The Woman Who Wasn’t There
Heike B. Görtemaker
Eva Braun: Life With Hitler
Allen Lane, 2011
It is interesting that no one ever refers to “Eva Hitler”, despite the fact that Eva Braun and Adolf Hitler were married—albeit on the penultimate day of their lives. Maybe this is indicative of Eva Braun’s place in the public consciousness: her name is irrevocably associated with the 20th century’s most enduring fascination; yet she has remained a mysterious, largely unexplored synonym for evil in her own right.
Heike B. Görtemaker’s new biography comes with a discreet, yet professional portrait of an attractive young girl on its black-bound front cover. It is a potent piece of myth making. The suggestion that the little-known Braun was someone more sophisticated than our collective idea of Hitler’s ideal alpine fräulein is aided and abetted by Der Spiegel‘s dust jacket promise of “The first scientifically researched biography to correct the image of the dumb blonde at the side of the mass murderer”, as well as Eva’s own darkly romantic assertion: “I want to be a beautiful corpse, I will take poison”.
Unfortunately the author of Eva Braun: Life with Hitler is wholly reliant on existing resources—especially a cadre of post-war ex-Nazi memoirs (this would be a very different book, for instance, without Albert Speer’s Inside the Third Reich). Görtemaker is right to question the validity of their often self-exonerating agendas, but it soon becomes evident that she did not have access to anyone previously silent or to documentation only now in the public domain. Admittedly, the passage of time has left very few survivors from the age of Nazi confession, but Görtemaker’s text remains overloaded with quoted material and especially reliant upon Nerin Gün’s 1968 biography of Braun. Görtemaker casts doubt upon Gün’s credentials, but is nevertheless imprisoned by dint of her predecessor having stayed with the Braun family circa 1967, whereupon he was given access to Eva’s private photographs and letters. She has no other recourse, therefore, but to utilise Gün’s account of Eva Braun and Hitler’s first meeting at the studio of NSDAP official photographer Heinrich Hoffmann. Hoffmann was also Eva’s employer and his role in the Braun-Hitler relationship is a recurring motif following an opening chapter in his name:
With his books of photographs—vetted by Hitler—that were printed in the millions, titles such as (in German) Hitler in His Mountains (1935), The Hitler Nobody Knows (1936), Hitler Off Duty (1937), and Hitler Conquers the German Heart (1938), Hoffmann filled an important function in the “Führer propaganda” system. He single-handedly shaped the personal side of Hitler’s “Führer image” with his purported insider snapshots and cast Hitler as the “father of the nation”…
Yet one feels already that we are being blinded with tangential material, that this is not a biography of Eva Braun, but rather a well-researched book about Hitler’s coterie. The chapter titled “Munich After the First World War”, for instance, draws a vivid picture and highlights the centrality of the city to the National Socialist movement, but only mentions Braun in its first and last lines. Görtemaker goes on to present endless mini-biographies of prominent Nazi wives and virtually everyone ever employed by Hitler: doctors, adjutants, chauffeurs, and National Socialist bit-part players whose names tumble back and forth but ultimately add little to the portrait of Eva Braun. Pages go by without mention of Eva as we supposedly follow her “rise to power at Hitler’s side”, her role as a “[Woman] in National Socialism”, and her unnoticed climb to become “the mistress [in] the inner circle”. The author attempts to place her somewhere among Hitler’s shadowy in-crowd, but these connections remain at a speculative level. Nevertheless, she acknowledges the dilemma posed by her elusive subject:
Eva Braun’s “socially unclear position” can also be attributed to the fact that Hitler lived outside the bounds of his own ideology…[I]t was not only Eva Braun’s social status that was questionable among the “Führer’s” close circle; the character of her relationship to Hitler itself remained completely mysterious…Every guest was left on his or her own to decide what the connection between Hitler and Braun might be.
Görtemaker believes it was a relationship “in complete harmony with Hitler’s bohemian, antibourgeois lifestyle”. She is clearly an authority on Hitler’s private realm and records the dates of his alpine retreats in by far the longest chapter, “Life on the Obersalzberg”. However, for all the fine attention to detail throughout, it is only during the book’s latter pages that it becomes truly engaging. We learn of Hitler’s fantasy to step down from office and seclude himself within the Austrian city of Linz: “Aside from Fräulein Braun, I’ll take no one with me. Fräulein Braun and my dog”. Indeed, Görtemaker is at her most effective when revealing Hitler’s exaggerated sense of his own mythography—the fatherland figure who could never admit to any private life beyond his absolute devotion to the German people.
Within this context, the balancing of historical moment and subject also becomes more salient. Görtemaker conveys Eva Braun’s deep attachment to the Führer, alongside details such as annual vacations in Italy and her continuing to work at Hoffmann’s photography studio. This is something which correlated with her interest in a medium she utilised to secure her public and private image of the man 23 years her senior by having him sit for a “relaxed domestic portrait” alongside her and the two young children of her friend Herta Schneider.
Since Eva Braun preserved these pictures in a separate photo album she started specially … it is reasonable to assume that she was thereby recording her own desire for a normal family life, and that during the long periods of separation caused by the war, she took as much delight in her fantasy world on celluloid as Hitler did in his models of Linz.
We learn of the will Eva Braun made in October 1944 and her ignoring advice to head for the relative safety of southern Germany: “I will stay with him up until the last moment, I’ve thought it out exactly. No one can stop me.” As the Soviets closed on Berlin she became ever calmer (Albert Speer viewed her arrival in the bunker as that of a “messenger of death”) and alongside her expectation that Hitler also “play his part to the very end” were impromptu champagne parties with Weimar-era records and dancing, followed by the almost ghostly hysteria that came with the presence of cyanide capsules below ground. All this makes for highly evocative history as Görtemaker illustrates Braun’s now untouchable place at the apex of a disintegrating hierarchy. One senses that perhaps only she could have persuaded Hitler the war was lost. That she chose not to do so indicates the blindness of her devotion. It also establishes her as a guilty party in the delay of Germany’s surrender.
It would have been nice to have had separate photographic plates (considering the £25.00 retail price) or a reproduction of Hitler artist Theodor Bohnenberger’s painting of Eva, yet the book does provide an interesting visual record of her exploits that belies her position at the side of history’s most infamous instigator of genocide: from posing on a desk in the Photohaus Hoffmann to a black-faced impersonation of Al Jolson to soirées in the Berghof’s art-laden great hall.
Ultimately, there is no doubting Gortemaker’s prowess as a serious researcher or her in-depth knowledge of Hitler’s ever-shifting court. Sixty-two pages of notes are testimony to her exactitude with archival materials that range from US Army Military Intelligence Special Reports to the Nuremburg Trials and Denazification Court Record boxes. And yet, for the greater part, the young woman who participated willingly in a double-suicide as Eva Hitler (an existence concealed from the German public until after the war) retains her twilight presence; a mysterious, feminine otherness at the heart of darkness.
Paul Scott completed the University of Oxford’s Undergraduate Diploma in Creative Writing at the Department of Continuing Education (2011). His “At the Winter Hotel on Lake Yamanaka” was shortlisted for the Oxonian Review‘s recent poetry competition.