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.
But Eva Braun’s aim was poor. Whether by accident or design, the bullet missed all her vital organs and was easily removed in hospital, where Hitler, alarmed, visited her shortly thereafter. Hitler told Hoffmann that he “must look after her” from now on; a second suicide scandal might ruin him. He now realized “that the girl really loved him.” Hitler made no mention of his own feelings. But from that moment, his relationship with Eva became a fixed and significant part of his life. If her suicide attempt had been a cry for help, then it had succeeded. But she knew the rules by which the affair had to be conducted. It must remain under wraps. Not even on private occasions could any gestures of affection between the two be allowed if others were present. Marriage was out of the question. The public role of “first lady of the Third Reich” was left to be fought for between the fanatical Nazi Magda Goebbels, wife of the propaganda minister, the actress Emmy Göring, second wife of the Reich’s “second man” Hermann Göring, and Ilse Hess, a committed Nazi of the first hour, married to Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess.
Braun’s personal correspondence with Hitler was destroyed on his orders just before the end of the war, but a fragmentary—though clearly authentic—diary from 1935 survives, in which Eva wrote of her dismay when Hitler left suddenly for Berlin “without saying goodbye” after spending “two marvelously beautiful hours” with her up to midnight the previous day. During the following weeks, in which Hitler was preoccupied with major political issues, from the Saarland plebiscite to the introduction of conscription, “love seems not to be on his agenda at the moment,” she wrote. At a reception in a Munich hotel, her expectation of a “kind word” or “greeting” from him was disappointed, and as he parted, he merely gave her “an envelope with some money inside as he had already done once before.” Worse still, Hitler was now seen at social events in Berlin in the company of a young and beautiful aristocratic woman, Sigrid von Laffert.
Faced with such seeming indifference to her, Eva resorted for a second time to a suicide attempt, on this occasion with an overdose of sleeping pills, that would really “make ‘dead sure,’” as she noted in the diary. In fact, she survived. But the tactic succeeded. She moved out of her parents’ house into an apartment five minutes away from Hitler’s own, in Munich, together with her sister and a domestic servant. The rent was paid by Hitler, using Hoffmann as an intermediary. A few weeks later, she was allowed to appear at the Nazi Party Rally in Nuremberg, and sat on the podium, much to the disgust of the leading ladies in the party hierarchy, who up to this point had been unaware of her existence. Shortly afterward, Hitler’s half sister left his country retreat the Berghof, in the Bavarian Alps, after seven years in charge of its daily management—that is, once she had made clear her dislike for her young rival, Eva Braun. It was obvious that Hitler would brook no criticism of the woman who had now become his permanent companion.
If Eva was seen with Hitler in public, at visits to the opera, or on sporting or social occasions, then she had to be in the background. But she now traveled with Hitler often, even accompanying him on trips abroad, in the guise of a “private secretary” or a member of Hoffmann’s staff. Eventually she was provided with an apartment in the old Reich Chancellery in Berlin so that she could be with Hitler when he was in the capital. And behind the scenes, she slowly began to assert herself, above all at the Berghof, where she now lived for most of the time. Here Hitler came to relax and to resume the bohemian lifestyle he had enjoyed in the 1920s. While the establishment was run by Hitler’s unobtrusively efficient factotum Martin Bormann, it was Eva Braun who established herself in the next few years as the hostess who orchestrated the retreat’s social events and came to be recognized, willingly or otherwise, by Hitler’s circle of intimates as the mistress of the household. Bormann was careful to maintain good relations with her, ensured she had whatever she needed, including money, and carefully made arrangements to conceal her existence from the general public.
