I and My Wife

Bee Wilson

  • 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.

Adolph Hitler and Eva Braun, 15 March 1944
15 March 1944

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?’

Görtemaker argues that the presence of this young, blonde, movie-obsessed and sporty woman in Hitler’s life gives a fresh perspective on the Nazi regime. Braun’s frivolous persona was a negation of the Nazi ideology of womanhood. She smoked, drank wine, read Oscar Wilde, listened to jazz and spent huge amounts of money on clothes. She had no children and wasn’t married to her lover until the very end – far from the stoical patriotic mother of Goebbels’s propaganda. In and of itself, this is perhaps less surprising than Görtemaker wants us to think. We don’t need Eva Braun to tell us that the Nazis didn’t live up to their own advertising.

The larger question is just how important Braun was to Hitler and his worldview. Görtemaker argues that her ‘normality’ is like ‘an anachronism’ bringing Hitler’s evil ‘into relief’, showing it ‘in a new light’. Though he did his best to hide her from his adoring female fans, their 14-year relationship cannot be discounted. When he spoke in private of what life would be like when he finally stepped down as Führer, he said: ‘Aside from Fräulein Braun, I’ll take no one with me. Fräulein Braun and my dog.’ Görtemaker leaves no doubt that Braun worked hard to make herself indispensable. On 22 April 1945, she wrote to her best friend, Herta: ‘I shall die as I lived. It’s no burden. You know that.’ She is also supposed to have expressed a wish to ‘be a beautiful corpse’. The films she made, like her photographs, were designed to show Hitler how beautiful and happy life could be with her. Bit by bit it seems to have worked.

Braun learned her art at Heinrich Hoffmann’s photo shop, which was where she met the Führer, probably in October 1929. Hoffmann was Hitler’s personal photographer. They went way back: Hoffmann had been a committed member of the party as early as 1920, when it was still called the DAP, and he owed the success of his business to his association with the party. Hitler often went round to Hoffmann’s modern apartment in Bogenhausen to eat spaghetti with his family. During the crash of 1929, Photohaus Hoffmann was making so much money from the sales of Nazi photos to news agencies that the shop was able to move to bigger premises and hire new staff, one of them the 17-year-old Eva Braun. Her responsibilities were split between the shop counter and the photo lab. She would have handled photos of Hitler before she met him, but they don’t seem to have made much of an impression. A few weeks after she started, she was working late when Hoffmann asked her to get some beer and sausages for himself and a friend, introduced to her as ‘Herr Wolf’. During the meal, this man was ‘devouring’ her with his eyes and offered her a lift in his Mercedes. She refused. Later Hoffmann asked her whether she hadn’t guessed who the man was: ‘Don’t you ever look at our photos?’ When she still failed to identify him, Hoffmann exclaimed: ‘It’s Hitler! Adolf Hitler!’

Like almost everything that we ‘know’ of Hitler and Braun’s relationship, this story cannot be verified. The source is the first biography of Braun, published in 1968 by Nerin Gun, a Turkish-American journalist, a former Communist who had been in Dachau. In the mid-1960s, Gun visited West Germany and made contact with Eva’s mother, Franziska Braun, her sisters and her best friend, Herta Schneider. Görtemaker points out, however, that ‘Gun does not give precise details about the sources of his information, and he switches freely back and forth between invented anecdotes and factual testimony in a way that makes it impossible for the reader to determine which is which.’ So the first meeting might have happened like that, or it might not have.

Almost no one, in Görtemaker’s book, is to be trusted. Very little direct documentation of the relationship survived. Hitler was wary of writing private letters in case they fell into the wrong hands, and asked for everything personal left in the Bunker to be burned. Eva’s attitude was just the opposite. Having fought so hard to get there, she wanted to keep herself on the record. On 23 April 1945 she wrote an urgent letter to her younger sister urging her to take ‘all the letters from the Führer’ and the ‘copies of her replies’ and put them in a ‘water-resistant packet’. Gretl was to bury them if necessary, but absolutely not to destroy them. As for her other personal affairs, Eva insisted that ‘on no account must Heise’s bills be found,’ referring to the fashionable Berlin dress designer Annemarie Heise. She didn’t get her wish. We know about Eva’s profligacy at the dressmaker but her correspondence with Hitler has never been found.

