The April 1941 edition of Kolonie und Heimat (Colony and Home) featured coverboy Erwin Rommel and a well-intended photo story about Angkor Wat, calling it “one of the most beautiful temple complexes in the world.” Photograph: Michael Scholten
Was Adolf Hitler into Angkor Wat? There’s no specific proof of that, but the Nazi propaganda press published a significant number of stories about Angkor and Indochina in the late 1930s, and even during World War II.
Browsing the newspapers in historical archives reveals examples such as the January 1939 edition of Münchner Illustrierte Presse or the April 1941 edition of Kolonie und Heimat.
While the covers celebrated dictator Adolf Hitler or Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, some of the editorial appeared less Nazi-like than expected. A double-page story, for example, praises Angkor Wat as “unique,” “not comparable to any other building,” and “one of the most beautiful temple complexes in the world”.
The Khmer were called “an efficient population of rice farmers.” Other stories presented “brave hill tribes” and their “rich culture and tradition.”
But how did these ‘rave reviews’ gel with Nazi Germany’s thoughts of master race and the superiority of German culture? Alois Schlee, a World War II historian from Wurzburg, considers the old newspaper stories about Indochina part of propaganda and wishful thinking.
He said, “Hitler wanted Germany to be a colonial superpower, playing in one league with France and Great Britain.”
In 1918 after World War I, the treaty of Versailles had forced Germany to hand over its few colonies in the Southern hemisphere to ‘superior countries’.
“Hitler wanted to reclaim these colonies and with them an international standing”, Alois Schlee said. Therefore newspaper stories with candid photos of exotic places became popular in the propaganda press.
The formerly popular magazine Kolonie und Heimat (Colony and Home) reappeared in 1937, after it had ceased publication in 1920 due to the loss of all colonies.
The Nazi party encouraged loyal scientists and adventurers to travel around the world and deliver stories from other continents.
Among them was Austrian anthropologist Hugo Adolf Bernatzik, who joined the Nazi party early and undertook extensive research in Southeast Asia from 1936 to 1937. His black-and-white photographs were among the first to show the Akha and Moi, hill people of northern Thailand, Myanmar and Lao.
Southeast Asia, as it was revealed through Bernatzik's photographs, were presented to students at University of Graz and also published in various propaganda papers.
But in one of those ironies of fate, most of Bernatzik’s belongings, including a great number of his original negatives, were destroyed by fire in Austria during World War II.