Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels was cheerful and without a care when he first met photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt. In a close-up image, the Third Reich politician was caught off guard smiling at the League of Nations meeting in Geneva in September 1933. But when Goebbels found out LIFE magazine photographer Eisenstaedt was Jewish his expression was quite different.
Subsequently, when Eisenstaedt approached Goebbels for a candid portrait, the politician’s expression was very, very different. Instead of smiling, he scowled for the camera, and the famous photo that resulted shows the man wearing “eyes of hate”. His tense posture transmits an almost palpable enmity.
In the 1985 book, “Eisenstaedt on Eisenstaedt: A Self-Portrait”, the then-87-year-old photographer discussed how the Goebbels picture came about:
I found him sitting alone at a folding table on the lawn of the hotel. I photographed him from a distance without him being aware of it. As documentary reportage, the picture may have some value: it suggests his aloofness. Later I found him at the same table surrounded by aides and bodyguards. Goebbels seemed so small, while his bodyguards were huge. I walked up close and photographed Goebbels. It was horrible.
He looked up at me with an expression full of hate. The result, however, was a much stronger photograph. There is no substitute for close personal contact and involvement with a subject, no matter how unpleasant it may be. He looked at me with hateful eyes and waited for me to wither. But I didn’t wither. If I have a camera in my hand, I don’t know fear.
But how did Goebbels found out that the photographer was Jewish? No one knows for sure but maybe the surname is what gave it away and Eisenstädt is a distinctly Jewish surname. It’s entirely possible that Goebbels was told his name and drew the easy conclusion that he was Jewish or at least of Jewish heritage.
A quote from Joseph Goebbels’s diary showing his hatred toward Jews: “The Jews are now being deported to the east. A fairly barbaric procedure, not to be described in any greater detail, is being used here, and not much more remains of the Jews themselves. In general, it can probably be established that 60 percent of them must be liquidated, while only 40 percent can be put to work […] A judgment is being carried out on the Jews which is barbaric, but fully deserved”.
(Photo credit: Alfred Eisenstaedt).