Tag Archives: Third Reich

The Man Himself, Far From Banal

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Bettina Stangeth, Eichmann Before Jerusalem:
The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer,
Translated by Ruth Martin

      Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann is sometimes euphemistically described as a “transportation specialist.” During much of Hitler’s Third Reich, Eichmann, born in 1906, held the official title of “Advisor for Jewish Affairs” and in that capacity facilitated and managed the logistics required to move Jews to Nazi death camps.  He was famously kidnapped by Israeli security forces in 1960 in Argentina and taken to Israel to face trial on genocide charges.  Found guilty, Eichmann was executed in Jerusalem 1962.  His trial is often credited with refocusing world opinion on the horrors of the Holocaust, after years in which there seemed to be little interest in revisiting the details of Nazi Germany’s project to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population.  In Eichmann Before Jerusalem, The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer, Bettina Stangeth explores Eichmann’s years in Argentina, after World War II and his escape from Germany with help from the Vatican and the Red Cross, up to his capture in 1960.  Stangeth, an independent writer and historian from Hamburg, Germany, does not address Eichmann’s life prior to the Third Reich, which includes his youth and upbringing in Linz, Austria, not far from where Hitler was born, and his early adult years prior to joining and rising in Hitler’s National Socialist party.

      Stangeth’s title alludes to Hannah Arendt’s famous analysis of the Eichmann trial, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, first published in book form in 1963.  In her seminal work, Arendt portrayed Eichmann as neither a fanatic nor a pathological killer, but rather a stunningly mediocre individual, motivated more by professional ambition than by ideology. Arendt’s analysis also gained notoriety for its emphasis upon Jewish leaders’ complicity in the Holocaust.  One of Stangeth’s purposes is to free Eichmann from Arendt’s provocative portrait, based on extensive additional material on Eichmann that was unavailable to Arendt when she wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem, a time when “Holocaust research was in its infancy” (p.xxiii). “One cannot help but feel that the story of the trial has stopped being about Eichmann,” Stangeth writes, and that today we would “rather talk about the debate and various theories of evil [which Arendt’s work engendered] than try to discover more about the man himself” (p.xxiii-xiv).

     Stangeth intends for her readers to discover much more about the man himself.  She makes comprehensive use of the broader Eichmann record now available, several thousand pages of “manuscripts, transcribed statements, letters, personal dossiers, ideological tracts, individual jottings, and thousand of marginal notes on documents” (p.381).  From this record, Stangeth reveals an Eichmann with an unrestrained propensity for self-promotion and what she terms a “talent for self-dramatization” (p.xvi), a complex and perversely talented bureaucrat who wrote prolifically.  Stangeth’s Eichmann is also more ideological and more explicitly anti-Semitic than Arendt had allowed, a man with a frighteningly precise grasp upon how his work fit into the larger picture of the Nazi extermination project.  The man himself in Stangeth’s account is far from banal.

      Eichmann made the revelations about himself and the Nazi project in 1957 and 1958 in recorded and transcribed group sessions organized by Willem Sassen, a Nazi collaborator from the Netherlands who also found refuge after World War II in Argentina, where he became a well-known journalist and led a group of unrepentant anti-Semitic Nazis.  Sassen sought to develop a project that rehabilitated Nazi Germany in the world’s eyes, primarily by debunking as “international propaganda” – by which Sassen and his colleagues meant “Jewish propaganda” – the notion that the Nazi regime had exterminated six million Jews and other undesirables.  Unfortunately for Sassen, he invited Eichmann to participate in the project.  Rather than exposing the six million figure as a desperate lie, Eichmann provided the group with the facts, figures and specificity that left no doubt that Hitler’s project to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population had reached the scale imputed to the Nazi regime.  Eichmann’s contribution to the Sassen group constitutes the core of Stangeth’s story of his Argentina years.

