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Hitler’s home in Homes & Gardens

There’s an article in today’s New York Times, an article about another article, in Homes & Gardens. But follow that Homes & Gardens link and you won’t find any mention of this article, because it was published in 1938 and was about Adolf Hitler’s “Bavarian retreat”.

The predominant color scheme of Hitler’s “bright, airy chalet” was “a light jade green.” Chairs and tables of braided cane graced the sun parlor, and the Führer, “a droll raconteur,” decorated his entrance hall with “cactus plants in majolica pots.”

Such are the precious and chilling observations in an irony-free 1938 article in Homes & Gardens, a British magazine, on Hitler’s mountain retreat in the Bavarian Alps. A bit of arcana, to be sure, but one that has dropped squarely into the current debate over the Internet and intellectual property. This file, too, is being shared.

The resurrection of the article can be traced to Simon Waldman, the director of digital publishing at Guardian Newspapers in Britain, who says he was given a vintage issue of the magazine by his father-in-law. Noticing the Hitler spread, which doted on the compound’s high-mountain beauty (“the fairest view in all Europe”) at a time when the Nazis had already gobbled up Austria, Mr. Waldman scanned the three pages and posted them on his personal Web site last May. They sat largely unnoticed until about three weeks ago, when Mr. Waldman made them more prominent on his site and sent an e-mail message to the current editor of Homes & Gardens, Isobel McKenzie-Price, pointing up the article as a historical curiosity.

Ms. McKenzie-Price, citing copyright rules, politely requested that he remove the pages. Mr. Waldman did so, but not before other Web users had turned the pages into communal property, like so many songs and photographs and movies and words that have been illegally traded for more than a decade in the Internet’s back alleys.

Still, there was a question of whether the magazine’s position was a stance against property theft or a bit of red-faced persnicketiness.

Now this episode could be turned into yet another intellectual property comment fest, and if that’s what people want, fine, go ahead. But what interests me is the ineptness of the commercial Homes & Gardens response, their woeful neglect of a major business opportunity. An honest response from them about their reluctance to get involved in political judgements of the many and varied political people whose houses they have featured in their pages over the decades, and about all the other famous (and infamous) people whose homes they’ve written about over the years, together with a website pointing us all to their archives, might surely have served their commercial purposes far better, I would have thought.

This might have morphed into a discussion of the comparably fabulous pads occupied by other famous monster-criminal-dictators (including some featured in Homes & Gardens, of the exact degree of opulence/disgustingness of the homes of the Russian and Chinese Communist apparatchiks, but of their far greater reluctance (when compared to openly inegalitarian despots like Hitler) to reveal their living arrangements to the world, in the pages of such publications as Homes & Gardens. There might also have been some quite admiring further thoughts on the nice way that Hitler had arranged matters for himself, from the domestic point of view, the way the design of the house made maximum use of the view of the mountains, etc., etc. It does sound like a really nice place.

Such a discussion could surely have been combined with a robust defence by Homes & Gardens of their intellectual property rights under existing law, and in a way that might have been to their further commercial advantage. They might have simply reprinted the entire piece in a current issue, together with their current comments about it.

But no. Down go the shutters. And an opportunity to bring Homes & Gardens to the non-contemptuous attention of a whole new generation of readers, instead of to its contemptuous attention, is missed. Or is about to be missed. This posting of mine may now seem like a typical example of the media, in this case a blog, telling some wretched victim of a media frenzy (such as this story now surely is) that they “now have the opportunity to tell their side of the story”, to yet another bit of the same damned media, who will then slant that new bit of the story as cruelly as they have slanted every other bit of it. But that isn’t how this part of the media works. If you take the minimum bit of trouble you need to take (e.g. by setting up your own blog), you really can, these days, “tell your side of the story” in a manner over which you can have editorial control. Be interesting. Be honest. Don’t be boring. Follow rules like that, and you can influence all stories about you in a very big way, because any decent journalist will want to refer to anything you have to say, simply to prove that he is on top of the story.

The same new media world which makes it impossible for you to snuff out the original article (still less the media frenzy about the original article), no matter how much the law may be on your side, also makes it impossible for you to be silenced, unless you silence yourself.

As the New York Times piece concludes:

For all of that, though, IPC Media’s unwillingness to discuss even the content of the Hitler article is puzzling to Mr. Waldman. This skeleton was abruptly yanked from the Homes & Gardens closet, yes, but the article reflects more about the mind of aristocratic Britain in 1938 – well known to have given Hitler the benefit of the doubt – than it does about the magazine itself. Even the American press noted the beauty of Hitler’s compound, including The New York Times, which on Sept. 18, 1938, wrote that the chalet was “simple in its appointments” and that it commanded “a magnificent highland panorama.”

Posting these pages online “doesn’t damage Homes & Garden’s reputation,” Mr. Waldman said. “In fact, putting them up, along with a letter from the editor explaining a bit about them, could be a very positive thing for them to do.”

