On the morning of April 2nd in 1937, George Lacks received an assignment from the China Press to take a group picture of a delegation of prominent Chinese government officials who were about to set sail for London to represent China at the coronation of King George VI. The delegation was headed by Dr. H. H. Kung, a descendant of Confucius, and China's finance minister. Some days prior, George had approached Dr. Kung about the possibility of accompanying him to photograph the entire tour. Although George had photographed Kung on several occasions, his request was silently rebuffed by the Chinese. Finally, on the occasion of this group shooting, Dr. Kung invited George to join him for the trip. There was just one small hitch: the ship was to depart in about 90 minutes.
After what seems an impossible and unlikely whirlwind of preparation, George boarded the ship that was headed for Africa, then to Europe. This would have been a plummy assignment in any case, since there were many stops along the way, with numerous opportunities to photograph heads-of-state and other dignitaries, from British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and Anthony Eden, to Count Ciano in Rome, to President Lebrun of France. However, George, then just 26 years of age, could not have anticipated what was to come next. Unbeknownst to him, George was about to pull off the greatest photojournalistic coup of his young life.
It turns out that Dr. Kung received a last-minute invitation from Adolf Hitler to visit him at his summer retreat in the Berchtesgadener Alpen.
My father was not ignorant of the implications: he understood that very few foreign photographers were allowed to photograph Der Führer at close range, and further, no American photographer had ever achieved it. George's mind went racing, scheming and plotting as to how he might "crash" the retreat under the auspices of Dr. Kung's delegation. Moreover, because he was born an Orthodox Jew, he realized the task at hand could be, shall we say, "complicated." But he asked Dr. Kung whether he could join the foray into Hitler's private estate, and Kung (who was considerably older and more mature than my father) adjudged, perhaps rashly, that it wouldn't hurt for George to try.
What ensued was an almost comical series of events that transpired quickly on a pleasant June afternoon, high in the thickly-forested mountains of Berchtesgaden. Within a span of about ten minutes, and using a small Leica rangefinder camera with 35mm film, George captured a reported 36 exposures of Adolf Hitler, Dr. Kung, and others in their respective delegations—not least of whom was Heinrich Hoffmann, Hitler's personal photographer and the official photographer of the Third Reich.
I have in my possession prints of 32 of the 36 (the number of exposures reported in this Los Angeles Times article from July 1944). I also have a preliminary draft of a seven-page letter that my father addressed to one Sidney James, presumably of the Times, in which—not without flourishes and embellishments, it seems—he documents the entire affair. This letter, though undated, appears to have been written in 1943 or 1944. When George wrote that "I should dearly love to be the first American photographer to get in to Bechtesgaden [sic] and make pictures of Hitler under entirely different circumstances, directly after the war", he could not have foreseen the unspeakable atrocity that was uncovered by U.S. forces following Hitler's suicide, and defeat by the Allied armies, in 1945.
For this section I've published scans of all 32 photos in my possession, arranged roughly in chronological order; a scan of the above-mentioned L.A. Times article; and scans of (next column)
the entire letter drafted to Sidney James, complete with George's editorial revisions handwritten in pencil. (You can access the letter here, or by clicking the image below; use the arrows at the bottom of each page to read the entire letter.) It's worth noting that hereto- fore, Getty Images had published ten of these photos online. All ten were selectively cropped and apparently retouched for publication in LIFE Magazine in the '40s, the series of which begins here. On this website I present the original images in their entirety, most without retouching, or with very light retouching. I believe that mine is the only publication of these unedited images online. I know that George's letter has never before been published online.
It will be helpful to think of the Hitler suite as being arranged chronologically in six episodes, as follows: (1) George's arrival at the estate in Berchtesgaden, whereupon he photographs Hitler's array of jackbooted bodyguards; (2) Hitler's greeting of Dr. Kung on the patio of his estate; (3) a "conventional group photo" of the delegations, as George put it—although in retrospect the photos that resulted seem anything but conventional; (4) a more casual interlude that captures Hitler in a mostly relaxed and happy state of mind (although his body language, his tight clutching-together of hands and folding of arms, clearly reveal him to be convivial, nervous and up-tight all at once); (5) a brief altercation with Hitler's photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann, who apparently wanted George thrown out, thinking him to be cutting in on Hoffmann's turf; lastly, (6) a solo shot of Hitler, taken at the end of the session.
The suite of photos contains a most peculiar series in which Hitler is seen bowing with members of the Chinese delegation. It's not clear whether Hitler is genuflecting here, or otherwise performing some ritual with the Chinese. I am not a historian, much less a historian who specializes in the World Wars. If anyone out there can shed light as to why Hitler deigns to bow with others during this episode (or can identify prominent members of the Nazi and Chinese delegations depicted in these photos), please feel free to contact me.