There is, however, a strange 20-page diary fragment, said to be by Braun (in 1967 her older sister confirmed that the handwriting could have been hers). It is a Pooterish, self-pitying document, whose author laments her failure to win the lottery (‘So I am not going to be rich after all’). Her other regrets include Hitler’s not giving her a dachshund for her birthday and his neglect of her for months at a time (‘So he has a head full of politics all this time, but surely it is time he relaxed a little’). Still, Braun seems happy enough to be ‘mistress of the greatest man in Germany and the world’ when he deigns to spend time with her. In February 1935, at Hitler’s Munich apartment, she passes ‘two marvellously beautiful hours with him until midnight’. But Görtemaker, careful as ever, doesn’t set too much store by this document. For one thing, its authenticity is not definitely established. Even if it was written by Braun it is not a true diary but ‘the thoughts of a young woman of 23, usually written down some three weeks after the events described and primarily circling around the irregular comings and goings of her much older lover’.

Which sources can we trust? There are the numerous photos, most of them stage-managed by Eva, but it is hard to say what they tell us except that she really, really liked having her photo taken. Here she is in 1930, blacked up like Al Jolson, doing jazz hands for the camera; and here she is posing in an expensive polka-dot skirt – one of Heise’s? – on the Berghof terrace in 1943; and here she is in another little dress at the dining table in 1940, neatly coiffed and lipsticked and smiling with Hitler next to her, creepy and sullen. We need secondary sources to tell us what lay behind the photos, but Görtemaker is sceptical of all of them, complaining that Goebbels’s diary was clearly written with an eye on posterity and not trusting Speer’s claim to have been disgusted by the smells of cooking oil and leftovers in Hitler’s apartment.

She trusts Braun’s family least of all. They did their best to exonerate themselves in the denazification courts, claiming an implausible degree of ignorance about Hitler’s relationship with Eva. Fritz Braun was a secondary schoolteacher who had volunteered in the First World War. A family portrait of 1942 shows him – bald head, mild smile, military bearing – surrounded by his three beautiful grown-up daughters in elegant tea dresses. It’s another piece of family propaganda. His wife, Franziska, clings to Fritz’s uniformed arm and smiles at the camera, with no hint of unhappiness. But in 1921, when the girls were 13, nine and six, the Brauns divorced. They remarried the following year – possibly for financial reasons, Görtemaker thinks – and the whole unhappy affair was papered over. Eva’s friend Herta later said that the atmosphere in the Braun family was ‘not very pleasant’. Yet Franziska later insisted that ‘not a single cloud’ had ever blackened her marriage.

After the war, Fritz was fired from public service. According to Die Welt, he and his wife were categorised in August 1947 as Offenders, a class reserved for ‘activists, militarists and profiteers’, better than Major Offenders but worse than Lesser Offenders and Followers. Thanks to her relationship with Hitler, Eva’s parents faced prison sentences and the loss of Fritz’s teacher’s pension. So no wonder they told Die Welt that they had ‘always been opposed to the relationship between their daughter and Adolf Hitler’. ‘I don’t know when the relationship between my daughter Eva and Hitler started,’ Fritz told a denazification court in Munich in December 1947. ‘I first heard about it in 1937, from a Czech newspaper. Until then I had thought she was his secretary.’

If he really did think that, he was very stupid. For one thing, how could he explain the special telephone line installed in his house in 1934? For another, in 1935, Eva had moved out of the family home into a three-bedroom apartment along with a maid and her younger sister; a luxurious arrangement for a photographer’s assistant. The flat was rented by Hoffmann and paid for by Hitler. The move was precipitated by Eva’s suicide attempt on 28 May, through an overdose of sleeping pills. Three years earlier, she had shot herself in the neck with Fritz’s old pistol. She said she had been aiming for her heart, but really she was aiming for Hitler’s. ‘Now I must look after her,’ he is said to have remarked to Hoffmann as she recovered in hospital.

