A new German biography attempts to show Eva Braun in a new light. But is there anything there to show?
In the last 70 years, historians, military experts, and other scholars have compiled a massive library of research into Nazi Germany. Every angle of the war seems to have been sifted and examined closely, as if by tracking the ballistics of every bullet fired in the war we could finally understand how a nation became so caught up in the hysteria. These days, Germany is taking the full disclosure approach, and so when someone makes a small and relatively insignificant discovery about, for example, Hitler's medical file, it makes the headlines.
But in this vast sea of information, there has been one uncharted region: the life of Hitler's mistress, the woman who died at his side, Eva Braun. Biographer and historian Heike Görtemaker hopes to remedy this with her new book, Eva Braun: Leben mit Hitler (Life with Hitler). Der Spiegel is praising it as the first biography to take a "a strictly academic approach" to Braun, and the first book to look past the legend and "[take] the character at the center of [the] book seriously." While Eva Braun is getting high-profile reviews in Germany, however, its value as an "academic" look at Nazi Germany's first mistress is pretty dubious. Some full disclosure leads to insight into past atrocities. With Eva Braun, however, you get to hear about her squabbles with Adolf over his vegetarian diet and the fact that they once had sex on a couch.
The general consensus on Braun, which Görtemaker's book sets out to dismantle, has always been that she was an empty-headed flibbertigibbet. In the German film Der Untergang (released in the United States as Downfall), an intimate portrait of Hitler and his inner circle in their bunker in the last days of the war, Braun flits by insubstantially. She twirls around the ballroom during a party with a vapid smile painted on her face in thick red lipstick, urging the men and women to dance as Allied bombs fall above their heads. In German history class, Braun is a victim, a silly girl who was swept along in history due to her unfortunate taste in men. Hitler's biographers, such as Joachim C. Fest who wrote the best-selling Hitler: Eine Biographie, believed that with either willful ignorance or stupidity, Braun closed her eyes and ears to the war raging around her. Fest describes her as "a simple, moderately attractive girl with unpretentious dreams and thoughts that were dominated by love, fashion, movies, and gossip." He also recounts an anecdote widely retold in books about Hitler and Braun: Hitler told his friend Albert Speer that the best thing an intelligent man could do would be to take "a primitive and stupid woman" as his lover. He said this while Braun sat devotedly at his side, uncomplaining.
The only traces of Braun's inner life come from parts of a diary that was 10 years old at her death and whose authenticity is still under debate, plus a scattering of letters. Previous biographies of Braun, such as those by Nerin E. Gun and Angela Lambert, have suffered from this lack of primary sources of information and have been cast aside as being full of gossip and factual errors.
The goal of Eva Braun does not appear to be rehabilitation so much as sifting fact from conjecture and determining whether Braun should be recast from victim to villain. Görtemaker recently told the Observer, "[Braun] was in the loop and knew what was going on. She was no mere bystander," and she lays out her case to prove this. But despite its lofty ambitions, Leben mit Hitler does little to transcend the earlier portrait. Görtemaker wants us to believe that Braun's bimbo image originated with Hitler's efforts to disguise their relationship. She reports that Joseph Goebbels thought Braun was "a clever girl" -- a dubious honor. But her story does not stray far from the previous narrative. No new information has come to light, no secret diary discovered, no cache of correspondence: When Hitler was purging personal documents in the end days, it is believed any private journal Braun may have kept was destroyed too. Görtemaker reveals that Braun was more active in the Nazi plans for their postwar domination, involved with re-creating Linz as their new capital of culture. She attended a few high-level meetings at Hitler's side, often posing as a secretary, so she was not completely oblivious.
But without any real record, Görtemaker can only speculate about what Braun knew, what she believed, and what she did about it. She still comes off as a silly girl, and nothing explains why she fell in love with this genocidal creep, or why her devotion grew so strong that she turned her back on her despairing family. When her sister's husband was arrested for desertion, for example, there's no evidence that Braun did anything to convince Hitler to stay his execution.
Although Braun was 33 when she died, there is still something of the melodramatic, petulant teenage girl about her. She takes an overdose of sleeping pills when she fears Hitler's attentions are straying. She's jealous of the attention he pays his dog, and she sullenly kicks it when he's not around. She may rebel a little by smoking cigarettes, despite Hitler's disapproval, but she still willingly heels at his command, keeping their relationship a secret because he wants to maintain the illusion of being God-like and above such human needs as companionship or sex.
In fact, there is nothing at all interesting about Eva Braun except for the fact that she dated Hitler. The facts of her life are so mundane as to be interchangeable with any other woman of the era, except for that one twist. She longed for marriage ... with Hitler. She was so dreamily in love that she could not bear her family's criticisms of her boyfriend ... who happened to be Adolf Hitler. She dabbled in photography, mostly filming the men in her life ... Adolf Hitler and his top advisors. In the films she shot at Berghof, Hitler's Bavarian retreat, Hitler is shown meeting with dignitaries, conversing with his generals, staring out into the Bavarian landscape. Cut to Eva Braun, picking flowers with her girlfriend.
Looking at the same scanty collection of diary fragments, interviews, and letters, most historians see a nonentity -- while Görtemaker sees an intelligent, engaged woman who bears some responsibility for history, if only for not opening her mouth in protest. Görtemaker, who earned praise with her previous biography of post-World War II journalist Margret Boveri, is rigorous about discounting unsubstantiated anecdotes, but in other places she draws conclusions about Braun's personal political beliefs that don't have any rationale, making the assumption, for example, that because she never argued with Hitler she did not disagree with his actions in the war. Because of this, Görtemaker has met with some resistance from Germany's critics, even as they praise her scholarship. Die Welt called her analysis of the material "too speculative," and a disappointed Süddeutsche Zeitung admonished Görtemaker, "You can't write what you don't know."
And there is a lot that Görtemaker and the rest of us do not know. With so little to go on, Braun still appears to be more metaphor than flesh and blood. Her blankness is her defining characteristic. Braun can be, and was in Angela Lambert's problematic biography The Lost Life of Eva Braun, a stand-in for the unquestioning wives of the officers who carried out Hitler's orders -- even for the nation of Germany itself. Or, if you'd like to take it further, for the wives of politicians who stand by loyally as their husbands drag us into war, women who marry serial killers serving life sentences in prison, or every woman who defends the boyfriend who brutalizes her night after night. We don't understand these women, just as we still don't quite understand how that whole Nazi Germany thing happened, no matter how much we analyze the historical record. Görtemaker's book is just the latest failure in this attempt.