INTERVIEW / CORRESPONDENCE
with Dr. Christina Irrgang, art and media theorist, autor and musician. Dissertation and current publication: Hitlers Fotograf. Heinrich Hoffmann und die nationalsozialistische Bildpolitik, transcript Bielefeld 2020 [Hitler’s photographer. Heinrich Hoffmann and the National Socialist Image Policy]
Dear Christina Irrgang,
As one can read at the publisher’s website for your current publication, the focus of your research is on “techniques of democratic communication and conversation”. You present a doctoral thesis dealing with the photographer Heinrich Hoffmann and his propaganda photo books as part of National Socialist (image) politics. Because you did not engage in this research work as an art historian, but instead as a scholar of art and media, I would first like to ask why you chose a twentieth century theme over one of the current, twenty-first century? What provided the occasion for you to occupy yourself with a figure like Heinrich Hoffmann? What question motivated you to examine his photography? And what new perspective does your examination offer for current political situations?
How would you define the term “propaganda” with reference to image politics?
In what relationship does “propaganda” exist next to “advertising” or “fake news”?
Dear Birgit Wudtke,
First, thank you for your interest in my book, to which your attention was already drawn shortly after publication!
The occasion for becoming interested in National Socialist image politics was a seminar offered by my former professor and subsequent doctoral supervisor, Wolfgang Ullrich, which I attended in the winter semester of 2007/08 at the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design: it was called “Syntax of Images”. In the context of this seminar in the Department of Art Research and Media Theory, we analysed the effect of images in the plural based on selected examples from the eighteenth to the twenty-first centuries. In this context we on the one hand discussed artistic and art criticism image sequences like those found with William Hogarth, Hanne Darboven or Cindy Sherman, but also “Hitler’s photographer” Heinrich Hoffmann. Despite multifaceted attempts to convey this during my studies, I had hardly been able to develop an understanding of what was meant with (photo) propaganda in the National Socialist system, which is why I immediately developed an interest in this theme. The methodology was also implicit in the title of the seminar; it was primarily about the consideration of narratives. At that time, and years later, it was the publication Hoffmann & Hitler – Fotografie als Medium des Führer-Mythos (Hoffmann & Hitler – Photography as the medium of the Führer myth) (1994) by Rudolf Herz that provided the fundamental approach to research on Hoffmann.1 Because I frequently visited the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin in 2007, I began to research in the holdings about Heinrich Hoffmann and discovered many propagandistic photographic picture books with Adolf Hitler as the motif, designed in the style of the photo novel: Hitler, wie ihn keiner kennt (Hitler as nobody knows him), Hitler in seinen Bergen (Hitler in his mountains), Hitler abseits vom Alltag (Hitler beyond everyday life)… Herz had in fact described such picture books in his book, but seeing them changed everything for me.
I especially remember a viewing experience that influenced me for a long time: this was the photo volume Jugend um Hitler 2 (Youth around Hitler), in which the narrative arrangement of image and text made the greatest possible impression upon me at the time – a propagandistic message that has a subtle poignancy even today and allowed me to understand the experience of strategically designed image propaganda … through a direct, emotionally charged message, formerly addressed at children and youth, that still demonstrated the efficacy of its impact at the moment in which I read it in disbelief. Jugend um Hitler, which I will address in greater detail, was ultimately the motor for occupying myself with a whole series of such photo books of the Heinrich Hoffmann company over a number of years: initially in the form of a presentation and a seminar paper in the context of “Syntax of Images”, then with a master’s thesis on Hoffmann’s image strategies, and finally in the form of a doctoral work on Hoffmann’s image industry, which has now appeared with the transcript Verlag under the title Hitlers Fotograf – Heinrich Hoffmann und die nationalsozialistische Bildpolitik (Hitler’s photographer. Heinrich Hoffmann and the National Socialist Image Policy ). All projects were accompanied by Wolfgang Ullrich, who I would like to thank, as well as the literary scholar and theoretician of photography Bernd Stiegler, who also ultimately supervised my dissertation. My approach, both for the master’s thesis and in the book being presented now is one of media-analytical observation I also refer to as “image-contextual analysis”. That means always also juxtaposing counter-images with the images (to be considered), to see photographs in relation to their context, thus in relation to the structure from which they originate and are extracted. It is also for precisely this reason that I decided to not show any images in my book, but instead to only make the set of images being discussed accessible as a whole through a link to a digital image section.