Two suicide attempts were certainly a way to get Hitler’s attention. When Braun first met him in 1929, he was sharing his flat with his step-niece, Angela ‘Geli’ Raubal (born on 4 June 1908 in Linz) with whom he was said to be in love. On 18 September 1931, she shot herself in the lung with his 6.35 calibre pistol. After Geli’s death, rumours of his personal attachment started up. Görtemaker argues that Goebbels used this moment to ‘cultivate Hitler’s public image as the un-self-interested “Führer” and thus to conceal his private life as a human being’. ‘What has given me the most pains and cost me the most work is what I love best: our People,’ he said in a speech six days after Geli’s death. A remarkable number of those close to him seem to have swallowed the propaganda. Hoffmann said later that some of Hitler’s ‘humanity’ died along with Geli and that he was now dedicated exclusively to a single goal, ‘attaining power!’

Hoffmann knew better than most that this was not true since he was so closely implicated in the arrangements to give Hitler access to his young girlfriend. As well as renting her apartment on Hitler’s behalf, he paid vast sums into Braun’s savings account. The money was supposedly in return for ‘valuable photographs’ she took at the Berghof of the Nazi high command, but the sums were too large for that. In 1940, Hoffmann paid her 20,000 Reichsmarks for a single photo. In 1943, one of his employees deposited 5000 Reichsmarks into Braun’s account, the equivalent of a year’s income. And it was Hoffmann’s brother-in-law, Dr Wilhelm Plante, who was summoned in the middle of the night when Braun made her first suicide attempt.

Until 1935, she saw Hitler only sporadically and had limited claims on his attention. He had plenty of business that kept him away from Munich. Various other love affairs were imputed to him, including one in Berlin with Baroness Sigrid von Laffert, a blonde aristocrat who had been a member of the girls’ branch of the Hitler Youth. It seems he used the old ‘May I invite you to the opera?’ chat-up line on Laffert: there is a picture of her by his side in a box at the German Opera House in 1935. But from 1936, Braun edged her rivals aside. While still hidden from the public at large, she was a ‘constant presence’ at the Berghof, sometimes travelled abroad with Hitler (officially as his ‘private secretary’) and attended the Winter Olympics. Most tellingly, Hitler consented to a semi-official meeting with her parents.

The first recorded encounter between Hitler and the Brauns took place at the Lambacher Hof, an inn midway between Munich and the Obersalzberg. According to Gun, they ran into one another quite by chance while the Brauns were having a Sunday outing. But Henriette von Schirach, Hoffmann’s daughter, said that Fritz Braun had travelled there – a journey of more than sixty miles – because he saw ‘a chance for his favourite child’. The result of the conversation between the two men, which Hitler described to the Hoffmanns as the ‘most unpleasant’ he had ever had, was that Eva was upgraded from an apartment to a posh Munich house and given a monthly stipend. So, far from ‘opposing’ the relationship with Hitler, the Brauns seem to have profited from it. Hitler remembered Franziska Braun in his will, above his own relatives.

After this ‘meet the parents’ moment, Eva rose in the hierarchy of Hitler’s court. Görtemaker paints a picture of complicated power struggles, of people fighting for greater proximity to Hitler, with Braun in an unassailable position by his side. Fellow guests at the Berghof found her conceited, brusque, insecure and dull, but they were obliged to pay court to her, and even to be nice to her dog. She had her own bedroom, next to his, and they retired upstairs together at the end of the evening. Eva chose the movies that were screened every night after dinner, and she alone dared tell him off for being late for meals. He tapped distractedly on her hand when she spoke. With the wives of the inner circle, Margarete Speer remembered that she very much played the hostess, ‘thoroughly aware of her position’ among the women. It was considered an honour to escort her to the table, where she sat on Hitler’s left.

This privilege was usually reserved for Martin Bormann. Braun and Bormann seem to have had an uneasy closeness. His job included getting her on the telephone in Munich when Hitler wished to speak to her, monitoring her lifestyle in his absence and fulfilling her wishes. According to Braun’s family and to Speer, she loathed him. Bormann was said, even by fellow henchmen, to be ruthless, brutal and thuggish. In a photograph of the two of them in conversation, her body language is uncharacteristically defensive. When photographed with Speer, she holds his arm and smiles. With Brandt, she coquettishly tickles her leg, staring up into his eyes. With Bormann she crosses her arms and stares coldly. But, Görtemaker writes, ‘if she did in fact hate him … she never showed it openly and avoided any confrontation.’ Neither would risk their position by letting their personal animosity show.

