What Did She Know?

Heike Görtemaker, Eva Braun: Life with Hitler
and
Angela Lambert, The Lost Life of Eva Braun

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

            Goretmaker.1 Lambert

          For reasons which your psychoanalyst might best explain, public interest in the murderous Nazi regime continues to increase, with more and more books on various facets of the regime being published each year. Until recently, the life and role of Eva Braun remained one of the least known facets of Nazism. Braun was Adolph Hitler’s mistress and, for about 36 hours, his wife, having married the Nazi dictator in a Berlin bunker on April 29, 1945 as the Red Army moved in and the Third Reich crumbled. The following day, Braun, like Hitler, took her life. Within the last decade, two books seeking to fill the void on Braun have appeared: Heike Görtemaker, “Eva Braun: Life with Hitler,” translated from German by Damion Searls; and Angela Lambert, “The Lost Life of Eva Braun.”

          The central question for both authors is the degree to which Braun was complicit in Nazi crimes. The historical record is clear that she was a true believer in Adolph Hitler, the man. But was she still another true believer in the heinous causes he championed? Was she aware that the man in her life planned, then aggressively provoked, a war that plunged most of Europe into conflict? Or that the same man was pursuing a comprehensive program to eradicate Europe’s Jewish population? One view is that Braun was entirely apolitical, deliberately kept in the dark about the policies her significant other was pursuing. She obviously knew Hitler was a powerful man, but had little or no idea why; and little or no curiosity to learn about Nazi policies. Roughly stated, this is the position that Lambert adopts. Braun had “as little clue of what [Hitler] did when closeted for hours with the Nazi bigwigs or military men as does a small child who waves bye-bye to its father every morning when he leaves for work,” Lambert writes (Lambert, p.264).

          Görtemaker vigorously rejects this view. She presents a passionately-argued case that Braun was “in no way a victim” (Görtemaker, p.216), but rather understood and fully supported the Nazi vision and German war objectives. The problem for both authors is that there are no contemporary statements of Braun’s political views or how she regarded the Nazi project. Much of the historical record on this aspect of Braun comes from post-war statements of Albert Speer and other former members of Hitler’s entourage who had self-serving motives to dissemble concerning the nature of the Nazi regime and their roles in it. Both authors’ conclusions on the extent of Braun’s knowledge of Nazi atrocities must therefore rest on inference and assumption.

          The two books also offer contrasting approaches to their depiction of Braun’s life. Whereas Görtemaker focuses tightly on Braun, discussing Hitler and the Nazi environment primarily to cast light on her subject, Lambert ranges far more widely. She addresses the rise of Hitler, the conditions in Germany which brought him to power, and how the Nazi regime functioned. There is considerably more detail in Lambert’s book about everyday life in Nazi Germany, both before and during the war; and far more about the day-to-day life at Hitler’s mountain retreat, the Berghof. In conspicuous contrast to Görtemaker, Lambert also delves into the most intimate side of Braun’s relationship with Hitler, and in this sense her book is definitely the juicier of the two. Further, early in her book, Lambert reveals uncanny similarities between Braun’s life and that of Lambert’s German-born mother, Edith Schröder, born one month after Braun.  Lambert also sprinkles her narrative with generous doses of psycho-babble about the attraction between younger women and older, powerful men, along with a tiresome amount of fawning praise for Braun’s good character.

* * *

           Both writers cover the basic biographical record of Braun’s life. Braun first met Hitler in 1929, when the future Führer was 40 and Braun was 17. Braun was working in the Munich photography store of Heinrich Hoffman, then the official photographer for the upcoming National Socialist German Workers (Nazi) party. Görtemaker describes Braun as a “young woman of average abilities from a highly-conventional, lower middle-class Munich family who was noticeably lacking in any political sympathies or interest in current events at all” (G., p. 6). At 17, Lambert writes, Braun was “still very much an innocent but Hitler liked his women young, naïve and compliant, and would have regarded the twenty-three year difference as ideal” (L., p.55). Best of all, she adds, Braun was “utterly uninterested in politics” (L., p146).

