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.