      Stangeth tells this story from the perspective of an historian seeking to summarize and interpret the transcripts of the Sassen interviews and Eichmann’s writings from Argentina and his final two years in captivity in Israel.  She emphasizes that she is interested in presenting all the recently available sources on Eichmann, “in detail for the first time, and the route they have taken through history, in the hope that it will enable further research and prompt more questions” about Eichmann (p.xxiv).  She focuses especially upon “what people thought of [Eichmann] and when; and how he reacted to what they thought and said” (p.xvii).  Herein lies both the book’s greatest strength and its most formidable obstacle for general readers.

      Strangeth pursues the historian’s perspective with an intensity and comprehensiveness that will appeal to scholars interested in amplifying or building upon her portrait of Eichmann.  But this perspective is likely to discourage most general readers.  There is far more deliberation here than the general reader needs about how to evaluate the copious Eichmann record.  The result is a ponderous narrative that makes for slow reading.  At one point, Stangeth surmises that her readers may have “lost sight of the bigger picture amid all these names and connections” (p.130), and I had this sense often throughout her otherwise invaluable, groundbreaking work.

* * *

      Stangeth begins with basic background facts on Eichmann’s role in Hitler’s Third Reich.  Contrary to the impression Arendt left in her analysis, Eichmann was well-known during the Third Reich’s heyday.  From 1938, he was the “face of Hitler’s anti-Jewish policy” (p.9-10), involved with the “leading experiments” which can now be seen as “prototypes” for genocidal practices that “later became standard” (p.27).  At the notorious 1942 Wannasee Conference, generally acknowledged to be the place and time where Hitler’s subordinates drew up their “Final Solution” to Europe’s “Jewish problem,” Reinhard Heydrich, chairman of the conference, “officially enthroned Eichmann as the coordinator of all interministerial efforts toward the ‘final solution of the Jewish question.’ It was the next step for his career.  A lunatic project like this required someone who had experience in unconventional solutions, someone who wouldn’t get caught up in the usual bureaucratic formalities” (p.27).

     In 1950, Eichmann fled to Argentina with the help of a “chain of German helpers, Argentine public officials, Austrian border guards, Italian records offices, the Red Cross, men from Vatican circles, and influential shipping magnates” (p.79). Like many other Nazis going into exile:

Eichmann used a system supported by a number of different parties, not least the professional people smugglers employed by the Argentine president Juan Domingo Perón.  Argentina had an interest in German professionals who could help to drive forward the transformation of an agrarian country into an industrialized nation, and assisting their escape seemed like a solid investment . . . Argentina was not the only country trying to convince well-educated men to emigrate, but it was one of the few that also provided this opportunity to criminals like Eichmann (p.88).

      In 1953, Eichmann moved his family from rural Argentina to Buenos Aires, where he went to work for a newly formed company that was a “Perón-sponsored cover organization for Third Reich technocrats, which existed mainly thanks to a large government contract for developing hydroelectric plants,” with Eichmann’s work a “kind of occupational therapy for those who had recently arrived, only very few of whom were qualified for their jobs” (p.106).  In the Argentine exile community, Eichmann had a reputation for being the “only surviving Nazi with any reliable information on the scale of the Holocaust, and on how the extermination process had worked, which made him increasingly sought after” (p.160).

      It thus did not take long for Eichmann to meet Nazi collaborator and journalist Willem Sassen, who gathered a group of Nazis at his home on Sundays for recorded sessions intended to establish the raw material for his Nazi rehabilitation project. Prior to Eichmann’s arrival, all the participants in the group had “clearly been so convinced that the systematic mass murder of the Jews was a propaganda lie that they really expected that a closer inspection would only confirm their view.  Sassen figured that if ‘the Jews’ were forced to provide lists of names, to prove exactly who had been killed, then it would emerge that the dead would be only a tiny proportion” (p.299) of the six million figure.  But Sassen and his colleagues “hadn’t reckoned with anything like the major insight they received into the National Socialists’ extermination operation. Adolf Eichmann confronted them with the magnitude and, above all, the face of the horror” (p.277).