          The romantic relationship between Braun and Hitler appears linked to the suicide in 1931 of Hitler’s half-niece, Geli Raubal, with whom Hitler shared an apartment in Munich. Hitler felt strong affection toward Raubal and her death seems to have had a devastating effect upon him. Lambert perceives a sexual relationship between Hitler and his half-niece – “it seems more likely than not” (L., p. 106) — whereas Görtemaker is more circumspect. But the authors agree that the Hitler-Braun relationship took a more serious turn after Raubal’s death, even though they spent much time apart, as Hitler pursued his political objectives.

          Braun herself attempted suicide in 1932, using her father’s pistol. “Although the precise details remain unknown,” Görtemaker writes, “witnesses and historians agree that Eva Braun felt abandoned and calculatedly acted to make the perpetually absent Hitler notice her, and to tie him more closely to her” (G., p.51). Lambert describes the attempted suicide as a wake up call for Hitler. Braun’s desperate act “evoked a rare sense of guilt” in the Führer: he realized he “had neglected her” (L., p.134, Lambert’s emphasis). The suicide attempt clearly indicated that by the time Hitler came to power in January 1933, “despite their unavoidable geographic separation, Eva Braun had become a lasting and crucial figure in Hitler’s life,” (G., p.55) Görtemaker concludes. Braun made a second attempt on her life in May 1935, in Munich, using an overdose of sleeping pills. This incident seems to have also been related to Hitler’s lack of attention to her.

          Through much of the Braun-Hitler relationship, Braun lived with her sister Ilse when she was not with Hitler. In 1935, Hitler provided Braun and her sister with an apartment in Munich, then a house in a posh residential section of the city. During the war, Braun shuttled between Munich, where she work in an art publishing house which Hoffman owned, and the Berghof.

          The authors agree that Hitler erected a ”wall of silence” around his relationship with Braun. Hitler wished to present himself as a celibate who transcended the sexual urges that drive ordinary men and women. Having a girl friend would have been as incongruous for the public image of the Führer as the Pope with a worldly significant other (and I’m sure that has never happened). Although Hitler encouraged marriage and high fertility rates for (non-Jewish) German women, marriage and children with Braun were out of the question. Lambert surmises that Hitler’s personal aversion to childbearing was his fear that given his family background — his “flawed and incestuous genes,” as Lambert states (L., p.85)—he and Braun might produce a child with the “stigma of mental and physical deformity,” unthinkable at a time when Hitler advocated the “use of genetic murder to create a race of perfect human beings” (L., p.125).

          To preserve the wall of silence, Hitler discouraged Braun from mixing with the other Nazi wives, most of whom were jealous of Braun and thought of her as a “silly goose” (L., p.155). He also forbade Braun from reading newspapers. When important or official guests arrived, Braun “had to leave or spend the day closeted in her room” (L., p.197). The Berghof was a “golden cage” for Braun, Lambert writes:

Hitler indulged her every whim, on condition she observed strict anonymity. She could have whatever she wanted, as long as she agreed to keep her existence secret and wore a cloak of invisibility over her fabulous clothes and perfect body. She was anonymous, a non-person (L., p.259).

          Hitler and Braun never made a joint public appearances. “[O]nly once in the twelve years after 1933 were Hitler and Eva Braun seen together in a published news photo, which in fact shows Eva Braun sitting in the second row, behind Hitler, at the Winter Olympics in February 1936 in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Nothing in the picture indicates any personal relationship between her and the dictator” (G., p.51). When Braun traveled with other members of Hitler’s inner circle and their wives, she was never “part of Hitler’s official retinue” and her name “never appeared on any list in the record, unlike the names of the wives of other high-ranking Nazi officials” (G., p.176).

