Heike B. Görtemaker, Eva Braun: Life with Hitler, trans. Damion Searls(New York: Knopf, 2011), 336 pp., $27.95.
[amazon 030759582X full]IN THE small hours of the morning of April 29, 1945, as the Red Army’s guns and tanks could be heard bombarding the center of Berlin, a curious event took place in Hitler’s bunker deep under the garden of the old Reich Chancellery. Witnessed by Reich propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and the head of the Nazi Party Chancellery Martin Bormann, a local Berlin official formally conducted a ceremony of civil marriage between the German dictator Adolf Hitler and a thirty-three-year-old Bavarian woman, Eva Braun, some twenty-three years his junior. After the ceremony was over, the party was joined in Hitler’s living room by a small group of secretaries and leading Nazis for a glass of sparkling wine and, as one of those present later wrote, reminiscing “happily about the old days.”
It was a marriage solemnized in the shadow of death. Shortly before, Hitler had dictated his “political testament” to one of the secretaries in the bunker. In it he declared that since his life was now almost over, he had decided “to take as my wife the woman who, after many long years of loyal friendship, came to the already besieged city. . . . It is my wish that she go with me into death as my wife.” On the afternoon of April 30, the pair retired into Hitler’s private quarters, where Eva Hitler, as she now was, sat down on a sofa. She bit a cyanide capsule and died instantly. Hitler, wanting to make doubly certain of his own death, did the same, while simultaneously firing a bullet through his right temple. Upon hearing the noise, some of the others present in the bunker entered the room and organized the removal of the bodies to the garden, where, acting on instructions, they poured petrol over them and burned them until they were unrecognizable. The still-functioning Nazi propaganda machine issued a statement claiming Hitler had died fighting to the end. No mention was made of his new wife. She died as she had lived, invisible to all but a handful of the Führer’s intimates.
Who was Eva Braun? Why did she link her fate so inextricably to that of the German dictator? Why was her existence kept so secret for so long? Was she just a simple, apolitical, naive young woman captivated by Hitler’s charisma? Was her relationship with the dictator merely platonic? In this new book, the first serious, scholarly biography of the girl who after her death became one of the world’s best-known women, the historian Heike Görtemaker sifts thoroughly and cautiously through the available documentation to try and find an answer to these perplexing human questions.
HISTORIANS HAVE long been aware that Hitler relied on a small band of intimate friends and acquaintances to do things for him. Far from being professionally run, the Third Reich was governed by amateurs and outsiders. The role of his personal photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann, in this little coterie has, however, as Görtemaker shows, been insufficiently appreciated. Hoffmann was a Nazi almost from the very beginning, meeting Hitler before the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923 and allaying the Nazi leader’s anxieties about being photographed in unflattering situations by capturing his image in the most appealing possible way. Hoffmann’s work ensured Hitler’s picture was all over the media by the late 1920s. His photographs were always the best. He accompanied the Nazi leader virtually everywhere. Hoffmann’s home provided Hitler with something like an ersatz family retreat. These services earned him Hitler’s trust and later on brought him a large income and a good deal of power in the cultural world, including the selection of his paintings for the Great German Art Exhibition of 1937, the showcase for Nazi art. Relatively early in his career, Hoffmann was able to expand his business and hire new staff. One of these new employees was the young Eva Braun.
Born on February 6, 1912, Eva was the second of three daughters of a lower-middle-class couple, Friedrich and Franziska Braun. Their marriage was neither happy nor stable. Indeed, in 1921 they had divorced, only to remarry just over eighteen months later, as rampant inflation was beginning to destroy the incomes of so many people like themselves: three children were cheaper to support in one household than in two. After the economy stabilized in the mid-1920s, the family, helped by an inheritance, recovered sufficiently to move into a large house, employ a servant and buy a car. But the situation at home remained tense, so much so that Eva spent most of her time living with the family of a friend, whose parents she ended up calling mother and father. After a period in boarding school, she answered an advertisement placed in a local newspaper by Heinrich Hoffmann and in September 1929 joined his rapidly growing staff.
