James Wyllie, Nazi Wives:
The Women at the Top of Hitler’s Germany (St Martin’s, Press)
With the proliferation of literature about seemingly every aspect of Adolph Hitler’s Nazi regime, women have hardly been overlooked. One of the leading works is Wendy Lower’s Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, a nuanced study of women who joined the Nazi cause and in surprising numbers abetted willingly and enthusiastically the Holocaust, the Nazi project to exterminate Europe’s Jews (reviewed here in 2016). But according to freelance British journalist and screenwriter James Wyllie, there has never been an in-depth study of the wives of the most notorious Nazis, a gap he seeks to fill in Nazi Wives: The Women at the Top of Hitler’s Germany. The absence of a serious study of the top Nazi wives, Wyllie contends, bolsters the claim made after World War II that they were helpless bystanders as the Nazi terror unfolded. Wyllie seeks to refute this claim. A close look at the women who married the leading Nazis also yields important insights into the nature of Nazi rule and the psychology of its leaders, he argues.
In Nazi Germany, the ideal woman was above all expected to be a child bearer, adding to the stock of the master Aryan race, while remaining compliant and subservient to her husband. Although supporting the goals and aspirations of the Third Reich, the Nazi woman was to be largely apolitical, with the serious questions of politics reserved for the men. Concentrating on six women, Wyllie aims to demonstrate how the wives of Nazi leaders adhered in varying degrees to these standards, yet used their positions near the top of the party hierarchy to involve themselves, directly or indirectly, in the Nazi project.
Wyllie profiles: Isle Hess, wife of Rudolf Hess, Adolph Hitler’s chief deputy until he flew a solo mission to Scotland in 1941 in an attempt to negotiate peace with Great Britain; Magda Goebbels, married to chief Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels; Margaret Himmler, wife of Heinrich Himmler, head of the Schutzsaffell, the SS, the German paramilitary security unit, and a chief architect and implementer of the Holocaust; Gerda Bormann, whose husband Martin served as Hitler’s private secretary; Emmy Goering, second wife of Hermann Goering, commander-in-chief of the German Air Force, the Lutwaffe; and Lina Heydrich, married to Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler’s chief deputy in the SS who shared responsibility for design and implementation of the Holocaust and served as administrator of annexed Czechoslovakia until assassinated in Prague in 1942. Also featured are Goering’s Swedish first wife Carin, perhaps the most fanatical Nazi among the women depicted in the book, who died early in her husband’s career; and Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress who became his wife 36 hours before both took their own lives in a Berlin bunker as the Red Army moved in on the shattered capital.
Wyllie has amassed an impressive amount of information about these women, arranged in rough chronological order against the backdrop of familiar events, beginning with the Nazis’ rise from obscurity to power in post-World War I Germany, through their defeat in 1945, and ending in the early post-World War II era. He goes into strikingly intimate detail: how they met their husbands, in some cases when the couple first had sex together, how their marriages functioned and malfunctioned, how they squabbled among themselves, and the children each couple reared.
The six women came from similar backgrounds. All were reasonably well educated, raised in conservative middle-class families, Catholic and Protestant. They were inculcated with what Wyllie describes as a sense of “strident patriotism” (p.10), based on a belief in the superiority of German culture, a hatred of socialism and a “fear that the unruly masses would devour them” (p.10). They came of age in the “profoundly insecure and volatile circumstances” of post-World War I Germany. “Old certainties were gone,” writes Wyllie. “The civilized conventions of their parents’ generation appeared increasingly irrelevant. Cut adrift, they each gravitated towards a self-styled savior who promised the world” (p.11).
That savior was of course Adolph Hitler, the Führer. In a study of women, Hitler is unavoidably the book’s core character. Each of the women Wyllie portrays had a different relationship to the Führer, but all were able to “enjoy their many privileges and their gilded lifestyles because Hitler allowed them to” (p.264-65). Consequently, Wyllie probes each woman’s relationship to Hitler. “Any power the top Nazi wives had was entirely dependent on his goodwill,” he asserts. “One false move was enough to ruin them; Hitler could reduce them to nothing with the wave of his hand” (p.265).
But Wyllie also probes the women’s relationship to the Nazi regime, examining their ideological side, their anti-Semitism, and the degree to which they were aware of the gruesome details of the Nazi project. After the Nazi defeat, none who survived evinced willingness to accept responsibility for the havoc and destruction their husbands had wreaked upon Germany and Europe. But these weighty questions are relegated mostly to the final chapters and seem secondary to the mundane and sometimes prurient details of the women’s personal lives.