          In 1934, the famous German boxer Max Schmeling noticed Braun present at a small reception Hitler held for him. Schmeling asked Hoffman, also present at the reception, about the young woman who “spoke entirely naturally and obviously very familiarly with Hitler” (G., p.90). Hoffman was at first evasive, but then told Schmeling her name and said that she was an employee of his, nothing more. Görtemaker also recounts an incident a few years later in which a young man, dazzled to be visiting the Berghof, heard Braun scolding Hitler mildly about being late for a meal. Shocked that anyone would dare to speak to the Führer in such a manner, the young man asked about Braun. He was told that he should not ask such questions, the best thing to do would be to forget that he ever saw Braun. Even the Führer has a “right to a private life,” he was told (G., p.125).

* * *

          Unlike Görtemaker, Lambert probes the intimate side of the Braun-Hitler relationship, and diverges into the sexual mores of the Nazi elite. Lambert pinpoints the moment when Braun lost her virginity and when Braun “officially” became the Fuhrer’s mistress. She speculates that Braun “must have been fun in bed, innocent and willing.” She describes Hitler’s genitalia and the erotic habits and preferences of other high-level Nazi party members. Lambert also recounts unsuccessful attempts of Hitler’s entourage to arrange a liaison between the party leader and the stunningly beautiful Magda Quant, then the girlfriend and later the wife of Nazi propagandist Josef Goebbels. Lambert explains how Hitler’s libido dwindled considerably in 1942, to the point where the Führer authorized Braun to seek a more virile man. And she also discusses how Braun’s menstrual cycles influenced her relationship with Hitler (page references available upon request; price negotiable).

          Lambert’s book has another idiosyncratic feature. Early in the book, she reveals numerous parallels between Braun’s life and that of Lambert’s German-born mother, Edith Schröder. Lambert’s mother was a northerner and a Protestant from Hamburg, whereas Braun was a good Bavarian Catholic girl from Munich. But the two women, born one month apart, came from lower middle class homes with three daughters and no sons. Each was the middle daughter, and in each family the oldest daughter’s name was Ilse. Throughout the book, Lambert shifts the focus away from Braun to Schröder, showing what her mother was doing at the same time (for those wondering, Edith fell for a better man, Lambert’s English father, than did Braun; nonetheless, Lambert is severely critical of her father in her partially autobiographical book).

          In another departure from Görtemaker, Lambert is almost fulsome in her praise for Braun, describing throughout her good character and refuting the notion that she was a “silly goose.” Braun was a “most beguiling woman” (L., p.243), “rock solid” (L., p.402), and “generous” (L.,p.155). She “had beautiful manners, looked nice, did her best to be friendly and was socially adroit” (L.,p.192). In normal times, she would have been simply a “kind, generous, considerate woman” (L., p.283). In the final, chaotic days prior to her suicide, she stood out for her “courage, buoyancy and thoughtfulness” (L.,p.410) and revealed her “character, stamina and fortitude” (L.,p.411). To the end, Lambert contends, Braun continued to “behave with grace and consideration towards everyone. . .She wasn’t heroic but she was steady” (L.,p.444).

* * *

          In addressing the two books’ central question of the extent of Braun’s knowledge of Nazi crimes, Görtemaker contends that Braun shared Hitler’s world vision and should not be absolved of complicity in his crimes. But her case is based on inference rather than concrete evidence. For instance, Görtemaker asserts that we must “assume that Hitler’s adjutants, secretaries, servants, and, not least, Eva Braun, shared without reservation the Jew-hatred of their ‘boss,’ as they called him” (G., p.180, my italics). At another point, she contends that Braun “presumably knew Hitler’s stereotypical racial views and in fact may have, like many Germans, shared them” (G. p.200, my italics).

          At another point, Görtemaker emphasizes that Braun’s life was “like most of the wives of high-ranking Nazi politicians. She led a privileged existence, with trips, expensive clothes, and occasional professional activities” in the service of the Nazi party (G., p.244). “For that reason alone,” Görtemaker contends, Braun “cannot be seen as someone with no involvement in the regime, an entirely apolitical young woman, as Albert Speer among others later claimed” (G., p.244). This seems like an entirely plausible inference, but falls short of an evidence-based conclusion. And even if Braun did identify with the general Nazi world view, Görtemaker concedes that the question whether Braun knew about the Holocaust and extermination of Europe’s Jewish population “remains finally unanswered” (p.245).