By this time Hoffmann was advertising his studio as a Nazi enterprise. Friedrich Braun was an enthusiastic supporter of his party and no doubt encouraged his daughter to apply for the job. The seventeen-year-old Eva served as a saleswoman and was trained in basic photographic techniques. Most of the studio’s business was provided by the Nazi Party, so it is not surprising, especially in view of Hoffmann’s close relationship with Hitler, that one of the first customers she came into contact with was the party leader, for whom, one day, Eva was asked to fetch some food and drink from a nearby shop. As they all sat around eating, Hitler was clearly taken with his photographer’s new assistant, even, according to a postwar book by a journalist who interviewed Braun’s surviving relatives, offering to drive her home (she was back with her parents at this time). Soon Hitler was showering her with compliments on his frequent visits to the studio and giving her little presents. So taken with her was he that he secretly had her ancestry checked out to see if she was “Aryan.” His investigators reported back: she was.
Unused to such attention, Eva Braun began to reciprocate. Soon there could be no doubt about the genuine nature of her feelings. Sensing that this would ingratiate himself still further with the Nazi leader, Hoffmann began to encourage the relationship (his later denials, as Görtemaker shows, are not credible). Within a relatively short time after their first meeting, the two had begun a sexual relationship, consummated most probably in an apartment rented by Hitler in the upmarket Munich district of Bogenhausen. Görtemaker eschews psychologizing and speculation in this rigorously scholarly book, but it seems reasonable to suppose that Eva found in the much-older Hitler a substitute for her unsatisfactory father. Beyond this, both of them came from similar social backgrounds, had comparable (somewhat rudimentary) levels of education and shared a common distance from the German social establishment of the day. Both of them, as those who knew them noted, were obsessed with personal cleanliness, maintained a tidy appearance and yet had spent much of their lives in unconventional surroundings, he in the bohemian world of prewar Munich and Vienna, she in the artistic milieu of the photographic atelier.
There can be little doubt that the relationship was a normal expression of heterosexuality on both sides. Görtemaker does not even bother to mention the wild speculations indulged in by American psychologists such as Walter C. Langer in his wartime analysis The Mind of Adolf Hitler, nor the barroom gossip purveyed by the lounge lizard Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, an intimate of Hitler in the 1920s, in the report he wrote for U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt (who called it his “bedtime reading” during the war), according to which Hitler engaged in sexual perversions of various kinds. Difficult though it may be to accept, it seems overwhelmingly probable that Hitler had a sex life that was conventional in every respect except that he kept it secret. Not everything about this most evil of men was necessarily twisted or perverted.
HITLER’S LIAISON with Eva Braun soon began to pose problems for the Nazi leader; problems that only increased as their relationship deepened. Even before he came to power, Hitler started to avoid open displays of affection. There was more than one reason for this. For some time, he had been carrying on an affair with his half sister Angela Raubal’s daughter Geli, to whom he was subletting a room on Munich’s grand Prince Regent Street. On September 18, 1931, Geli shot herself, perhaps from the guilt of her incestuous relationship with her half uncle, perhaps because of jealousy, perhaps because she could not stand Hitler’s controlling and restricting influence over her life. She did not leave a note behind, a fact that has caused some to doubt it was suicide at all. Others hinted, rather implausibly, that she had been murdered to avoid embarrassing revelations about the Nazi leader.
Whatever the truth about the affair, Hitler now decided that it was too dangerous to let his private life affect his public image, the more so since the Nazi Party was increasing rapidly in popularity and prominence. Even to intimates such as Goebbels he declared that he cared only for Germany and would never marry. Private happiness had to be sacrificed for the public good. From now on, as he said, “I am married: to the German People and their fate!” As Hitler embarked on a period of feverish political campaigning, run from Berlin rather than from Munich, there was in any case little time in which to cultivate his new relationship with Eva Braun. Distraught, either in August or November 1932 (accounts differ) she took her father’s pistol, loaded it, turned it toward her heart and pulled the trigger.Pullquote: Nazi ideology portrayed women as essentially passive, modest, simple and undemanding creatures, whose role was to adore their menfolk. Eva Braun was no such woman.Image: Essay Types: Book Review