    Eichmann demonstrated in the group’s recorded sessions that he had an unusual ability to recall facts and especially figures, revealing with unassailable specificity the “monstrous scale of this German crime and the immeasurable suffering of the people who had fallen victim to the German mania” (p.145). In a “discussion group with a tape recorder in the room,” Eichmann provided a “monstrous confession” (p.306) that mass murder and gas chambers “had happened, they were part of German history, and Nationalist Socialists like Eichmann had played a decisive role in creating them, out of their dedication to the cause” (p.308-09).  The “striking accuracy” of Eichmann’s figures on the number of people who fell victim to the Nazis’ murder operations, Stangeth contends, “shows how well informed Eichmann was about the scale of the genocide and how deceitful were his later attempts, in both Argentina and Israel, to feign ignorance” (p.301-02).  Whether he was in the Third Reich, Argentina, or Israel, Eichmann “gave detailed and well-informed accounts of the murder of millions.  He simply adjusted the account of his own role, and his attitude toward the murders, to his changing circumstances” (p.382).

     In his taped interviews for the Sassen project, Eichmann further demonstrated his unrestrained capacity for self-promotion and a “pronounced need for recognition” (p.367).  Although Eichmann could have been a silent, conscientious servant of the German Reich, attracting no attention, that “wouldn’t have been enough for him: he wanted to be a man of importance” (p.125). He worried about his reputation and how he would be perceived by history. He liked to drop names of the high level Nazis to whom he had had access, especially Henrich Himmler, his direct boss during his most productive years working for the Nazi death machine.

     The Eichmann contributing to Sassen’s project was also both more ideological and more anti-Semitic than in Arendt’s account.  Stangeth emphatically rejects as “insupportable” Arendt’s focus upon Eichmann’s “inability to speak” and his “inability to think” (p.268).  What Eichmann told the Sassen group in Argentina was not “thoughtless drivel but consistent speech based on a complete system of thought” (p.268), Stangeth argues.  Throughout the Sassen interviews, Eichmann assumed as axiomatic that “the Jews” – a diabolical, monolithic force in the world, by then represented by the State of Israel— remained the implacable foe of Germany, bent upon its destruction.  For Eichmann, therefore, “ideology was not a pastime or a theoretical superfluity but the fundamental authorization for his actions” (p.221).

      Eichmann “completely rejected traditional ideas of morality,” in favor of the “no-holds barred struggle for survival that nature demanded.”  He “identified entirely with a way of thinking that said any form of contemplation without clear reference to blood and soil was outdated and, most of all, dangerous . . . The very idea of a common understanding among all people was a betrayal” (p.218).  Eichmann’s only criticism of the National Socialist project was that “we could and should have done more” (p.306).  Eichmann was a National Socialist and “for that reason,” Stangeth argues with emphasis,  a “dedicated mass murderer” (p.307).

     Stangeth devotes minimal space to Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem and his execution in May 1962 (Deborah Lipset’s incisive analysis of the proceedings, The Eichmann Trial, was reviewed here in October 2013).  She finishes with a section entitled “Aftermath,” which traces the paper trail of the Sassen transcripts and Eichmann’s own writings in Argentina and Israel up to the present day.  Now, she concludes, scholars need to “put Eichmann where he belongs, rather than be struck dumb by his torrent of words.”  The “curse of a man who was desperate to write and to explain himself is that this urge has put others in a position to read his every word, more thoroughly than he could ever have imagined” (p.422).

* * *

      With her probing dissection of the extensive written now record available, Stangeth’s Eichmann seems likely to supplant that of Arendt as the accepted consensual version of the man himself.  Eichmann Before Jerusalem therefore represents a momentous contribution to our understanding of the enigmatic mass murderer whom Hannah Arendt introduced to the reading public a full half-century earlier.  But readers will need patience and persistence in teasing out Stangeth’s Eichmann.  In her quest for a comprehensive evaluation of the written record, Stangeth allows too many trees to obscure her forest.  My sense is that a book about half this length would have sufficed for general readers interested in learning the basics about Eichmann’s Argentina years.

