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?