I do admit that, done wrongly, such a letter might only fan the flames of the story, but what are the alternatives? Either you feed your genuine opinion of what is being said about you into the frenzy, or you don’t. The frenzy still happens. The situation is either: definitely bad – or: it could vary anywhere from bad through okay considering and we held up our end, and onwards and upwards to downright excellent and we made a stack more money this year than we ever expected to, and all because of something rather stupid we said about Hitler in 1938.

Maybe in the next few days Homes & Gardens will, under the pressure of events, change their tune, and end up singing the one I here recommend for them. But my guess is they’ll say to themselves, better play it safe.

But my point is: safe isn’t safe these days. There’s only truthful and positive and risky, and evasive and negative and risky. The biggest risk being that you turn your back on all the gains you might have won if you’d played your hand right.

7 comments to Hitler’s home in Homes & Gardens

  • Tony H

    I suggest that you’re being unrealistic, Brian, in expecting Homes & Gardens to respond to this in the way you outline. It’s not that sort of magazine. It’s a home interest title, indeed the most senior of the genre, founded 1910. I know them somewhat, I’ve visited their offices: politics is not their scene. I don’t know whether Isobel will have consulted senior IPC management, but it would not surprise me if she simply regarded this, er, storm in a teacup as both irrelevant (1938 is many editors and more than one change of ownership ago, way before it was part of IPC Media which is itself owned by AOL Time Warner) and frankly not very important or interesting, apart from the business of copyright about which any editor would rightly be concerned. I might be proved wrong if they respond in a way you find more satisfying, and that could be mildly interesting, but I’m not holding my breath.

  • Most old media do not ‘get’ the fact copywrite, when viewed the old way, in fact harms them. There really is no downside to letting that story fly for H&G… it reminds me of the fact a few years ago the lawyers for Liz Hurley’s agent started threatening websites with pictures of her for which Hurley owned the copywrite, not getting the screamingly obvious point that these websites were in fact doing unpaid marketting for Liz Hurley, who is, after all, a babe for a living, and thus should be sending ‘Thank You’ letters to every Liz Hurley fan site on the Internet screaming “Liz Hurley Is A Babe!”. Truly stoooopid.

  • Eric Jablow

    There are similar cases in the US. Consider Prof. David Stowe of Michigan State University. A few years ago, he wanted permission from Down Beat Magazine to reproduce racist and sexist advertisements from the 1940s. He was trying to write an academic paper. If he could have used the actual advertisements, it would have been a much better paper. Down Beat refused permission, and he did not have the resources to sue.

    In the US, the Constitutional basis of copyright is to promote progress and learning. When people can hide their embarassments and misdeeds by claiming copyright protection, the purpose of copyright has been eviscerated.

    I have included a link to an article on copyright and the Down Beat situation. I am not a lawyer; I don’t know how to evaluate it.

  • Tim Haas

    Re Stowe:

    Shame on the university for not stepping in to indemnify him as a matter of academic freedom. This kind of commentary clearly falls under fair use, as does the current case.


    Why should anyone be embarrassed? It most likely took months to get approval to do the shoot, and publication was planned long in advance. In spite of the annexation of Austria at the time, there was little international outcry over the event and the occupation went rather smoothly. We cannot all be so wise as to determine the course of history, to devine events in advance, as the critics of such things infer. Sheer stupidity, inane.

    So now Kevin Costner wants to show us his production, The Human Side of Fidel Castro. Now there’s one that should WOW us all, the human side of the Cuban butcher, the Cuban slavemaster, the head of the torture chamber. And this is AFTER the facts are known.
    One might make a comparison of Hitler and Castro at this point in time, eh? The British magazine would not look so bad then.

    But then again, he’ll keep the copyrights on that one sacred, I’ll bet.

  • Homes and Gardens published the article in a time and social context where people did not fully appreciate the extent to which Hitler was a genocidal maniac. This probably should have been appreciated, because he didn’t make any secret of it, but it wasn’t. They then published an article the message of which was essentially that “Hitler has a nice house”. In retrospect, this is embarassing, because Hitler should have been beyond the pale by then, but then as now, as Tony H put it “politics is not their scene”. As a transgression, saying Hitler has a nice house falls a long way short of praising his politics. The piece is an interesting historical curiousity for what it says about the climate of the time, but I don’t see any great reason why Homes and Gardens now should be terribly concerned about it. They could just say “We see it as an interesting historical curiousity” and be done with it.

    As somebody else pointed out, the attempts to withdraw this piece may be completely apolitical too. It may just be a lawyer sending a standard letter that gets sent to anyone who posts a copyright article from “House and Garden” on the web. I think though that we do need protection against attempts to suppress things like this using copyright law. Once something is in the public record, it should stay there. As Tim points out, this right does probably exist under fair use (it can be acceptable to quote even a whole copyright article for purposes of criticism if the whole article is necessary for that criticism to be coherent) but lawyers threatening letters do not always appreciate this.

  • Very interesting post