As World War II was drawing to a close, a scene that could be mistaken for dark humor, if not for its real historical context, played out in Adolf Hitler’s apartment. Two photojournalists, David E. Scherman and Lee Miller, staged a series of photos that would become among the most controversial and compelling images of the 20th century. On April 30, 1945, the very day of Hitler’s suicide, they found themselves in Hitler’s private quarters, taking turns in his bathtub, all while documenting the bizarre episode.
Lee Miller was a fascinating figure in her own right – an accomplished model turned professional photographer, who covered some of the most dramatic events of World War II. David E. Scherman was a Life magazine photographer and Miller’s colleague and confidant. The duo was in Munich when they heard about Hitler’s suicide and decided to visit his apartment, a place considered the sanctum sanctorum of Nazi power.
While the series contains several photographs, the one that received the most attention features Miller in the bathtub. In it, she is captured looking up, her gaze distant and thoughtful. There’s a sense of careful calibration in the way she adjusts her head and gaze in each shot. A picture of Hitler hangs ominously in the background, creating a stark and disturbing contrast. Miller is quoted as saying years later,
I washed the dirt of Dachau off in his tub.
Earlier that very day, Miller and Scherman had visited Dachau, the infamous Nazi concentration camp. The traces of the horrors they had witnessed were still present, both physically on Miller’s combat boots that lay next to the tub, and psychologically in their minds. The bath was a symbolic gesture, an act of defiance and, perhaps, an attempt to cleanse the horrors of the war they had been documenting.
When it was Scherman’s turn in the tub, the mood altered drastically. He’s seen in the photographs playfully washing his hair, and even though Hitler’s picture remains in the frame, it’s partially hidden behind a soap dish, suggesting a subtle shift in power dynamics.
Miller and Scherman’s staged bathing in Hitler’s tub was not merely an act of irreverence. It was a powerful commentary on the fall of a dictator, the end of a horrific regime, and the residual effects of a war that scarred humanity. The boots on the bathmat were a testament to the horrors of Dachau, a stark reminder of the death and despair they had witnessed earlier that day.