Hitler abstained from marriage and a normal family life because he considered himself married to the German people, the reason his relationship with Eva Braun was kept under wraps and largely out of public view (long-standing readers of this blog will recall my 2013 review of two biographies of Braun). When off duty, the Führer preferred the company of women and took great interest in the top Nazi wives, an interest “bound up with his need for an extended family” (p.264). He was “more relaxed and comfortable in the company of women, as long as they openly and unconditionally adored him, didn’t discuss politics and conformed to the stereotypes he found attractive” (p.265).
When necessary, the Führer played the role of matchmaker and marriage counselor for his extended family. Hitler coaxed Deputy Führer Rudolph Hess into popping the question with an impatient Isle Pröhl. Isle had been involved with the procrastinating Hess for more than seven years, in a relationship Wyllie describes as sexless, held together primarily by the couple’s “unquestioning enthusiasm for Hitler’s poisonous ideology” (p.18). The couple married in a small civil ceremony in December 1927, with Hitler serving as a witness.
The Führer took a different route to coax Magda Quant into marriage with his chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels. Magda, “sophisticated, multilingual, well-travelled, elegant, poised, at ease in elevated company and never short of male admirers” (p.43), had been married and was divorced when she first met Joseph while working in his propaganda department. From the beginning it was a volatile relationship, in no small measure because Joseph rejected monogamy as an “outdated bourgeois convention” and “made no secret of his own insatiable sexual appetite” (p.50), yet could not abide the thought of Magda with another man.
Hitler at least fantasized about having a clandestine affair with Magda and concluded that he might enhance his seductive fantasy if she were married. Magda, no doubt infatuated with the Führer, appeared willing to enter a triangular relationship that would involve marrying the chief Nazi propagandist. We don’t learn whether Hitler’s interest in Magda ever progressed beyond fantasy, but Magda and Joseph married in 1931, with Hitler again serving as a witness.
When Joseph’s affair with a Czech actress took the couple to the cusp of divorce, the Führer intervened, bringing the couple together at his mountain retreat, the Berghof, where he made “brutally clear” (p.192) that they would have to mend their marriage and Joseph would have to stop seeing his Czech paramour; otherwise, both would lose their exalted places in the Nazi hierarchy. The couple got the message and stayed together. Their marriage produced six children, all of whom they infamously killed before themselves committing suicide in the final days of the Third Reich.
Magda Goebbels appears to have been the only one of the six Nazi wives who did not genuinely love and admire her husband. But she was hardly the only one whose marriage was tested by her husband’s extramarital affairs. Margaret Boden, a Red Cross nurse, married SS chief Heinrich Himmler, eight years younger. After having a daughter and adopting a son together, her dour husband fell in love with his twenty-six-year-old secretary, Hedwig. She and the SS chief had two children together. Although Heinrich spent most of his spare time with Hedwig and his new family, he regularly wrote tender love letters to Margaret and delivered presents to her and their children. At Christmas 1944, with the Nazi war machine in full retreat, Margaret expressed in her diary how proud she was that “all of Germany” (p.218) looked up to her husband.
Gerda Buch, daughter of Walter Buch, a high-ranking military officer in World War I who fell under Hitler’s spell in the aftermath of the war, met Hitler when she was a teenager and called him “Uncle Adolf.” From an early age, Gerda “lived and breathed Hitler’s ideology. It was second nature to her” (p.266). Through her father, Gerda met Martin Borman, who surely calculated that an “association with the daughter of such a prominent Nazi could only smooth his passage through the ranks of the party” (p.40). When the couple wed, Hitler and Hess served as witnesses.
Gerda, Wyllie’s nomination for the wife who adhered most closely to ideal Nazi feminine standards, had seven children with Martin, even while her husband pursued liaisons with multiple women during the couple’s married life and probably abused his wife physically. Gerda didn’t fight back, didn’t seek help, and didn’t confide in anyone else. She believed it was her duty to obey her husband, and “there’s every indication that she was truly devoted to Bormann” (p.96-97).
Gerda also befriended Himmler’s mistress Hedwig. That Himmler was married to another woman was in Gerda’s view the natural way men were, the “healthy expression of a man’s biological need to reproduce” (p.202). She had the same attitude toward her husband and his serial extra-marital affairs. When Martin departed from his usual habit of short stands by falling for an actress—one who had previously rejected Goebbels’ advances—Gerda was oddly unopposed to the affair. She seems to have conceived of a ménage-à-trois where the two women would produce children for Martin, thereby contributing to Germany’s efforts to increase its sagging national birthrate.