Thomas H. Peebles
La Châtaigneraie, France
March 17, 2016

3 Comments

Filed under Biography, European History, German History, History, World History

More Alike Than Different

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Wendy Lower, Hitler’s Furies:
German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields 

       In Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, Wendy Lower, a professor of history at California’s Claremont McKenna College, highlights the roles that women played in Adolph Hitler’s Third Reich and the Holocaust. To date, Lower contends, these roles have been largely “suppressed, overlooked, and under-researched” (p.4). Nearly all histories of the Holocaust, Hitler’s project to exterminate Europe’s Jewish population, leave out half the population of Germany during the Third Reich, “as if women’s history happens somewhere else,” resulting in an “illogical approach and puzzling omission” (p.14). But the Holocaust, she writes, “could not have been accomplished if a sense of duty had not prevailed over the sense of morality. In favoring perceived duty over morality, men and women were more alike than different” (p.111).

     Lower’s exhaustively researched and lucidly written study revolves around thirteen women who participated actively in the Holocaust. She seeks to demonstrate that their experiences were typical of a vast number of women drawn into the Nazi regime.  Lower provides short autobiographical sketches of the thirteen women and returns to their stories at different points throughout the book. But the full historical record of women’s precise roles in Nazi atrocities is scant, consisting of original wartime documentation, such as marriage applications, personnel records, and Nazi party reports, “devoid of personality or motive,” supplemented by more revealing postwar “self-representations” of women contained in testimonies, letters, memoirs and interviews (p.12). This thin historical record precludes Lower from bringing her thirteen women to life in the way that Eric Lichtblau does in his study of Nazi activists who sought refuge in the United States, The Nazis Next Door, reviewed here in October 2015. Nonetheless, Lower makes a strong case that the experiences of the thirteen women should not be dismissed as anecdotal or aberrational.

     In Lower’s analysis, women were frequently witnesses and accomplices to Nazi atrocities. Less frequently, but not insignificantly, they were themselves perpetrators who “killed Jews and other ‘enemies’ of the Reich, more than had been documented during the war or prosecuted afterward” (p.4). The Nazi ideology did not exhort German women to be killers; that function was, officially if nonetheless implicitly, reserved for German men. Women were above all expected to be fertile, the bearer of “racially pure” Aryan children to serve the Third Reich in the future. In Hitler’s Germany, the “female badge of honor was the pregnant belly” (p.116). Although the Nazi regime “trained thousands of women to be accomplices, to be heartless in their dealings with the enemies of the Reich,” the regime “did not aim to develop cadres of female killers . . . [I]t was not expected that women would be especially violent or would kill. Those who did kill exploited the ‘opportunity’ to do so within a fertile sociopolitical setting, with the expectation of rewards and affirmation, not ostracism” (p.52).

       This opportunity arose most frequently on Germany’s Eastern Front, Poland and the Western Soviet Union, especially Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic republics.  Lower describes the Eastern Front as a “European stage where Hitler and his supporters fulfilled their imperial fantasies,” a space for the Nazis to “carry out criminal policies with impunity” (p.125). She estimates that approximately 500,000 women were assigned to the Eastern Front or volunteered to go, seeking to “fulfill their ambitions and the regime’s expectations, to experience something new, and to further the Nazi cause” (p.85). Of the thirteen women Lower studies, most did not begin their war experiences with the fierce hatred for Jews that underlay Nazi ideology. But their experiences on the Eastern Front “proved transformative. It was in the eastern territories that Nazi anti-Semitism found its fullest and most profound development” (p.163).

* * *

        The thirteen women in Lower’s study came from different parts of Germany and, in two cases, from Austria. They were from middle and working class backgrounds, and from urban and rural areas. They were Catholic and Protestant, with and without university level education. All were “ambitious and patriotic” and, in varying degrees, shared “qualities of greed, anti-Semitism, racism, and imperialistic arrogance” (p.164). Most were startlingly young, in their early 20s, part of what Lower characterizes as a post-World War I baby boom, born during the fledgling Weimar Republic and coming of age in Hitler’s Third Reich.