Of course, since the fact that Hitler had a long-term mistress was known to the senior figures in the regime, observant journalists could find out about it as well—if they so wished. For German reporters it was too dangerous. But Eva Braun’s role did not escape the attention of some perceptive foreign reporters. Thus, for example, on May 15, 1939, in the true style of the gossip columns of the day, Time magazine ran a story under the headline “Spring in the Axis,” writing that a young, blonde woman called Eva Braun had been supplied with an apartment by her “old friend in Berlin who always comes to see her when he is in town.” “To her friends,” the article wrongly reported, “Eva Braun confided that she expected her friend to marry her within a year.” The following December, indeed, America’s Saturday Evening Post ran a piece: “Is Hitler Married?” The German journalist Bella Fromm, who had fled her homeland for the United States in 1938, seems to have picked up gossip that led her to identify Braun as Hitler’s mistress as well; Fromm included it in her diary publication Blood and Banquets in London in 1942, noting that Hoffmann’s former assistant “Eva Helene Braun” seemed to have captured the Führer’s heart. The Nazi censors, however, saw to it that such reports never reached the German-reading public.
WHILE HITLER might have thought it necessary to keep the relationship quiet before he came to power in 1933, once he had established his dictatorship he could in effect do anything he wanted. Why then did the couple neither marry nor have children? In public, Hitler went out of his way to demonstrate his kindness to children, as to animals, and the offspring of intimates such as his architect and munitions supremo Albert Speer were always a welcome presence at the Berghof. Moreover, Nazi ideology emphasized the importance of “Aryan” women such as Eva Braun marrying and having children for the Reich. Leading Nazis, such as Goebbels with his six children, or Bormann with an impressive ten, duly obliged. Eva Braun had photos taken of her and Hitler sitting on a sofa together with the young children of her friend Herta Schneider and kept them in a special album, signifying her dream of having children with him after the war, in a parallel fantasy world to that conjured up by Hitler as he inspected models of the monstrous cityscapes he planned for Berlin or Linz once peace came. Hitler in turn allowed her to photograph him with children, not only because she sold the pictures to Hoffmann for propaganda use, but also because, Görtemaker suggests, he knew that these images allowed her to dream of the family life she was unable to have with him.
Hitler indeed deliberately avoided commitment to family life because he wished to project himself as an ostensibly lonely figure to whom all others had to defer, a man who stood above the social norms of the Third Reich. His model here was Karl Lueger, the popular, anti-Semitic mayor of Vienna, where Hitler had lived before the First World War, who had refused to marry his partner because, as he had said, he needed “the women” in order to “achieve anything” politically. “Lots of women,” Hitler later declared, “are attracted to me because I am unmarried.”
The Third Reich was what has been called a “plebiscitary dictatorship.” Hitler repeatedly needed to demonstrate, not least to international opinion, the mass support his regime and its policies enjoyed; hence the lengths to which he went to manufacture majorities of 99 percent in elections and referendums. Women voters—the majority, given the mass slaughter of German men in the First World War—were an important source of electoral support for Hitler both before and after he came to power. And women, too, were vital in his view as supporters of the war effort, keeping their men committed to the cause and ensuring that soldiers had no reason to worry about their families on the home front. Marrying would, he said privately in 1942, create “legal rights! So it’s much more proper to have a lover. The burden drops away and everything remains a gift.” Aware of these views, Eva was careful not to use her position to try to influence Hitler in personal or political matters; while Hitler reacted allergically to any attempts by others to gain influence over him through her. When Hermann Göring lost power after the beginning of the war, he tried to regain it by encouraging his wife to become a personal friend of Eva’s; Hitler brusquely put a stop to the maneuver.
Nazi ideology portrayed women as essentially passive, modest, simple and undemanding creatures, whose role was to adore their menfolk. Braun was no such woman. As her failed suicide attempts showed, she was prepared to go to some lengths to get what she wanted. Her position at the Berghof, in which she asserted her dominance over the much-older would-be first ladies of the Reich, testified to her strength of personality. During the war, visitors noted how she became more self-confident, signaling to Hitler to shut up when he had launched into one of his interminable after-dinner monologues, or asking loudly what the time was when he showed no sign of retiring for the night. Still only in her twenties, she had become a figure to be reckoned with in Hitler’s inner circle.
