On April 30, 1945, photojournalists David E. Scherman and Lee Miller produced one of the most controversial photographic series of the twentieth century; while documenting Hitler’s apartment on the day of his suicide, they photographed each other bathing in the Führer’s tub.
The contact print reveals that Miller had Scherman take seven shots in all. The sequence of shots suggests that Miller had something very specific in mind, as her head and her gaze are only slightly adjusted for each pose. Each image appears carefully calibrated, and the ostensible pleasure of bathing is nowhere in evidence. The photos reveal nothing of what Scherman retrospectively described as her “leisurely, overdue bath.”
But in the best known she is looking up and away, toward a distant point, pensive and beautiful, scrubbing her shoulder with a wash cloth while Hitler looks on. She has turned her gaze away from him. As Miller would put it years later, “I washed the dirt of Dachau off in his tub.”
The washcloth appears to serve more as a prop than a functional accessory for the task at hand. Scherman’s photographs are much more animated. He mugs for the camera as he vigorously washes his hair, completely altering the tone of the scene. While Hitler’s image remains present, it has been moved so that it is partially behind a soap dish—a minor detail, to be sure, but it does seem to compromise the presence that is so striking in Miller’s photographs. Scherman’s boots, in contrast to Miller’s, are pointed away from the tub, clearly a better position for exiting the tub rather than entering.
The simplest interpretations argue that Miller enters the bath and washes away the dirt, still visible on her boots, from Dachau. Lee signaled the end of the Reich in a more subtle way, both symbolic and playful, by being photographed by Scherman washing off the war—in Hitler’s own bath. The boots on the bath mat had walked through the horror of the Dachau death camp earlier in the same day.
The residual dirt from Dachau was of course invisible to readers, who were not privy to the fact that the photograph followed Miller’s presence at the newly liberated camp earlier that day. Even so, it is doubtful that Miller imagined she could wash off even part of the war in the wake of what she had witnessed, leaving aside the question of whether she wanted to do so. After all, forgetting would betray her whole purpose.