Eons ago, in 1989, when Germany was in the midst of its most intense phase of coming to grips with the murder of the European Jews by largely ordinary Germans, Times Books was planning a collection of essays subtitled “Contemporary Writers Make the Holocaust Personal.” The American writers’ task was to bring the Holocaust unnervingly close to home.

A discussion ensued among some of the New York-based contributors whether the task required an unethical use of the imagination, whether by fitting the monumental suffering of the European Jews into the puny dimensions of one’s private life, or by imagining oneself back into that time and place, one was somehow crossing the line. The book was published and, predictably, sank like a stone because there is nothing that the late-born can add that the towering stacks of letters, diaries, photographs, film footage, and oral testimonies have not already brought home to us who were not there.

One essay, however, stuck out like a thorn. The writer, a descendant of Orthodox Jews displaced from Frankfurt, shared a fantasy she had nurtured as an adolescent. Using her femininity she would seduce Hitler and convince him that he didn’t really hate the Jews: “It involved a lot of gentle argument of the sort two lovers might engage in.” The frisson here is created by the fantasy work required to imagine Hitler as a human being with sexual desires and submitting to them. It’s hard to imagine anything more repulsive.

I was forcefully reminded of that essay while reading Heike Görtemaker’s fluently written and adequately translated book about Eva Braun, Hitler’s consort for 16 years, wife for 40 hours, and companion in suicide. The aptly named Eva Braun was the one woman in Hitler’s life with whom he was possibly intimate. Yet so little is known about her or about her actual relationship with Hitler that Eva Braun becomes an extended invitation to fantasize about what was or was not going on between the two of them.

In the process, the unsuspecting reader is forced to consider Hitler as a human being. Since we have no letters, no authentic diaries, no honest eyewitness accounts, the couple Adolf & Eva remains an empty space which the writer seeks to define by extensive descriptions of the skittish lovers’ social environment, mainly the exclusive circle that congregated around Hitler at his Bavarian hilltop refuge, the Berghof. It’s best to think of this book as a glazed donut: a hole surrounded by some fluffy dough, which you will find more or less nourishing depending on how starved you are for information about Hitler’s comings and goings.

By far the most interesting fact about Eva Braun opens the book: On March 7, 1945, when the endgame was on in Berlin, she suddenly took action. On that day she jettisoned the placid life and safety of the Berghof and asked to be driven to the Führer’s bunker in Berlin. The only purpose of that journey could be to join Hitler in death. Why did she do it? Hero worship to the end? She, who supposedly knew Hitler in his socks? By the way, did she ever see him in his socks, or without underwear, and if she did was her final action motivated by love? There is something profoundly revolting in that thought. And if not love, loyalty? Megalomania? Martyrdom?

Putting Braun’s decisive action of March 7 at the beginning, and defining it as a riddle, was a clever move by Görtemaker, whose fundamental problem is lack of authentic biographical material. The move creates suspense and allows her to unfold her study like a mystery novel in which much circumstantial evidence is mustered to solve the riddle. The smallest details now become interesting, and it is only after you finish reading that you see the cartloads of red herrings that inflate the product. What does the octagonal design of Emperor Friedrich II’s Castel del Monte, about which we learn in connection with Hitler’s delusional designs for Linz, have to do with poor Eva Braun, a Bavarian girl as simple as her name?

Hitler met Braun in Munich in 1929, when the lower-middle-class blonde, one of three sisters, was 17 and he was 40. She had just started to work in the photo store of Heinrich Hoffmann, an enterprising photojournalist and dedicated Nazi of the first hour, when her boss arrived one evening in the company of one Herr Wolff and sent his shopgirl to buy beer and sausages. One hesitates to say that the relationship between Eva and Adolf blossomed because coyness, priggishness, and above all, extreme secrecy surrounded the entire affair. In part this was due to Hitler’s pathological unease with his own body and his fear of being perceived as ridiculous (he was never seen in public in anything less than impeccable attire). But, explains Görtemaker, not being associated with one woman in public was also part of the religious myth he and Joseph Goebbels constructed around his person. The Führer’s public celibacy, signaling purity, divinity, and total dedication to his cause—the restoration of Germany’s dignity and grandeur—not only worked to raise Hitler above ordinary mortals but also kept the Führer available as love object to the imagination of millions of German women, inviting projections of desire or maternal love.

