Photography

A Tale of a Tub

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Here is a photograph of a woman washing in a bathtub. Her big black boots are on a bathmat made dirty by them, and her clothes are discarded on a chair under her wristwatch. She is scrubbing her neck with a flannel and there is a framed photograph of Adolf Hitler on the lip of the tub. It was taken on the evening of 30th April1945 in the bathroom of Hitler’s residence in Munich, the night Hitler and Eva Braun committed suicide in their bunker in Berlin.

The woman is Lee Miller, the only accredited female photojournalist during World War II. She had travelled with the Allied forces after D-Day across France, from Normandy to Paris, and on into Germany. She had been present when the US army had met the Russian army at Torgau. This photograph was taken by her colleague Dave Scherman, using her camera. They had both entered Munich that day, the same day as the 45th Division of the US army entered the city. Miller and Scherman found the unassuming house by chance and stayed there for the following three days. It was whilst they were there that the news of Hitler’s death was announced on Mayday. Here she is in his bath on the evening of his death.

There is a female nude statue on the bath-stand, in the figurative style Hitler favoured. In the spacious apartment Miller looked for but did not find any degenerative art. Nor did she find any paintings by the Master himself, from his days as an artist in Vienna. There was, however, a Toby jug of the head of King George VI that played the national anthem of Great Britain when lifted. It was a gift to Hitler from Neville Chamberlain presented when the Munich agreement was signed in an adjoining room in the house in 1938.

Earlier, on the day the photograph was taken, the US army (the 42nd and the 45th Divisions, with Miller and Schermen) had liberated Dachau concentration camp. There Miller photographed the dead and the dying, the starved half-crazed prisoners and the fifth, a dead underwater SS guard and the chronically ill crammed into triple decker bunks, the undernourished and the cattle trucks, the women recently moved into the camp and their new-born babies, piles of bodies and piles of filth. She photographed the well fed Angora rabbits being farmed at the camp. She later sent a telegram to her editor in London when dispatching the rolls of film, which said “I implore you to believe this is true”. The crematorium at Dachau had run out of fuel two weeks before and so the bodies had been piled up. She saw the sign that read ‘Shower Baths’ and the taps that released not water but gas. In the above photograph Hitler’s personal shower is not being used. But this is a photograph of a woman wiping the dirt of Dachau off her body in Hitler’s own bathtub and depositing the filth from a concentration camp onto his bathmat.

Lee Miller in these months gained a reputation as a detached observer and dispassionate journalist capable of taking close up photographs of death and suffering. On that day in Dachau, Scherman later said, Miller seemed unaffected by the sights and smells that felled sturdier looking US combat tough guys. After the war, according to her son Anthony Penrose, Miller became an alcoholic and battled several depressive illnesses before dying in 1977. He was of the view that she suffered post traumatic stress disorder from the sights she had seen in the days of the liberation. It was after her death that Penrose found 60,000 negatives in the attic of their house in East Sussex; this photograph was among them. He did not even know that she had been a war photographer. She may have been able to wipe the dirt of Dachau from her body, but the images obtained that day could not be so easily hidden away.

Edward Bindloss

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