I and My Wife
- Eva Braun: Life with Hitler by Heike Görtemaker, translated by Damion Searls
Allen Lane, 324 pp, £25.00, October 2011, ISBN 978 1 84614 489 9
Eva Braun kept photograph albums. Whether lounging on the terrace at the Berghof or tagging along on a state visit to Italy, she was always snapping away. Her first and only proper job was selling rolls of film at Photohaus Hoffmann in Munich, and an interest in photography stayed with her during the 14 years of her relationship with Hitler. At the Führer’s various residences, she took colour home movies using an up to the minute 16mm Agfa-Movex camera. She seems to have used these home movies for the purpose they are normally used for: to preserve and then display an idealised version of home life – aren’t we happy! In June 1944, the Allies had taken Rome and landed in Normandy. Braun tried to cheer Hitler up by screening a number of colour films of earlier days to the assembled company at the Obersalzberg. ‘I have never seen him so relaxed on film,’ Goebbels said. Braun also took endless photographs, which she pasted into books with captions: ‘Poland still does not want to negotiate.’
Braun is a rather blank and puzzling figure. She was the middle daughter of a Munich schoolteacher and a former seamstress, Hugh Trevor-Roper called her ‘a historical disappointment’ on the grounds that she played ‘no role in the decisions that led to the worst crimes of the century’. Would a Lady Macbeth have been less ‘disappointing’? In contrast to Magda Goebbels and other true believers, Braun comes across as profoundly apolitical, even oblivious. She never joined the Nazi Party (but then Hitler wouldn’t let his sister join either). It isn’t certain she knew about the Holocaust, though she could hardly have missed the fact that life was not easy for Jews in Germany. Her older sister, Ilse Braun, worked as a receptionist for a Jewish doctor called Martin Marx, who fled to the States in 1938. We don’t know what Eva thought of this, one way or another, though after the war Ilse claimed that her sister objected to the ‘impossibility of our having two such opposite jobs’. The three Braun girls were trained for office work: Eva studied bookkeeping, typing and home economics at Marienhöhe in Simbach am Inn, a Catholic institute on the German-Austrian border.
In the end, it doesn’t seem to have made much difference whether the Brauns were true Nazis or just opportunists. None of the three girls had principles that prevented them from sharing their bed with men who were definitely not ‘good Germans’. The youngest, Gretl, married Hermann Fegelein, a Nazi liaison officer said by Albert Speer to be one of the ‘most disgusting persons in Hitler’s circle’. As for Ilse, some time after she stopped working for Dr Marx, she married a certain Fucke-Michels, a Nazi cultural aide who was probably involved in the looting of Jewish-owned artworks. And Eva loved Adolf, just as she loved expensive clothes, skiing and photography.
What was she thinking? They shared few interests, beyond a love of dogs and a slightly obsessive concern with personal hygiene. One of her friends said, not very convincingly, that Hitler won her over by giving the ‘most thrilling compliments’. Lines such as: ‘May I invite you to the opera, Miss Eva? I am always surrounded by men, you see, so I know very well how much the pleasure of a woman’s company is worth.’ The real attraction seems to have been the chance to cast herself in a starring role at the centre of power; to walk into Munich’s fanciest dress shops and buy whatever she liked (Hitler often told her she had chosen the wrong dress). While Hitler was inclined to deliver long political monologues at dinner , which she occasionally interrupted by asking the time or looking at him reprovingly, Braun was capable of being equally long-winded on the subject of film. Baldur von Schirach, the son-in-law of her employer Herr Hoffmann, said she would chatter about movie gossip ‘for hours on end’.
Aside from prurience – a large element in all biography – what interest could there be in the life of Eva Braun? The facts are certainly sensational. She met him aged 17. He was so taken with her that he immediately had her investigated, to make sure she had no Jewish ancestors. Twice, their relationship made her desperate enough to attempt suicide. She was kept largely hidden from the German public to maintain the illusion that the Führer was married to his people. At the end, she could have stayed at a safe distance in Munich but chose to return to her man in Berlin, arriving at the Bunker in April, like a ‘messenger of death’ according to Speer. At last, they married, on the night of 28 April 1945. She was Mrs Hitler for 36 hours, before they killed themselves together on the afternoon of 30 April. She bit a cyanide capsule, just before he swallowed poison and shot himself in the head, having first poisoned his beloved dog, Blondi. So yes, Eva Braun’s life is mesmerising. Like melodrama, it first grips and then leaves you feeling uneasy.
Heike Görtemaker wants us to look a little closer. Her superbly measured biography suggests that Braun is more historically important than has previously been allowed. Nazi propaganda pushed the notion that Hitler had no private life, having sacrificed his personal happiness for Germany. Subsequent historians have often been curiously willing to perpetuate this notion. In the 1970s, Joachim Fest claimed that Hitler was unable ‘to lead an everyday life’, while more recently Ian Kershaw claimed that Hitler was devoted to playing the part of Führer to the extent of lacking a personal life. ‘Do we not thereby dehumanise him,’ Görtemaker asks, ‘and as a result let him escape our critical understanding?’