* * *
The Nazi leadership was notorious for its infighting, bureaucratic rivalries, and sharp competition for the Führer’s favor. It is thus no surprise that sharp competition also marked many of the relationships between the wives of the top leadership. The Nazi wives competed continually for the informal moniker of “First Lady” of Nazi Germany, a contest to which Wyllie returns repeatedly. Eva Braun, although recognized as the alter ego of the Führer among the women at the Berghof, was kept under wraps and never part of the competition (Braun was nevertheless often quite assertive among the women at the Berghof). Once the Nazis seized power in 1933, Magda Goebbels was the obvious candidate to assume this public role. She gave the first Nazi Mother’s Day address via national radio, and, with her husband and their children, was constantly photographed as the “perfect Nazi family” (p.75).
But the Goebbels’ marital difficulties left Magda open to competition from Emmy Goering, Herman’s second wife and an accomplished actress. While all the Nazi wives lived well during the 1930s and most of the war years, the Goerings were in a class by themselves for unabashed opulence. Their vast estate, known as “Carinhall” after the deceased Carin, dwarfed the accommodations of the other top Nazis. The couple’s lavish lifestyle attracted much public attention. For a while during the mid-1930s, Emmy and Herman became the Nazis’ “first couple” (p.80).
But if Emmy’s increasingly high profile was a “direct challenge to Magda’s status as the First Lady of the Reich” (p.75), Magda was able to hold on to her title because Hitler never warmed to Emmy. Among the top wives, she was the “least interested in Nazism” (p.267). Hitler didn’t disparage or criticize her, but he was “never relaxed around her either,” Wyllie indicates. “There was none of the intimacy or the meeting of minds that he experienced with Magda” (p.84-85).
The fiercest rivalry was between Lina Heydrich and Margaret Himmler, whose husbands forged a surprisingly close working relationship as top SS brass until Reinhard was assassinated in Prague in 1942, leaving Lina a widow. Before her husband’s death, Lina yearned to be the most influential SS wife, a position Margaret held by virtue of her husband’s lead role in the SS. Lina “couldn’t bear playing second fiddle to a woman for whom she had nothing but contempt. Lina thought Margaret was inferior to her in every way and never missed an opportunity to ruthlessly put her down” (p.113). She sabotaged Margaret’s efforts to host regular tea parties for SS wives. Margaret, less outspoken than Lina, sought to have her husband tell Lina’s husband that he should divorce Lina.
But for all the energy the two women expended sniping at one another, Wyllie describes both as “snobs” who “looked down their noses at most of humanity” (p.266). Moreover, the two women shared a fervent anti-Semitism. Margaret, visiting the Eastern Front, reacted to the “Jew trash” she saw — “most of them don’t even look like human beings” (p.169). As a young woman, Lina loathed the Polish Jews who had settled in her Baltic fishing village: “to her, they were like an alien species.” Later, when she lived on an estate outside Prague, according to one of the estate’s Jewish prisoners, she “spat at her workers, calling them ‘Jewish pig[s]’” (p.209).
* * *
All but Magda Goebbels survived the war and each found herself alone in the post war era. Along with Joseph Goebbels, Himmler and Goering took their own lives, and Bormann likely did the same. Hess remained imprisoned until his death in 1987. Although the Allies’ post-war justice system treated the women lightly, all engaged in denial and deception over their roles and those of their husbands in the Nazi project. Margaret Himmler told an American journalist she had seen press coverage about the death camps and “knew her husband would be blamed.” She told the journalist she was “just a woman” who “did not understand politics” (p.245).
Lina Heydrich wrote a book, candid and in its own way “disarmingly honest” (p.253). She was unapologetic about the ideological convictions she shared with her husband, and shameless about their racism, while downplaying her husband’s direct involvement in the Holocaust. Lina was obsessed by the idea that her husband was being treated “unfairly by posterity.” He was being judged harshly for acts he considered an “unavoidable political necessity,” as she put it. It was all too easy to condemn the “decisions of those times from today’s warm bed” (p.252), Lina wrote.
Emmy Goering wrote a spirited a defense of her husband, My Life with Goering, which avoided the issues that had marked her husband’s career. Hermann’s only crime had been loyalty to Hitler, she contended. A woman in love “thinks only of her partner’s success, and it is of little importance to her how he obtains it” (p.261). But among the top Nazi wives, Emmy came closest to expressing an iota of remorse about what the Nazis had done and the extent to which she and her husband may have been responsible.
“I often wonder now,” Emmy wrote, if we should not have been “a little more vigilant and when we saw injustices being done, if we should not have put up stronger resistance, especially to Hitler over the Jewish question” (p.261). Wyllie characterizes Emmy’s uneasiness as “willful blindness,” which was “not accidental” but rather “typical of many Germans who benefited from the regime and preferred to ignore its brutal excesses and look the other way, rationalizing their lack of resistance and passive complicity” (p.267). In an account heavy on the minutiae of the personal lives of the top Nazi wives, “willful blindness” may be the most apt common denominator tying those lives together.
Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
December 7, 2021