The new perspectives I have gained through my research can be demonstrated on the basis of my methodology – and this is where I return to the example of Jugend um Hitler. This picture book, which first appeared in 1934, was one of those most widely distributed and, because it was explicitly directed at children and youth in its subject matter and simple design, more than any of the other picture books produced by Hoffmann, one that most directly formulated the reference between this target group and Adolf Hitler and his popularity. There is thus a decisive sequence in this book that is meant to signify the essence of the picture book, namely Hitler’s affection and popularity, through the representation of a girl who is served strawberries with cream by Hitler at the Berghof in Obersalzberg. This sequence was, however, removed from the picture book several editions and years later and replaced by one with a different girl. The reason for this was that a controversy had sparked within the National Socialist government, because Bernile Nienau, the child previously favoured with being allowed to eat strawberries and cream with Hitler, was classified as non-Aryan by the Nuremberg Laws. By viewing photographic contact sheets in the National Archives in Washington D.C., where a large part of the former holdings of the Hoffmann company (material confiscated by the Allies) was stored and had in some cases not even been catalogued at all, I was able to find out that an entire photo shoot was arranged with a different girl in the context of this controversy. The research in the Federal Archives Berlin-Lichterfelde in turn makes clear the cause of this sequence of actions and, when compared while viewing the different editions and issues of the picture book, bounds the point in time at which the corresponding sequence was then replaced in Hoffmann’s picture books.
This is one example among many, but a very poignant one, I think, which demonstrates how essentially important it is to take material as the starting point, particularly in the context of photographic image propaganda. More specifically this means: looking at sources, drawing upon different editions of publications, consulting archive holdings, looking closely at contact sheets and photographic sequences, as well as both excerpts and retouching … to thus equally consider the context of origin and utilisation in order to expand and grow aware of one’s own perspective on the range of manipulation regarding propaganda and image politics.
That photographic and cinematic images are manipulated is no longer a secret. In the 1920s and 1930s, this had a completely different significance and scope given the relative novelty of the photographic image in visual communication. My book illuminates this development and the popularity of the medium of photography, of which extremely strategic and targeted use was made, especially in National Socialist politics. Hoffmann’s picture books even influenced fascist propaganda to the extent that Mussolini also credited “photojournalism” with greater significance during Hitler’s state visit to Italy in May 1938, which meant that more photographic fascist printed works were created in Italy. Hoffmann’s product portfolio in any case provided an influential template for creating political narrative through the combining of text and image. From a global perspective, this can also be seen in democratic systems into the 2000s. A turnaround can be observed with the intensified rise of social media, which are similar in terms of their structure, but function entirely differently in a media context.
Here I would also like to address the question concerning the relationship between image propaganda, as I addressed it in my book, and the current concept of “fake news”: the author Petra Ramsauer has comprehended “fake news”, I find very aptly, by writing that there are diffuse fears that offer a dangerous gateway for “fake news”, which in turn “identify comfortable ways out or scapegoats.”3 I find it fundamentally difficult to compare today’s “fake news” with the kind of propaganda established by the Heinrich Hoffmann company. Heinrich Hoffmann’s company was an image industry that was decisively borne and favoured by the National Socialist system; the spectrum of production was broadly based, extending from photographic postcards through photo books and stereophotographic photo books to reproductions of National Socialist art. Hoffmann himself had already photographed members of the early NSDAP in the 1920s, and his activity expanded to include a large number of employees with enormous profits up to the collapse of the National Socialist regime. Adolf Hitler was stylised into an iconic figure through Hoffmann’s photographic image propaganda. These image strategies were especially possible in a dictatorship. Today, “(image) propaganda” functions entirely differently, although it is based on such forms, as can be observed with Hoffmann. The photographs or memes, through which, for example, (right-wing) political fanatics or groupings attempt to influence people in democratic systems, do not in fact originate from the political system itself but are instead created by politicising the groups themselves. That remains a tautological image system: however, while image propaganda of any kind in the National Socialist system served the purpose of strengthening the system from inside, thus hermetically, current image strategies only function through the sum of their actors, or through their thematically oriented mergers. From various “alternatives” to those designated as “quer” (something like “contrary” or “maverick”): it is initially the terms that are entirely newly defined, and it is today primarily self-centred images that reveal a world view characterised by egocentrism and subjective opinions, which in turn, given their quantity, search for cumulative confirmation of that shown. Political figures can react to this, as Donald Trump did during his term of office as President of the United States, in a targeted fashion though social media channels, supplement them in a strategically subtle manner with stimulating words or even just individual images, so that an impression of confirmation arises, which is in turn declared the foundation for motivations for action and views. This thus results in a reference system that no longer originates directly from the political system, but instead from the recipients of this system.
