructions and rehearsals by Lee Miller who set up both the scene and the camera.
© Lee Miller Archives, England 2020. All rights reserved.

A photo with a pair of eyes in its centre – the view under the prominent eyebrows directed confidently upwards. The woman in the bathtub does not look at the viewer; she does not look into the photographer’s camera – her pose is nevertheless chosen, determined and shows that she knows that she is the centre of attention at this moment. The photograph, like many historical photographs, is posed and stages itself as such through and through. The tiles of the bathroom form a grid in front of whose clear vertical and horizontal structures everything else stands out clearly. Lee Miller sits in a bathtub, apparently washing herself with a white cloth. To her left, another portrait is leaning against the edge of the bathtub; in the foreground to the right in front of the tub is a nude sculpture. The small, classicistic statuette shows a woman in a similar pose. But Lee Miller is not an Aphrodite, nor a foam birth, and the portrait on the wall is not of another deity, but of a merciless tyrant. What Lee Miller cannot know at this moment is that the person depicted in the picture is committing first his wedding and then suicide in an underground bunker hundreds of kilometers away from her.

On April 30, 1945, Lee Miller sits in Adolf Hitler’s Munich bathtub – probably the only place in the entire Third Reich where hot water might have been available at that moment – and washes the horrors of the day off her body. The day before, April 29, 1945, the Dachau concentration camp had been liberated. On the morning of April 30, 1945, Lee Miller is one of the first photographers to document the conditions in this place of horror, the perfidious killing machine, the peak of Adolf Hitler’s racial madness.

“In the few minutes it took me to take my pictures, two men were found dead and were unceremoniously dragged out and thrown on the heap outside the block. Nobody seemed to mind except me. The doctor said it was too late for more than half of the others in the building anyway. The bodies are just chucked out that the wagon that makes the rounds every day can pick them up at the street corner, like garbage disposal.”  – Lee Miller later writes in her notes. In Dachau, she documents meticulously, at close range and seemingly without any distance what she sees in pitiless horror: She climbs on bunk beds, into wagons, over debris and excrement, in order to be able to portray only that which she finds in terrible reality in all its almost incomprehensible cruelty.

“Belive it”, she therefore knowingly addresses her readers in Vogue. These short, even simple two words express what Lee Miller wants to achieve with her photographs: To show the indescribable, the unspeakable without any disguise, to make the incomprehensible tangible; to be a contemporary witness and to give her testimony with it. Since 1941 Lee Miller has been working first as a freelance photographer in WWII-Europe and later on as a war correspondent for magazines such as Vogue and since 1942 as a photographer for the US ARMY. Soon after the allied troops landed in Normandy on D-Day, Lee Miller accompanied the events. She documented the liberation of Paris, she photographed in field hospitals, in the midst of the ongoing war, she testified with her pictures to the fighting in the Loire Valley, she photographed the liberated concentration camp in Buchenwald.

Lee Miller was not always a photographer – even before her pictures appeared in Vogue for the first time, she was the one pictured in there. Condé Nast himself had discovered her literally on the street in 1920s New York when he saved her from being run over by a truck. In the years that followed, she was a much sought-after model and in 1927 she even adorned the cover of American Vogue. In 1929, bored by an existence staged by others merely in front of the camera, she went to Paris, where, in the illustrious circle of Surrealists, she met Man Ray, whose photographic work fascinated her – ingenious pictures whose playful forms unconventionally denied traditions. She became his assistant, muse and lover, but despite similar motifs, Lee’s works quickly developed an emancipated independence. While Man Ray once again aestheticized her (as a) beauty in his photographs, she staged herself in her self-portraits as a strong, independent woman and personality. Her pictures break with conventions and stylise the woman in the picture and behind the camera no longer as a fragile being, but rather emphasise muscle power and strength; they emphasise independent facets of her personality and appearance.

During their years together, both experimented in a highly unconventional way with photography and its technical possibilities. Together they congenially developed the principle of controlled solarisation, a strong overexposure of the negative, which causes the blackenings to soften in the prints and makes the photograph a sharp-edged cut of dark outlines and contours.

In 1932, they parted ways, and Lee Miller, who had been publishing her pictures in Vogue since 1930, continued in her work what she had founded with Man Ray: a play with light and shadow. At the latest when war broke out, she turned her back on the concept of l’art pour l’art and became increasingly involved, engagée, in and with her work. As one of initially only four photographers of the US ARMY, she began her service as a war correspondent.

Her photographs appear regularly in British and American Vogue, with commentaries and short essays by the artist, which tell of her experience of the Germans and the schizophrenic traits they take on in her eyes. Through the lens, she observes how the civilian population after liberation is inevitably confronted with what she had previously captured so intensely and brutely in her pictures. When she leaves Dachau on April 30, 1945, soldiers of the Rainbow Division accompany her to Munich, where they occupy Hitler’s private apartment on the third floor of Prinzregentenplatz 16. She and her colleague David Sherman will spend 3 days there before they set out to visit other places so intricately connected to the ‘Führer’. During these days, her photographic essay “Hitleriana” is being written, which appeared exclusively in British Vogue and was titled with the iconic image of the burning Hitler’s so-called “Eagle’s Nest” in Berchtesgaden. In many detailed images Miller gives insights into the dictator’s private life without hiding the circumstances of their creation, she shows GIs lying on the bed of the tyrant reading his book “Mein Kampf”, she mocks Eva Braun’s morning toilet in the staging of her various cosmetics, she disenchants the intimate chambers of the Reich President and Commander-in-Chief of the Wehrmacht, shows them in their perfidious ordinariness and emancipates herself once again through and with her photographs.

All this culminates in the picture taken by David Sherman in Hitler’s bathtub: Lee Miller stages her path and herself in a place of the highest intimacy. Yet it is not she who, despite her nakedness, appears vulnerable here. Her army boots stand in front of the bathtub on the floor. She has wiped off the dirt from Dachau on the previously shiny white bath mat – Lee Miller looks confidently and strongly into the future, while Adolf Hitler probably ends his life at the same moment.

“Well, alright, he was dead.” she later writes “He’d never really been alive for me until today. He’d been an evil machine-monster all these years, until I visited the places, he made famous, talked to people who knew him, dug into backstairs gossip and ate and slept in his house. He became a little less fabulous and therefore more terrible, along with a little evidence of his having some almost human habits.” 

Today, exactly 75 years to the day after the liberation of Dachau, we would like to remember this and exceptional artists like Lee Miller, who certainly cannot make the horrors of German history more comprehensible to us, but who did their best to bear witness to posterity under sometimes life-threatening conditions.

We would like to thank the Lee Miller Archives for their kind permission to use the image and for the pleasant contact and exchange.

Here you can listen to the Podcast in German language:

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