      Approximately 3,500 women found roles as prison guards on the Eastern Front, very few of whom “exhibited a humane attitude toward the prisoners in their purview” (p.21). Female guards could “choose how cruel and sadistic to be toward prisoners” (p.52).  When female guards abusively managed the prisoner population, Lower argues, they “helped make mass murder standard operating procedure. They lent their organizational know-how and individual skills to the machinery of destruction” (p.109). However, the “first Nazi mass murderess was not the concentration camp guard but the nurse” (p.120).

       Nursing took on an “acutely nationalistic and ideological character” during the Third Reich, leaving “little room for traditional humanitarian ideals” (p.44).  It was the profession that “brought the largest number of German women directly into the war and the Nazi genocide, as nurses occupied a variety of traditional and new roles in the developing racial state” (p.43). Centrally planned mass killing operations, Lower explains, began in the hospitals of the Reich. The Nazi euthanasia program “involved the recruitment of female midwives and of medical personnel, both doctors and nurses. These professionals would eventually murder more than two hundred thousand people in Germany, Austria and the annexed Reich borderlands of Poland, and the Czech lands” (p.121). The first methods were the “sleeping pill, the hypodermic needle, and starvation” (p.120).  The first victims were children.  During the war, “nurses gave thousands of deformed babies and disabled adolescents overdoses of barbiturates, lethal injections of morphine, and denied them food and water” (p.120).

       The Nazi regime also engaged in an extensive program of forced sterilizations of non-Jewish German women. German women and girls were betrayed by mid-wives and nurses who, upon arrival of a child with reported alleged defects, recommended sterilization. In the “civil war for perfect Aryan babies that was underway even before the outbreak of World War II, women made cruel life-and-death decisions for other women, eroding moral sensibilities and implicating women in the regime’s crimes.” (p.23).

        One of the nurses whom Lower studies, Pauline Kneissler, was a Nazi party activist and a member of the Reich Nurses League who worked in Minsk, Belarus during the war.  Promoted to deputy senior nurse in Minsk, Kneissler “could order others to kill and administer deadly doses of sedatives” (p.237). Each day about seventy-five patients died in her ward.  When her boss asked if she was ready to murder without his guidance, she responded that she could and “had done so already” (p.237). After the war, Kneissler told a friend that German medical teams also gave lethal injections to wounded German soldiers, “our own,” as she put it, a subject that was — and, Lower indicates, still is — “taboo” (p.123).

       The women who worked as secretaries and in other administrative positions on the Eastern Front made “enormous” but “publicly minimized” contributions to the implementation of the Holocaust (p.61). They “took dictation and typed up the orders facilitating the robbery, deportation, and mass murder of Jews. They performed these duties with the knowledge that they were contributing to the goal of total extermination of the Jewish people” (p.102).  By the end of 194I, the elite killing squads known as the Einsatazgruppen had completed its first wave of massacres in the Soviet Union, killing close to 500,000 Soviet Jews. “So extensive was the documentation of their gruesome work that after the war American prosecutors conducted a special Nuremberg trial against leading Einsatazgruppen members.” But, Lower notes, “little has been said about those who typed up this damning evidence of the Holocaust” (p.107).

        Another woman in Lower’s study, Liselotte Meier, barely twenty years old when she arrived on the Eastern Front in Lida, Belarus, fell in love with the Nazi Commissar for the region and became his administrative assistant.  Meier participated in the planning of massacres that occurred in 1942-43 in the region, and was by some accounts the most knowledgeable person in the Lida office. She had access to the office safe where most of the secret orders were stored. She kept the office stamp in her desk drawer, which allowed her to sign on behalf of the commissar. This gave her authority to determine “who was and who was not a Jew” and therefore to “decide who would be killed, [and] who could be a spared” (p.104). During secret planning meetings before a mass shooting, Meier took the notes and coordinated the action with the executioners, being “careful about how much she committed to paper” (p.104).

