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.
According to Nerin Gun, Braun arranged for the Propaganda Ministry to send reels of both German and foreign movies down to the Berghof. She adored Gone with the Wind. Gun claimed that “she pictured herself as a Scarlett O’Hara courted by a Rhett Butler-Hitler; once she even dressed up as a Southern belle and mimed a scene from the film, which she had persuaded Hitler to see.” Casting Hitler in the role of Rhett Butler is a wonderfully improbable fantasy, and whether Hitler became jealous of Eva Braun’s obsession with Clark Gable to the point of having the film withdrawn in Germany, as Gun also claims, is the stuff of highly dubious anecdote. Grand Hotel was another of her favorite films, and she began to refer to the Berghof by that name.
Because Eva Braun never questioned any of the regime’s actions, she could get away with many things that would have caused trouble to an ordinary citizen. For example, she openly read Oscar Wilde, whose books were banned by the Nazi regime. She was also childless when women were supposed to be breeding cannon fodder for the Fatherland, according to the Führer’s dictum that “every child [a mother] brings into the world is a victory in the battle for the life or death of her People.” Hitler’s insistence on her childlessness was part of a bigger contradiction. His rhetoric of the “Thousand-Year Reich” revealed a significant psychological paradox, coming as it did from a determined bachelor who took a perverse pride in being a genetic dead end while harboring an unhealthy fascination with suicide. The vegetarian Hitler, lacking any sense of irony, would lecture guests on the horror and cruelties of slaughterhouses, supremely indifferent to the details of his own killing machine.
Hitler, the hypochondriac who exulted in muscular nude art, also had a phobia about taking off his clothes in front of anyone, including his valet and his personal doctor, the charlatan Theodor Morell, who had been a ship’s doctor until he established a successful practice on the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin. Hitler had an obsessive trust in the pills and injections of Morell, whom he promoted to the rank of professor at the end of 1938. Others were less convinced of Morell’s skills and considered him a quack. Göring is supposed to have nicknamed him the “Reich Injection Master.” Hitler’s belief in Morell was so intense that he forced Eva Braun to be treated by him as well, even though she disliked and distrusted him.
At the time of the invasion of the Soviet Union, Hitler was being treated with eighty-eight different medicines. None of them managed to diminish his appalling halitosis. This almost makes one feel sorry for the healthy and athletic Fräulein Braun, and even more amazed by her infatuation with such a pale, sickly, and faddish creature who was afraid of the dark, possibly because of nightmares. Perhaps the central explanation for Hitler’s attraction to women did lie in the reputed aphrodisiac effect of power.
Not surprisingly, a number of historians have wondered whether Eva Braun knew of the “Final Solution” beyond the public rhetoric of annihilation. Hitler, who adopted old-fashioned manners when women were present, would almost certainly have regarded it as a subject unfit for mixed company. It was also his firm policy to keep different aspects of his life and work in watertight compartments. Nowhere was this more true than in the way he treated his generals, especially on the eastern front. He could control them better if they were not allowed to communicate with one another.
Hitler’s “table talk,” a ramble of banalities and crassly sweeping judgments on history and art, recorded as if he were a latter-day Goethe by a would-be Eckermann, revealed his hatreds quite plainly. And yet the key decisions on the “Final Solution” and other hitherto unbelievable crimes were taken in the strictest confidence—unter vier Augen, literally “under four eyes”—and never recorded. So Eva Braun, sunning herself on the terrace of the Berghof, probably knew little of the sadism, the squalor, and the horror of the camps. As an impressionable young woman, she had been molded in her opinions during her time in Hitler’s presence. In any case, since she clearly believed that what the eye does not see, the heart does not grieve over, she probably would have cared very little indeed. After her elder sister Ilse escaped from Breslau in January 1945 during the rapid Red Army advance into Silesia, Eva became furious when she described the suffering of the refugees and the brutal incompetence of the Nazi authorities. Eva saw this as a disloyal criticism of the Führer, who had been kind enough to have her to stay many times at the Berghof.
The most active murderer in Eva Braun’s circle was her brother-in-law, the loathsome SS-Obergruppenführer Hermann Fegelein. After attempting to seduce several women in Hitler’s court and flirting with Eva, Fegelein married her sister Gretl on June 3, 1944. Fegelein appeared to be a dashing cavalryman with the Knight’s Cross, but his record was far from heroic. In July, August, and September 1941, Fegelein had commanded the 1st SS Cavalry Regiment stationed in the region of the Pripet marshes in the extreme northwest Ukraine. He had followed Himmler’s order to “drive the female Jews into the swamps” (“Judenweiber in die Sümpfe treiben”). This action killed children too and it represented part of the first step from killing male Jews of military age to a policy of total annihilation. The SS Cavalry Brigade as a whole killed 13,788 Jews in the first sweep and 14,178 in the second. (Neither Gun nor Görtemaker makes any mention of this.)
