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Monday, Dec. 12, 2011

Eva Braun: More Than Just a Pretty Face

Görtemaker examines mistress' 'Life With Hitler'

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In April 1945, as Russian artillery rounds fell like leaden hail on Berlin, a plain yet eerie ceremony took place in the bunker underneath the Old Reich Chancellery. With only two close associates in attendance and a hurriedly summoned city clerk officiating, Adolf Hitler, 56, absolute ruler of Germany, and Eva Braun, his 33-year-old mistress, were joined in marriage.

Forty hours or so later, the newlyweds committed suicide together. What a honeymoon that must have been, eh?

If that last sentence is not in the least humorous, it is because (a) humor about Hitler, even gallows humor, has long been considered verboten, and (b) what can be humorous about a nonentity like Eva Braun?

As to (b), German historian Heike B. Görtemaker begs to differ. She writes in Eva Braun: Life With Hitler (Knopf) that Braun was anything but the politically naïve, superficial young woman she historically has been taken for, one who played merely a meaningless secondary role in Hitler's life and politics.

And Görtemaker differs with a vengeance. Employing a detective's skill and a journalist's flair in a meticulous study of the sources, she reconstructs the life of Eva Braun from the petty bourgeois household of her schoolteacher father to the inner circle of the Nazi overlord. She finds impressive evidence that Braun was more than just a pretty face for Hitler.

Most histories have maintained that Hitler either was incapable of personal attachments or identified himself so completely with his leadership role that he had no private life. Görtemaker corrects this picture.

In Germany, where this biography first was published, some critics complained that the work is too speculative, that it drew conclusions from thin evidence. Before his suicide, Hitler, who in any case committed few intimate thoughts to paper, ordered all of his private documents destroyed.

But the criticism ignores the author's ingenious use of Braun's occasional letters to friends and acquaintances, and, most of all, of the postwar statements and memoirs of members of Hitler's inner circle. Knowing how questionable or self-serving the latter can be, she subjects every witness and his or her statements to rigid tests of believability.

In this manner Görtemaker makes a good case that Braun achieved an unassailable position in Hitler's private and public life, which were, contrary to previous thought, intimately intertwined. Indeed, Braun likely shared—though to what extent is impossible to determine—most of his National Socialist beliefs and his awareness of the atrocities they were causing.

Hitler treasured her unbounded loyalty and dedication, though she was far from being the Nazis' ideal of German womanhood, concerned only with domestic matters. She smoked, wore makeup and expensive clothes, engaged in athletic sports, and loved—after teetotaler Hitler had left the gathering—to party.

In their eccentric way they lived as husband and wife, often ascending to their adjoining bedrooms together in the evening. But Hitler maintained the myth that he was "married to the German people" and thus could not marry as others do. Therefore when official visitors or foreign guests came to see him, Braun usually remained unseen, and most of the German public did not learn of the Führer's lover until after the war.

Yet even painstaking research cannot answer all questions. Görtemaker cannot be sure when Hitler and Braun first met, though it is believed to be in October 1929 in the Munich photo studio of Braun's employer, Heinrich Hoffmann, where she supposedly caught the eye of the future mass murderer.

As to when the two lovebirds might have become lovers, the author is inclined to believe the postwar testimony of Hitler's Munich housekeeper, who said it was at the beginning of 1932. Presumably she was in a position to check the sheets.

But history stops at the bedroom door. For suggestions about what went on behind it, we must turn to fiction. The late Dutch author Harry Mulisch, for example, posits in his roguish 2001 novel Siegfried that Braun bore Hitler a son. Mulisch uses that conceit to raise questions about the "negativity" and soullessness of Hitler that, judging from her findings, Görtemaker might well agree with, but as a historian she must and does steer clear of them.
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