        Whether as camp guard, nurse, secretary, or other function, women on the Eastern Front became adept plunderers of goods and property — crates of eggs, flour, sugar, clothing, and home furnishings — in what Lower terms the “biggest campaign of organized robbery and economic exploitation in history,” with German women “among its prime agents and beneficiaries” (p.101). This indulgence was “not condoned by the regime; Jewish belongings were officially Reich property and not meant for personal consumption. Some plunderers, women among them, were punished and even executed for stealing from the Reich” (p.101).

        Most of the secretaries and administrative support personnel whom Lower identifies would best be described as witnesses and accomplices to Nazi atrocities rather than actual perpetrators. But some engaged directly in the perpetration of atrocities. Such women “slipped into another role – a hybrid characteristic that embodied the stiff Nazi patriot, brazen cowgirl, and cold-blooded anti-Semite. They carried whips, they brandished pistols and rifles, they wore riding pants, and they rode horses” (p.125). Lower documents the shocking case involving Johanna Altvater, who worked as a secretary in Ukraine, where she specialized in killing children. One observer noted that Altvater “often lured children with candy. When they came to her and opened their mouths, she shot them in the mouth with the small silver pistol that she kept at her side” (p.127).  Another secretary, Lisel Riedel Willhaus, wife of an SS commander, shot children from her balcony, with her own child standing next to her.

        Altvater was one of the few women working in administrative positions to be prosecuted after the war.  Despite extensive eyewitness testimony against her, she was twice acquitted, the second time in 1982.  But she was the exception. Very few women were called to account for their role in Nazi atrocities once the war ended.  Women, “especially those who appeared matronly and meek, did not seem capable of committing such atrocities. The physical appearance of the women and gender stereotypes held by the mostly male investigators and judges usually worked in favor of the female perpetrators, whose acts were in some instances as criminal as their male counterparts” (p.196).  Most women returned from the Eastern Front and “quietly resumed normal lives” (p.168), refraining  from speaking publicly about the atrocities they had seen and participated in.  Their silence, Lower argues, was rooted in “feelings of shame, grief, and fear” (p.97), although, she notes elsewhere, their shame “was not necessarily about culpability” (p.9).

         How and why women overcame their stereotypical passivity to participate directly in Holocaust killing are among the book’s central questions. Lower’s penultimate chapter, “Why Did They Kill,” is dedicated to the subject, but she addresses it throughout the book. The crimes committed by female perpetrators, Lower explains, “occurred within a web of professional priorities and tasks, personal commitments and anxieties.”  The perpetrator who accepted the perceived necessity of killing “could in the course of one day shoot Jewish children and then arrive home to coddle her son or daughter.  There is no contradiction here in the mind of the perpetrator: there is, rather, a startling degree of clarity” (p.162). That clarity in Lower’s interpretation may be traced to official anti-Semitic Nazi ideology, which “permeated everyday life, shaped professional and intimate relationships, and generated criminal government policies” (p.155).  Under the Nazi ideology, “Germans and Jews could not coexist.  Female killers, like their male counterparts, developed this conviction after years of conditioning in the Reich, [and] absorbed it from a general climate of popular and state-condoned anti-Semitism in Germany and across Europe” (p.162).

* * *

        Minimizing the violent behavior of Nazi women, Lower cautions, “creates a false shield against a more direct confrontation with genocide and its disconcerting realities” (p.158).  In seeking to remove that shield and enlarge our knowledge of the unfathomable Holocaust, Lower’s chilling account provides another reminder of how a whole class of people, in this case women, could be swept into the orgies of violence to which Hitler’s murderous ideology gave rise.

Thomas H. Peebles
Paris, France
December 29, 2015

6 Comments

Filed under Eastern Europe, European History, Gender Issues, German History, History

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

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Filed under Biography, German History