In those days just before D-Day, Eva Braun threw herself into organizing her sister’s nuptials with Fegelein. “I want this wedding to be very beautiful, as though it were mine,” she told one of Hitler’s secretaries. Her own dreams of marriage and retirement in Linz with Hitler after the war were looking increasingly unrealizable, especially when later that month the Red Army launched Operation Bagration and destroyed most of the Wehrmacht’s Army Group Center. Soviet troops were approaching East Prussia when on July 20 Oberst Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg set off his bomb to kill Hitler. The plot failed when Hitler survived and Major Otto-Ernst Remer decided to bring his guard battalion, the Grossdeutschland (not the SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler), into action against the rebels.
Hitler was ecstatic at his own survival, believing it to be a sign of Providence. In his euphoric frenzy on the afternoon of the explosion, he sent Eva his uniform shredded by the blast. Needless to say, he was gasping for revenge. Surprisingly, Görtemaker seems to think that “no one knows for sure whether Hitler saw” the horrifying photographs of the executions of the July plotters, and yet she acknowledges that Guderian’s adjutant Major Bernd Freytag von Loringhoven describes Fegelein bursting into a situation conference to show them. Hitler seized the “macabre images” and examined them “for an eternity, with a look of ghoulish delight.” Freytag von Loringhoven, who had friends and cousins involved in the plot, was also the most scrupulous and reliable of eyewitnesses, probably more so than Hitler’s Luftwaffe adjutant, the oft-quoted Major Nicolaus von Below.
After the bomb blast in East Prussia, Hitler’s health deteriorated dramatically, making him look twenty years older than his true age. In the odd moment of lucidity, he would admit that the war was lost and he would have to commit suicide. But then he would grasp at some straw and convince himself once again to believe in a “final victory.” Eva Braun, who made her will in October 1944, had no illusions. She was quite determined to die with him, and if that were not possible, then she would kill herself, in a form of voluntary suttee, as soon as she had certain word of his death.
At the end of January 1945, following the failure of the Ardennes offensive and the dramatic advance of the Red Army into East Prussia and from the river Vistula to the river Oder, the imminent downfall of the Third Reich became hard to ignore. On February 9, just over a week after Soviet forces seized bridgeheads across the river Oder less than sixty miles from Berlin, Eva Braun left with her pregnant sister Gretl Fegelein for the safety of the Berghof. On March 7, just under a month later, Bormann noted in his diary that “in the evening Eva Braun left for Berlin in a courier train.” This was the crucial decision of her life. Hitler, increasingly suspicious of last-minute betrayals, rejoiced at her willingness to come back to Berlin to share his fate.
Contrary to Speer’s feeling that a regime should not be judged by “terminal events,” the downfall of the Nazis revealed that despite all their claims to an ideology, an utterly self-serving ethos lay at its heart. With the exception of Joseph and Magda Goebbels and Eva Braun, almost everyone else was deserting their Führer as the Soviet armies attacked toward the center of Berlin. The betrayal by Heinrich Himmler struck Hitler the most painfully. He had just noticed the absence of Fegelein, who was Himmler’s liaison officer at Führer headquarters. Officers sent to bring him back discovered him drunk in his apartment in the company of a mistress with whom he was about to abscond. Fegelein rang Eva to plead for help but she refused, it seems because she was far more furious about his desertion of Hitler than his betrayal of her sister.
Fegelein was brought back and on Hitler’s orders interrogated by the chief of the Gestapo. On April 28, when it became clear that Fegelein had known of the secret negotiations between Himmler and Count Folke Bernadotte of the Swedish Red Cross, Hitler ordered his execution. It took place a few hours before Hitler married Eva Braun. Under Nazi law both man and wife had to make a solemn declaration that they were free from hereditary diseases and were of Aryan stock.
In her last letters Eva Braun shows no sympathy at all for the pointless suffering of the people of Berlin. She is more interested in having the large bills from her dressmaker destroyed and in retrieving a diamond watch being repaired by a watchmaker in the Oranienburg concentration camp under the supervision of an SS Unterscharführer. While keen to hide her extravagance from the eyes of posterity, Eva Braun’s one genuine economy was to have her watch, which she wanted to give to her sister Gretl, fixed for free by a concentration camp prisoner.
The end for Adolf and Eva Hitler was suitably grotesque. After their joint suicide, their bodies were carried upstairs wrapped in gray Wehrmacht blankets. Hitler’s valet, Heinz Linge, managed to remove the Führer’s watch to pocket it as a souvenir. And when the two bodies were doused in gasoline and set on fire, as Hitler had instructed beforehand, a drunken SS guard staggered down the stairs to say to the bunker telephonist Rochus Misch, “The chief’s on fire. Do you want to come and have a look?”
Perhaps Eva Braun saw her destiny with Hitler as a cinematic finale. She thought she had found a magnificent role—the heroine who, after suffering years of neglect in the shadow of the man she loves, is vindicated in an ending where by her devotion she is finally acknowledged as a sort of Nazi Jane Eyre. Her fantasy was a comparatively innocuous one. In a much wider sense, Hitler and the Nazi leadership showed that their fantasies could be just as deadly as their hatreds.