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At Home With Hitler

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Bettmann/Corbis
Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun, Berlin, 1940s

Just after the end of World War II, Albert Speer complained to his American interrogators that “history always emphasizes terminal events.” He hated the idea that what he saw as the early successes of National Socialism would be obscured by the regime’s grotesque ending. Paradoxically, Eva Braun would have been an even smaller footnote to history if she had not disobeyed Hitler’s orders and returned to Berlin to take part in that terminal event. She almost certainly visualized their fate in cinematic terms as the climax of a great epic and love story.

Hitler too was fixated on the cinema. When Soviet armies surrounded the city, he rejected all entreaties to leave the Reichschancellery for Bavaria, because, as Speer indicated, he pictured his Führerdämmerung amid the apocalyptic destruction of Germany’s capital. The Fall of Berchtesgaden did not have the same ring as The Fall of Berlin. For Hitler and the Nazi leadership, image and impression were often more important than reality. In a deeply disturbing way, this frivolous irresponsibility and fantasy were an integral part of their inhumanity.

Eva Braun evidently liked to think of her life as a fairy tale. Her father was a teacher in Munich, and although she and her two sisters were brought up in comparatively straitened circumstances, there was enough money to educate Eva at a convent. In October 1929, soon after she left, the plump young seventeen-year-old found a job in the photography shop of Heinrich Hoffmann. Eva had never heard of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, of which Hoffmann was a member. He also happened to be a friend of Adolf Hitler, and his first image-maker. Hitler felt able to relax in his company more than in that of party colleagues and rivals. Hoffmann’s daughter Henriette, who was the same age as Eva and rather sarcastic about her, later married Baldur von Schirach, who although half-American was appointed by Hitler to be leader of the Hitler Youth and in 1940 Gauleiter of Vienna.

Some three weeks after Eva began work, Hoffmann had a visitor whom he introduced to his assistant as Herr Wolf. Hoffmann asked her to join them. Although Hitler was twenty-three years older than Eva, more than twice her age, he evidently showed his interest. After Hitler left, Hoffmann told her who he was. When she returned home, she asked her father about Adolf Hitler. He was not complimentary. Hitler began to ask her out, and in the following year, 1930, asked Martin Bormann to investigate whether the Braun family was purely “Aryan.” This may have been because Eva’s older sister, Ilse, was working for a Jewish doctor to whom she was strongly attached until he emigrated to New York.

Hitler’s relationship with Eva Braun at this time was frustrating. She spent most of the time waiting for him to call or to appear unannounced. He was still fixated on Geli Raubal, the daughter of his half-sister Angela, both of whom lived in his Munich apartment. Whether or not Hitler had a sexual relationship with Geli is unknown, but it appears that she discovered a note from Eva Braun and committed suicide with Hitler’s own pistol in Munich on September 18, 1931, perhaps out of jealousy. Hitler was distraught. Hoffmann, to raise his spirits, organized several dinners to which Eva Braun was invited. An earlier biographer, Nerin Gun, argues that her relationship with Hitler was consummated in 1932, probably on her initiative. This was based on conversations Gun had after the war with Eva’s two surviving sisters and others.

Heike Görtemaker, in Eva Braun: Life with Hitler, is rather scathing about Gun’s reliability in general, and she certainly has a point. But the trouble is that the documentary evidence is very thin, and Gun, a journalist of Turkish origin, is the only person who managed to interview Braun’s sisters. Much of Gun’s material is indeed unverifiable, but for Görtemaker to describe her own book as “a source-critical study of Eva Braun” is rather optimistic in the circumstances. There is in fact surprisingly little about Eva Braun in her book, and almost nothing that we did not know already.

Although by the early-to-mid-Thirties Eva Braun thought that her relationship with Hitler was now on a more established footing, she was soon disillusioned by even longer absences. Hitler treated her as a secret mistress, handing her envelopes stuffed with banknotes from time to time. She made two suicide attempts, the first in November 1932 and the second in May 1935. After the second attempt, which seems to have been more of a cry for help, he bought her a small apartment in a fashionable Munich suburb. But Eva still spent most of her evenings alone. Hitler felt unable to sneak over to see her without his bodyguards, whose loutish presence would have given away the secret of his relationship.

Geli’s mother, Angela Raubal, had been installed to run Hitler’s house on the mountain above Berchtesgaden that would become the Berghof. On occasion he brought Eva Braun, but predictably Angela hated her, referring to her as die blöde Kuh, the stupid cow. Hitler sent Angela away in 1936, and soon Eva’s standing began to improve, although she was still snubbed by Emmy Göring, Magda Goebbels, and Annelies von Ribbentrop. Only the wives of Speer and Bormann were civil to her. She disliked and distrusted Bormann but, knowing that he could be dangerous, maintained a façade of friendliness toward him. Yet although Eva Braun was much more of a permanent fixture in Hitler’s life at the Berghof, she was a maîtresse sans titre, utterly unknown in the wider world. Goebbels’s insistence in his propaganda that “the Führer has no private life” prompted Eva Braun to say bitterly: “Ich bin Fräulein Kein Privatleben” (“I am Miss No Private Life”).