Far from being apolitical victims of the regime, relegated to Kinder, Küche, Kirche (children, kitchen, church), women were primary enablers of the regime. Görtemaker is good where she explains the role of women in the Nazi system, and she is particularly good (because analytical and to the point) where she talks about the wives of Hitler’s top men, foremost among them Goebbels, Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess, Martin Bormann, and Albert Speer. As guests at the Berghof these women had to deal with the irregular existence of Braun, whose presence was never explained, and whose status was never clarified, and whom no one dared to cross.

Although (or perhaps because) Eva and Adolf very likely became lovers in 1932, Braun was scrupulously kept out of the public eye. She continued to work for Hoffmann’s shop to the very end, and Hoffmann laundered the money that came to her by way of Bormann, and later paid her a fortune for snapshots she took at the Berghof. The impressively wide dissemination of Hoffmann’s photos and well-groomed photo books helped engineer the public myth of Hitler and made Hoffmann a wealthy man. When Hitler began to increase his travel, usually with a huge entourage, Braun came along in the guise of a private secretary, often sharing a railway compartment with other clerical employees. The official role of the Reich’s “first lady” was usually filled by the glamorous Magda Goebbels.

Only at the hermetically sealed Berghof did Braun reign supreme over Hitler’s inner circle of devotees, and as the years went by she seems to have become more secure in her role as Hitler’s de facto wife. And yet, after all the circumstantial evidence has been examined, we are not a step closer to knowing precisely what motivated Braun to join the man in death whom she could not officially join in life. We can speculate, of course—and that is how we get sucked into thinking about the tiny, private, totally irrelevant world of a provincial woman as millions of human beings, including more than one million children, are dying gruesome deaths.

Görtemaker entitles the last section, which covers 1939 to 1945, “Untergang” (downfall), clearly alluding to the eponymous 2002 book by Joachim Fest about the unraveling of the Third Reich. Fest’s book served as the basis for Oliver Hirschbiegel’s movie Downfall (2004), which dramatized the last 10 days in Hitler’s bunker and unleashed a discussion, both here and in Germany, whether it was ethical to humanize Hitler. That is not the problem with Eva Braun because Hitler remains a rather fuzzy figure whose contours sharpen to the degree that readers bring their own knowledge to the book.

Nor is the main problem that we get sucked into the rather narrow world of Eva Braun, and see the monumental transformation of Germany, with its tragic consequences for Europe, from the unsophisticated perspective of what one is sorely tempted to call a birdbrain. The real problem is that the author, by reconstructing Braun’s world and her possible mindset, is going for the simplest, most conventional, and most easily comprehensible explanations, and stays entirely on the polished social surface of observable phenomena. Nowhere is scholarship about every aspect of the Nazi regime more plentiful, more trenchant, more methodically rigorous, and more insightful than in Germany. But you wouldn’t know it from this book.

One example will suffice. When SS-Obergruppenführer Julius Schaub, Hitler’s personal adjutant who’d been close to him for 20 years, was pressed on the topic of Hitler and Braun in questioning at Nuremberg in 1947, he would not come right out and describe the relationship as intimate. But he did say that the men surrounding Hitler had a hard time understanding why he didn’t marry her. Görtemaker concludes that Schaub was “a simple soul” whose statements after the war were “generally questionable or downright false” anyway, and who in this case just “did not understand the compulsion bound up with Hitler’s categorical self-idealization, nor the fact that the power of the National Socialist system depended in large part on the myth of the ‘Führer’ standing above all everyday politics and problems.”

But what if it just wasn’t so? What if the power of the Nazis was actually sustained by an entire people because that people was doing quite well under Hitler’s dictatorship? What if the more simple-souled Germans who, like Schaub, didn’t see a problem with being married and being away from the wife because duty called, were simply letting Hitler have his myth while they were improving their social conditions? As the Heidelberg historian Götz Aly showed in his study Hitlers Volksstaat (2005), Hitler’s regime set in motion massive social mobility in the lower classes by implementing policies that redistributed wealth, largely the confiscated wealth of the Jews and later the wealth transferred back to the Reich during the looting of Europe. From Martin Bormann, who lived in a confiscated villa in Munich’s elegant Bogenhausen section, to the little shopkeeper at the corner who was glad to get rid of a Jewish competitor, millions of Germans benefited in palpable material ways from Hitler’s persecution of the Jews. The Germans wanted what the Jews had, and Hitler gave it to them. The Germans supported him as long as his power was to their benefit.

Whether he was married or not would not have made the slightest difference to them. Schaub, a married man who lived in the real world, saw that very clearly, and in his statement he dared to indicate that he thought Hitler a bit odd. If Görtemaker had listened more carefully to people like Schaub, she might have written a more complex, more interesting, book.

Susanne Klingenstein is a lecturer in the Harvard/MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.

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