Eva failed to conform to the Nazi ideal of womanhood in other ways too. A visitor to whom she was presented as the “housekeeper” at the Berghof reported disapprovingly that Braun changed her dress several times a day. She did not, he noted severely, conform to the “ideal of a German girl,” who was supposed to be “natural” in appearance. She bleached her hair and always wore makeup (Elizabeth Arden was her preferred brand). Moreover, as soon as Hitler left his Bavarian retreat, her mien changed—she smoked cigarettes (not only did Hitler himself not smoke, he also banned smoking around him), devised amusements for her friends, watched foreign movies, held parties, did gymnastics in a swimsuit, sunbathed in the nude and generally let her hair down.
Women were discouraged from pursuing professional work in Nazi Germany, but Hitler recognized Eva’s claim to be a professional photographer—she not only took numerous, often very good photos but also developed and printed them herself—by calling her the “Rolleiflex girl.” One of the few gaps in this otherwise comprehensive study is Görtemaker’s failure to discuss the extensive home movies Braun filmed at the Berghof; these are a significant source for our knowledge of the Third Reich leaders and their relations with one another. Braun’s color film of Hitler and his entourage is of rare immediacy, somehow, to the twenty-first-century eye, far more real than film shot in black and white. Some of it has been subjected to automated lip-reading technology, and in one particularly creepy moment, Hitler, while being filmed by Braun, begins to flirt with the woman behind the camera, giving those who view it the uncomfortable feeling that Hitler is flirting with them.
FOR ALL Eva’s self-assertion, most of the men in Hitler’s entourage who knew her portrayed her as an unassuming little thing, unaware of the big, wide world outside. Much of what is known about her comes from postwar reminiscences, notably those published by Albert Speer. Görtemaker shows once more how unreliable Speer’s self-serving recollections were, like those of many others who knew Hitler’s eventual wife. It was, after all, in their interest to suggest that she was naive and nonpolitical, that life in the place where she spent most of her time, in Hitler’s mountain retreat on the Bavarian Obersalzberg, was idyllically removed from the stresses and strains of political and military affairs, that neither she nor they discussed or knew about the persecution and mass murder of Europe’s Jews, or the extermination of other groups, from Soviet prisoners of war to Germany’s mentally handicapped.
Yet Hitler’s inner circle, including Eva Braun, did not live exclusively at the Berghof, cut off from the events that took place in the great cities such as Munich and Berlin where they also spent much of their time. They witnessed the nationwide pogrom of November 9–10, 1938, when thousands of Jewish-owned shops were trashed by mobs of Nazi storm troopers, hundreds of synagogues set ablaze, and thirty thousand Jewish men publicly rounded up, abused, maltreated and sent off to concentration camps. They saw the signs put up on the roads leading to villages around the Obersalzberg announcing that Jews were “not wanted” in the locality. They read the newspapers, they saw the notices in town banning Jews from local amenities such as municipal libraries and swimming pools.
Though Eva left few concrete indications of her political views, some can be found in her photograph album, which included snaps of Hitler and his entourage during the tense period leading up to the outbreak of war, which she accompanied with typed captions such as: “Poland still does not want to negotiate”; or: “The Führer hears the report over the radio.” If Hitler listened to radio reports, then so too did she. There can be little doubt that Eva Braun closely followed the major events of the war, nor that she felt her fate was bound inextricably to that of her companion from the outset. “If something happens to him,” she said, as she listened in the press gallery, weeping, to Hitler’s declaration in the Reichstag on the outbreak of war that he would only take off the soldier’s uniform he now wore “after our victory, or not live through its end,” “I’ll die too.”
The war changed the relationship. Hitler spent increasing amounts of time in Berlin or, after the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, at his field headquarters behind the Eastern Front. It is reasonable to suppose he told her where he was going before he launched the invasion, and why he was going to spend so much time there. Certainly he told his young secretaries, giving the lie to the later claim that he never talked politics to women. Hitler’s visits to the Berghof were now less frequent, though when the military situation allowed it, they could last for weeks or even months at a time. The atmosphere grew more depressed as the German armies suffered the disastrous defeat of Stalingrad at the beginning of 1943, and Allied bombers began to devastate German cities, including Munich, not long afterward. As Hitler increasingly withdrew from public view, Eva’s role grew more significant, and on June 25, 1943, Propaganda Minister Goebbels, whose voluminous diaries were by now intended primarily for postwar publication, began to mention her for the first time, and in sycophantically warm and admiring terms, in their pages.