          Lambert frames the question as whether Braun was “guilty of complicity for remaining passive in the face of supreme evil, and especially guilty because of her relationship with Hitler” (L., p.324-25, Lambert’s emphasis). Answering this question requires the historian to determine not only what Braun knew but also, “had she made an effort,” what she “could have known” (L., p.325, Lambert’s emphasis). Did Braun, Lambert asks, “ever grasp that her lover initiated and master-minded twelve years of murderous violence, beginning with the euthanasia program in the 1930s; that he wanted the Jews of Europe wiped out and will every death and casualty in a war that killed tens of millions?” (p.326). Lambert acknowledges that there is “frustratingly little first-hand evidence and the truth can only be surmised” (p.325). That Braun shared Hitler’s bed “does not imply that she was well-informed about the hell and damnation enacted in the name of Führer and the Third Reich,” Lambert argues (L., p.283). “Women who love evil men need not be evil themselves” (L., p.352).

          Given the scant historical record of Braun’s actual knowledge, Lambert’s undertakes a protracted discussion of the more general question of collective war guilt, the degree to which average German citizens – especially German women, who were expected to be passive and apolitical – should be deemed responsible for the crimes committed in their nation’s name (collective German war guilt was addressed in two books reviewed here in December 2012). In the end, she concludes, any “verdict on Eva is, in microcosm, a verdict on the German people” (p.357).

          Even in the absence of concrete evidence, this does not strike me as a satisfying conclusion. Eva Braun was not just another German woman. She was not Edith Schröeder. Surely Braun must face history’s judgment in a different posture from that of fellow German citizens whose relationship to the Führer was, shall we say, less intimate. To portray Adolph Hitler’s mistress as a victim is an uphill challenge for any biographer and Lambert may be given credit for a valiant effort. But her case fell far short for me. It seems inconceivable that a woman could be in the thralls of Hitler without knowing and endorsing much if not all of what he stood for.

          Görtemaker’s imputation of knowledge to Braun, however, is not fully convincing either. Absent the discovery of an unanticipated treasure trove of new material by or about Braun, the question of her knowledge of Nazi crimes seems unlikely to be resolved. If study of the Nazi environment and mindset reveals the banality of evil, as Hannah Arendt famously wrote, Eva Braun’s life as seen in these two books was more about banality than evil.

Thomas H. Peebles
Rockville, Maryland
March 10, 2013

7 Comments

Filed under Biography, German History

7 responses to “What Did She Know?

  1. Dear Dad,
    Very interesting to talk about Braun, but as you stated, it does seem to take focus away from the bigger evil. It doesn’t sound like she was treated very well, having to hide all time and keep their relationship secret…
    I agree with you, she must have have shared Hitler’s ideals, and cannot be considered a victim. From what you wrote, I think Lambert’s book would make me very mad, it sounds like she infantilized Braun: she didn’t care about politics, she just loved her partner and was willing to go through any horrible kind of treatment just because she loved him (living a life in hiding…) with little reflexive qualities as to what was going on.

    • Chanh X. Nguyen

      I agree with Chloe. Eva Braun’s case reminds me of women who had consorted with German soldiers in occupied France, Belgium or Norway and had their heads shaved as a retribution when the war ended.

  2. Chloe, the irony is that Lambert thought she was describing the “real” Eva Braun, that histosrians had accepted the view of her previously as sort of a non-entity. Chanh, I have read a couple of books recently that treat the issue of women who consorted with German soliders in occupied countries, having their heads shaved and other humiliation. I will write something on this issue sometime soon. Stay tuned!

    • Chanh X. Nguyen

      Her liaison cost Eva Braun her life. The women’s only cost them their hair and the loss was temporary. But comparison, of course, is no reason.
      Thank you, Tom, I am all ears!

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