December 29, 2011
Chelsea, an aspiring actress, tells Cosmo Kramer during an episode of the TV series Seinfeld that her manager is “trying to put together a miniseries for me on Eva Braun. I mean think about it, is that a great idea? We know nothing about Eva Braun, only that she was Hitler’s girlfriend. . . . What was it like having sex with Adolf Hitler? What do you wear in a bunker? What did her parents think of Hitler as a potential son-in-law? I mean it could just go on and on….”
It could and it will, because while it isn’t true that we know nothing about Eva Braun, it is true that we know relatively little, considering that she was the consort of one of the most recognizable and most reviled men in human history.
Heike B. Görtemaker, tries to bring some clarity to this subject in Eva Braun: Life with Hitler, which was originally published in German. The very things that have made Braun an obscure figure up to now were obstacles to the author’s work, beginning with the fact that Hitler wanted to be perceived as a solitary messiah whose life and energy were devoted to lifting Germany and its people from the ignominious consequences of World War I.
In order to maintain his image, Hitler kept the very existence of Eva Braun a secret from the German people, and he kept her at least at arm’s length and often much farther when they were in the company of his inner circle. Hitler married Braun on the day before they both committed suicide in a bunker in April 1945 while the Red Army was literally striding through the Reichstag grounds about 25 feet above their heads. He once said that he had never married because he needed the political support of German women and that he would lose some of his appeal if he had a wife. “It’s the same with a movie actor,” Hitler said. “When he marries he loses a certain something from the women who adore him. Then he is no longer their idol as he was before.”
When I read that in Görtemaker’s book, I wondered what “certain something” Hitler had that would attract any woman, never mind millions of them. Evidently the author wonders about that, too. When she writes that Braun’s life was shaped by Hitler’s power, his world view, and his “charismatic attraction,” she adds parenthetically, “however difficult it may be to explain what that consisted in.”
Görtemaker is convinced that neither Braun nor the other women around Hitler — principally the wives of men like Albert Speer and Joseph Goebbels — were simply adornments who were expected to be seen but not heard. On the other hand, the author finds it impossible to say definitively how much Braun and the others knew about German policy, and particularly about the Holocaust. They had to know of the persecution of Jews in Europe; it was no secret. But discussion of the extermination program in Hitler’s presence was forbidden when he was in his “family circle,” as it were, meaning the crowd that frequented Berghof, Hitler’s frequent refuge in Bavaria.
Hitler met Braun in 1929 when he was 40 and she was 17 and working as an assistant to Dietrich Hoffmann who became the privileged official photographer of the Nazi party and the Third Reich. Görtemaker speculates that the couple were not intimate until 1933 when Braun had become an adult . At first they saw each other only intermittently, and this apparently weighed on Braun and was the cause of two suicide attempts. After the second incident, Hitler arranged for Braun to have her own home in Munich and to have regular access to Berghof, where her assertion of her prerogatives irritated some of Hitler’s coterie.
Whatever attracted Braun to Hitler in the first place, long before it was clear that he would lead the German nation, her commitment to him was complete. Görtemaker writes that the level of her loyalty was the object of admiration to at least some of Hitler’s associates and it may have been the one thing that most endeared her to him. There’s no evidence that she pressured him to marry her or that she complained about being kept out of the public eye. And, in the most dramatic possible demonstration of her constancy, however misguided, she went to Berlin against Hitler’s wishes with the clear intention of dying with him while many others, including Speer and Hoffmann, were already concocting lies about being “outsiders” in Hitler’s camp. The normal confidentiality of the culture in which Hitler lived, coupled with the loss and destruction of written records and the unreliability of later testimony by turncoats trying to save their own hides and reputation may mean that we’ll never know more about Eva Braun than Görtemaker has been able to tell us in this book. That’s unfortunate, not because Braun was so different from others who supported Hitler, but because she was so like them. She was in all respects an ordinary person who came under the still elusive spell of a bumbling, absurd little man who terrorized the world for more than a decade