For the most part, Braun’s political engagement with Hitler was probably passive: to share in his outlook and trust that he was right, as so many other Germans did. She was, however, a key part of his scheme to build a ‘Führer Capital’ in Linz, where he’d spent two years as a child, and to which he felt unaccountably attached. The idea was to transform the city into the art capital of Europe, a ‘kind of German Rome’. Really, it was a glorified plan for Hitler’s retirement home. In the summer of 1938, he was already laying out his fantasies of retirement and burial there. A strange photo shows him in rhapsodies over a miniature model of the city, like a model train enthusiast. When Hermann Giesler, the architect appointed to design his retirement home above the Danube, asked Hitler for more information on the kitchen and garden, he was told that this was ‘Miss Braun’s affair’, since she was ‘the lady of the house’. He told Giesler that the plan was first to achieve all his political goals, then to install his successor, step down and ‘marry Miss Braun’. Linz explains the mystery of what this mismatched pair talked about behind closed doors. The fantasy continued long after all was lost. In the bunker on 23 April 1945, at Speer’s last meeting with Hitler, he was told that Braun had made some ‘very personal suggestions’ about Linz. She had decided she would be in charge of the aesthetic designs for the business district and promenade.

Görtemaker suggests that Linz shows the degree to which Braun fell for Hitler’s vision of a ‘glittering, fairy-tale future’. But it also shows the extent to which his plans were fuelled by Braun’s endless photo-reel of happiness, frolics and sunshine. Perhaps in the end it doesn’t matter that we can’t pin down the real life of Eva Braun, since the one that mattered was the one created on film, in which she was both heroine and director. In May 1938, the year Hitler started to obsess about Linz, she accompanied his retinue on a state visit to Italy, ‘ceaselessly taking photographs and shooting films’ which she compiled into a movie to screen at the Berghof that autumn to give the Führer a glimpse of the ‘real Italy’, on which he based his imperial plans for Linz.

After the war, Görtemaker says, the idea was put forward that no one could ‘influence or convince’ Hitler of anything. This was yet another form of self-exculpation from men such as Himmler, Goering, Goebbels and Speer who wanted it believed that nothing they could have said or done would have stopped him: they were powerless. The Führer was not for turning. The case of Eva Braun gives the lie to this convenient line. True, she didn’t persuade him of anything useful or good. She didn’t stop him, and doesn’t seem to have had any desire to. But she was constantly influencing and convincing him: of her loyalty, of her place by his side and in his future. The Linz fantasy suggests that she convinced him that at some level he was still the arty bohemian of his youth rather than a dictator with a dodgy taste for romantic daubs of the Munich school. Perhaps all those photos really did convince him that he was normal, and that the future was bright on the imaginary promenades of Linz.

At 10.30 on the final night, he dictated his will to his secretary, Traudl Junge:

I have now decided, before the termination of this worldly career, to take as my wife the woman who, after many long years of loyal friendship, came to the already almost besieged city of her own free will in order to share her fate with mine … I and my wife choose death, to avoid the shame of flight or surrender.

A couple of years earlier, she had started a new project. Hitler always said he didn’t want children. In a 1936 speech to the National Socialist Women’s League he said that all the children of Germany belonged to him ‘in exactly the same way’ that they belonged to their mothers. But by 1944, Braun had started a new photo album, showing photos of her and Hitler posing with children. Whenever children visited the Berghof, she seized the chance to have their photo taken in ‘fake-family’ shots. One of them shows Eva and Adolf with her friend Herta’s two daughters. Braun, as always, is in the perfect pose, holding the smaller girl’s hand and laughing. Hitler looks more awkward, with a solemn downward gaze: no sign of that legendary charm. But he obediently holds onto the two children for the camera, like a man who just needs a little more persuading.