Braun longed for her position to be officially and publicly recognized, because Hitler made her hide herself away whenever foreign guests arrived at the Berghof. She made heavy hints about being allowed to meet the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, but Hitler was not impressed by her sighs of admiration for a man who had given up his throne for the woman he loved.

Although the American press had strong inklings of Hitler’s relationship with Eva Braun as early as May 1939, in Germany only Hitler’s intimate circle knew of her existence. As late as December 1944, Major Bernd Freiherr Freytag von Loringhoven, the adjutant of the chief of the general staff, Generaloberst Heinz Guderian, was “surprised to see two young women, with elegant clothes and hairdos, sauntering past” in a corridor of the Reichschancellery. He turned to the two officer aides with him to ask who they were. “That’s Eva Braun,” said one of them with amusement. “That’s the Führer’s mistress.” Freytag was dumbfounded to discover this for the first time after five months of daily visits.

Hitler was not the most generous or imaginative of lovers. His rather macabre Christmas present in 1937 was a book on Egyptian tombs. Eva Braun, however, managed to run up huge dressmakers’ bills, which seem to have been paid by Bormann, who ran Hitler’s finances, another reason for her to keep on the right side of him. Bormann was feared and hated by most of Hitler’s paladins. Reichsmarschall Göring called him “Hitler’s Mephisto,” with reason in the end, for Bormann managed to convince Hitler of Göring’s treachery in the very last days.

Görtemaker writes of Eva Braun’s “practically unassailable position at Hitler’s side,” even if in the dangerous and byzantine world of the Nazi hierarchy nothing was guaranteed. Although her education and knowledge of the world were extremely limited, she had the instinctive sense not to meddle in politics or attempt to procure appointments, the traditional pastime of bored royal mistresses. Hitler once boasted that “no woman has ever ventured to give me political advice.” He did, however, appreciate her unquestioning loyalty. Hitler’s love of dogs, it is said, stemmed from his most humiliating days in Vienna when poverty forced him to give away his German shepherd, yet the dog, so he said, found its way back to him in a refuge for the homeless.

Görtemaker does not mention that Dr. Karl Brandt, Hitler’s surgeon, wrote a brief paper for his American interrogators after the war entitled “Women around Hitler.” According to Brandt’s account, Hitler had never married because he wanted

to keep the mystic legend alive in the hearts of the German people so that as long as he remained a bachelor, there was always the chance that any one of the millions of German women might possibly attain the high distinction of being at Hitler’s side.

Hitler had even spoken of this openly to his entourage with Eva Braun present. And in 1934 he had also announced in front of her: “The greater the man, the more insignificant should be his woman.”

Brandt believed that the relationship between Hitler and Braun had a stronger element of father–daughter than of teacher–student. It was thus hardly surprising that Eva Braun began to play the great lady on occasion after years of having to hide herself away like a servant when visitors from outside were present, so as to preserve for Germany the Führer myth of celibacy. According to Brandt, she treated her easily-led younger sister Margarete, known as Gretl, “almost like a personal maid.”

Albert Speer also quoted Hitler’s justification for remaining a bachelor: “Lots of women are attracted to me because I am unmarried…. It’s the same with a movie actor; when he marries he loses a certain something for the women who adore him. Then he is no longer their idol as he was before.” One of the closest links between Hitler and Eva Braun was a shared fascination with the cinema. She had dreamed of becoming a movie actress, a fantasy that Hitler had rapidly crushed. He did not want his mistress to be publicly visible. But the fantasy persisted, and Hitler clearly thought it better to humor her. “When the Chief has won the war,” she is supposed to have said, “he has promised that I can go to Hollywood and play my own part in the film of our love story.”

The starstruck young Eva, hidden away in Munich and at the Berghof, always regretted that she had not been allowed to attend those Nazi receptions in Berlin to which film stars were invited to add a dash of glamour and sophistication so lacking among the wives of the Nazi leadership. Perhaps significantly, Hitler’s fascination with movies was shared by Stalin, who also made his entourage watch movies at night, and then gave them a detailed critique afterward. It suggests that both dictators may have seen themselves as directors of the most epic movie ever made. To Eva Braun’s intense disappointment, Hitler made a show of refusing to watch them once the war began, claiming that he must save his eyes for the good of the Fatherland as he pored over maps.

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