The Magazine

Der Führer’s Girl

The love (?) story of Eva Braun and Adolf Hitler.

Sep 19, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 01 • By SUSANNE KLINGENSTEIN
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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.