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What did fake news and viral media look like during World War II?
It looked like my Uncle Johnny, a.k.a. “Baby Adolf.”
A photo and some newspaper clippings from my grandmother’s scrapbook chronicled how an innocuous family photo taken in Westport, Connecticut, ended up on the worldwide news wires and, eventually, on Hitler’s desk.
One sunny day in 1931, Harriet May Warren plunked her chubby two year-old son on a blanket outside their home for a photo shoot, out of which several adorable photos emerged.
Seven years later, having relocated to Lakewood, Ohio, Harriet was thumbing through a copy of Life magazine and saw a likeness she recognized, but which had been grotesquely altered.
Clearly, it was Johnny, but gone was his cute bonnet. In its place, a mop of matted, greasy hair, pasted to his forehead; his cherubic features made devilish and sinister by the work of a retouching artist. Kneeling in the grass with a bulldog stance and a James Cagney gangster-like set of the jaw, that baby looked like he was ready for a fight. And you’d be nuts to bet against him.
Apparently, an unknown anti-Hitler hoaxer calculated that if you want to tweak a thin-skinned fascist, one way to do it would be to spread a fake ugly baby photo of him far and wide. And it worked.
From the U.S., the photo ended up in Austria, Hitler’s native country, then was printed by a Dutch paper, which believed it was acquiring the picture from a reliable source. In the mid ‘30s the London Daily Herald scooped up the photo, and shortly thereafter, Acme syndicate distributed it widely throughout U.S. channels, including the Chicago Tribune, which featured it prominently in a long-form piece.
Hitler, who saw the photo and reacted with a “sputtering rage,” according to American news reports in 1938, ordered his minions to stamp out the rumor. The German consulate contacted the Tribune, demanding a retraction and clarification. They sent along a photo of the real baby Adolf as proof that he wasn’t nearly the little monster depicted in the article.
The Great Baby Adolf hoax had legs, though, and despite all efforts to stop the spread of the image, it continued to make the rounds through the press all over the world. Later versions of the touch-up presented an even more distorted and comical Weekly World News-style baby Adolf.
Nazi officials, seeking to wrest control of the anti-Hitler propaganda undermining his narrative during the war, published picture books showing the “softer side” of Hitler, including a volume written in Dutch for occupied Holland entitled “Want To Know the Truth?” (Sub-title: “Hitler – As They Have Shown Him to You, And as He Really Is.”) The “real” baby Adolf was featured next to the “fake” one, noting the sinister methods his enemies were using to slander him.
In an age where disinformation, distortion and outright fabrications can spread like kudzu over social media, it is quaint to picture my grandmother randomly thumbing through a magazine and discovering a retouched photo of her little boy presented literally as the face of evil. The enfant terrible of all enfant terribles. She promptly contacted Life magazine to set the record straight. The correction then made the newswires again, as half the mystery of the Baby Adolf Hoax had been solved. The forger was never identified, but that awful fake photo made the rounds once more.
I never knew my Uncle Johnny. He died, tragically, years before my mother was born, after taking a spill on his bike while riding home with a bottle of milk. The shattered glass pierced his heart. He was eight. Despite being merely a typical baseball-loving boy growing up in the Midwest, Time magazine noted his passing in the “Milestones” section of the August 1938 issue, just months after his identity as the real boy in the mythical picture was revealed.
After all, when your touched-up baby picture circles the globe and ignites the fury of the Führer, everybody wants to know your story.