Hitler’s stay at the Berghof from February to July 1944 was his last. He left only when rumors of an impending assassination attempt drew him back to Berlin. Before leaving, he made arrangements with Eva for the eventuality of his death; her response, he told Goebbels, was once more to tell him that if he died, she would kill herself. Given the fact that she had already tried to do this twice so was no stranger to the idea, and knowing that her enemies, who by now included the increasingly power-hungry Bormann, would drive her out if Hitler were no longer around, this was perhaps not so surprising. But it also clearly reflected genuine emotional identification. When the assassination attempt came on July 20, 1944, with Colonel von Stauffenberg’s bomb in Hitler’s field headquarters, Eva repeatedly tried to reach Hitler by phone in the ensuing hours of uncertainty, telling him when she eventually did get through: “I love you, may God protect you!”
In October 1944 Eva made her last will and testament, alarmed by reports of Hitler’s increasingly frail health. Leaving everything to her family and friends, the will once more made it implicitly clear that if Hitler died, from whatever cause, she would perish too. In November, as Hitler moved back to Berlin, Eva joined him in the apartment in the old Reich Chancellery, later, when constant bombardment from enemy planes and guns made life above ground too dangerous, relocating to the underground bunker where they were to end their lives.
Here she gave her full support to Hitler’s fanatical determination to fight to the end, hoping for victory in the face of overwhelming evidence that total defeat was only weeks away. When Hitler had his doctor, Karl Brandt, arrested and condemned to death for daring to send him a report detailing the catastrophic situation of medical services in the Reich, Eva stood by him, despite her previous friendship with Brandt, describing the physician’s conduct as mad and disgraceful. (Brandt managed to evade his fate in the chaos of the final weeks, only to be executed by the Allies after the war for medical crimes.)
After a brief farewell visit to her family in Munich, she returned to the bunker on March 7, 1945, a few weeks later writing to a friend that she was “happy to be near him.” She rejected all attempts to get her to persuade Hitler to leave Berlin. She not only kept up appearances herself but also insisted Hitler do so too, encouraging him to believe that the situation could still be turned around, or at least to behave as if it could. By projecting this image of undiminished will to fight on, she contributed to hundreds of thousands of deaths in the last weeks of the war.
Even if she sometimes became impatient with them, Eva Braun listened to many of Hitler’s political monologues, large numbers of which Bormann had noted down for posterity, and as his fervent admirer, with the barely formed views of a teenager, she no doubt accepted without question his racism, his anti-Semitism, his murderous hatred of his opponents, his megalomaniac belief in Germany’s mission to rule the world. Many of Hitler’s friends and associates whose education and maturity were well above her level accepted these things too. Heike Görtemaker’s meticulously researched biography disposes once and for all Hitler’s associates’ later, and often self-serving, claims that his private life, including his relationship with his companion, was entirely shut off from the larger world of Nazi politics and ideology. Thus it makes a major contribution to our understanding of the intimate world of the dictator and his entourage, and beyond this, to our judgment, both in general and in innumerable matters of detail, of the many postwar reminiscences in which they sought to justify themselves.
IF HITLER emerges from this story as a man with normal human desires for domestic bliss and sexual fulfillment, does this make him seem less evil? Do we somehow need to believe that people who commit evil deeds are evil in every respect of their lives? Is it somehow more comforting for us to think that a man who deliberately causes millions of innocent people to die, often in the most horrible circumstances, is in some way not really human?
One of the familiar clichés of writing about Nazism is the concentration-camp commandant who plays Bach on the violin when he gets home from a day’s murder and listens to Mozart on the gramophone for relaxation. Such dichotomies were present in Hitler’s life too. Most biographers of Hitler have written him off as a man without a real human character, a kind of black hole at the center of Nazism, cut off from normal human emotion by his violent and alienating upbringing, incapable in adulthood of any true feelings except hatred and ambition. Eva Braun: Life with Hitler shows that this is too simple a view to take; and for that reason it is deeply troubling to read. For if a man like Hitler was capable of ordinary human love for another person, then what power does love possess?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