Entirely in opposition to this, image propaganda under Hoffmann functioned in the context of the National Socialist system: here, image content is created from the system with reference to the system, which always also constitutively incorporates its recipients for the system. Image narratives prescribed behaviour with respect to the “Führer” and the National Socialist system, while we today tend more to see self-representation with the objective of self-empowerment in visual political worlds, as is also recognised by David Begrich, employee of the right-wing extremism department at Miteinander e.V., Magdeburg.4 This self-empowerment, which is quite deliberately linked with the jargon of Hitler among the new German, European and American right, namely his own seizure of power through the Enabling Act of 24 March 1933, correspondingly sees itself as part of a historically “justified” line, and thus literally in the right. Images like those in front of the Reichstag in Berlin of 28 August 2020 or most recently in front of the Capitol in Washington, D.C. of 6 January 2021 are therefore so effective and important for right-wing groupings before they confirm their own actions as correct using them. Begrich describes this as follows: “These images will be handed out for years to come among the extreme right as icons and trophies”, because they “[are] just as important as the result itself”.5
The (real) event around Hitler was also decisive for generating an image reality in National Socialist image propaganda. However, this was supplemented with the strategy that had been formulated through the targeted assemblage and compiling of image and text in thematically oriented pictorial narratives.
In my book, as in similar content-related contexts, I have preferred to quote the author Hannah Arendt in this regard:
„Lies are often much more plausible, more appealing to reason, than reality, since the liar has the great advantage of knowing beforehand what the audience wishes or expects to hear. He has prepared his story for public consumption with a careful eye to making it credible, whereas reality has the disconcerting habit of confronting us with the unexpected, for which we were not prepared.”6 (Hannah Arendt)
The present politicised pictorial worlds seem to a greater extent selective and especially digital. They simplistically emphasise the individual as part of a Volk structure marked by the self-selected attributes of affiliation and dissociation. The journalist Stefan Kornelius writes: “The digital revolution has made democracies vulnerable. What authoritarian systems achieve through enforced conformity of the media and control of messages, functions in the boundless garrulousness of the web through the mass of opinions.”7 In contrast with this “cacophony of communication” (Kornelius), which can move in a structure of lies and staging, are Hoffmann’s photo books with their inherent pictorial strategies, which are to a much greater extent oriented toward a leader figure and not simply to the plurality of the images, but are instead, supplementing this, based on a narrative composition revolving around Adolf Hitler that formerly pursued a clearly National Socialist reading and objective. What both the former and the latter have in common is that they apply as sophisticated political interventions, in that they attempt(ed) to convince ideologically.
You initially mentioned “techniques of democratic communication and conversation”: This is one area of focus in my work as an author, and these techniques have basically emerged from my occupation with manipulative pictorial strategies – as a counter reaction. Specifically, this means, for example, that I enter into a conceptual dialogue with artists, based on the equality of the word. I bring blank index cards with me to a conversation, on which we each note an equal number of keywords for a theme jointly chosen in advance, about which we then converse. For example, the cards lie on the table with the writing hidden. We uncover them successively, which also defines the sequence of thoughts along our shared plot.
The work on my book Hitlers Fotograf – Heinrich Hoffmann und die nationalsozialistische Bildpolitik led me down into the deepest morass of National Socialist policy, which did not always have to do with image policy but did in fact flow into it – as an ostensible corrective. Because it is important to comprehend the events as a whole, I provided my book with a “chorus” of voices, meaning statements by people for whom the contemporary experience of National Socialism was defining. These voices appear bearing witness and remind us of the counter-image, which is decisive for me in any form of knowledge gain.
Best regards, Christina Irrgang, Wuppertal, 23 January 2021
1 Herz, Rudolf: Hoffmann & Hitler – Fotografie als Medium des Führer-Mythos, exhib. cat., Münchner Stadtmuseum, Klinkhardt & Biermann, Munich 1994.
2 Hoffmann, Heinrich (Ed.): Jugend um Hitler, 120 Bilddokumente aus dem Leben des Führers, 1-30 thousand, Zeitgeschichte-Verlag, Berlin (no date) .
3 See Ramsauer, Petra: Angst, Kremayr & Scheriau, Vienna 2020, pp. 46-47.
4 See Begrich, David/Rühle, Alex: “Wie ein starker Koksrausch – Die Stürmung des Kapitols beflügelt Ultrarechte in Deutschland” (Like a strong cocaine rush – The storming of the Capitol puts wind in the sails of the ultra right in Germany), interview, in: Süddeutsche Zeitung of 13 January 2021, p. 9.
5 See ibid.
6 Arendt, Hannah: Wahrheit und Lüge in der Politik, Munich/Berlin 2015, p. 10. [Translation taken from: https://www.brainpickings.org/2016/06/15/lying-in-politics-hannah-arendt/] (accessed on 28 January 2021)
7 Kornelius, Stefan: “Welt der Lüge” (World of lies), in: Süddeutsche Zeitung of 13 January 2021, p. 4.