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Did Hitler's Mistress Have A Clue?

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.

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Feature

Obama's 'Mission Accomplished' Moment

It's way too soon to claim victory in Iraq. But the Obama administration seems determined to do just that.

On Feb. 10, U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden gave an interview to CNN. Most of the next day's headlines predictably focused on his assessment that al Qaeda probably isn't capable of mounting another 9/11-style attack. What garnered far less attention was his take on Iraq. "You're going to see 90,000 American troops come marching home by the end of the summer," he declared. "You're going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government." He predicted that the withdrawal would count among the "great achievements of this administration."

Perhaps these claims are not surprising. President Barack Obama himself declared the war as good as over in his January State of the Union address. U.S. casualties have dropped sharply over the past two years, as have losses among Iraqi civilians and soldiers. Around half of Iraqis now say they are optimistic about the coming year, according to recent polls. What's more, in just a few weeks they'll have a chance to cast their votes in a fresh parliamentary election -- something that remains a dramatic exception to the political rule in the modern Middle East. All this offers grounds for hope.

And yet one can't help but think that Obama is running the risk of repeating one of his predecessor's most notorious blunders. Just weeks after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, George W. Bush famously celebrated victory on an aircraft carrier festooned with a "Mission Accomplished" banner. His optimistic announcement preceded seven more years of war and the loss of thousands of troops, hundreds of billions of dollars, and vast quantities of global prestige -- along with the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis as well as the effective collapse of Iraq's state institutions, economy, and public infrastructure.

So, perhaps a bit of caution is in order, particularly because the Obama administration's haste to divest itself of its Iraqi liabilities could actually end up making everything worse. Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq expert with the International Crisis Group, puts it well: "The question I find myself asking is whether they're focused mainly on having their troops out by the deadline, or whether they're intent on getting their troops out in a way that will leave behind a stable Iraq."

It's a legitimate worry. Elections are a great thing, but in a country as fragile as Iraq they have the potential to tear open wounds as well as heal them. Many Iraq-watchers were hoping that the March 7 election would give members of the restive Sunni minority, many of whom have felt excluded since the 2003 invasion, occasion to enter into the political scene and help foster a more stable state. That, in turn, might provide insurance against the re-emergence of the sort of vicious sectarian conflict that plagued Iraq from 2006 to 2008.

But it hasn't worked out that way. Just a few days after Biden issued his rosy assessment, the Iraqi National List (known as "al-Iraqiyah"), a coalition of secular political groups that includes some of the country's most prominent Sunnis, announced that it was suspending its election campaign. The reason: A government commission had banned 511 candidates -- many of them Sunnis -- from running due to their alleged sympathies with the now-outlawed Baath Party. (Some have since been reinstated, but it's hard to know because the commission hasn't released all the names to the public.)

That fanned Sunni suspicions that the government -- specifically, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his allies in the Shiite religious parties -- aims to deny them political power. Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who heads al-Iraqiyah, warned that excluding the candidates could trigger a new civil war. As if on cue, bombs exploded outside the offices of some Sunni-dominated political parties in Baghdad, wounding 11 people. Abu Omar al-Baghdadi -- the shadowy head of the underground organization "the Islamic State of Iraq," whose mostly Sunni membership includes members of al Qaeda -- immediately chimed in to assail the elections and vow that he and his followers would disrupt them.

The election blacklist is just part of a broader trend, says James Danly, an Iraq expert at the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank. In recent months, "anti-Baathist sentiment throughout southern Iraq" has led to purges of local government officials -- a trend that he finds "even more worrisome" than the blacklisting of candidates from the parliamentary elections. He speaks of a "sense of increasing disenfranchisement" among broad swathes of the Sunni population. "Those of us who watch it really have the feeling of increasing sectarian division."

These rising tensions will not necessarily lead to all-out civil war, some Iraq experts say. Reidar Visser, an Iraq analyst at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, notes that the Iraqi government now boasts a proper security apparatus "and will be in a position to deploy this to repress internal enemies." D.J. Elliott, a retired U.S. Navy officer who covers the Iraqi security forces for Defense Industry Daily and his own blog, concurs. Combat experience, U.S. training, and new equipment have made the Iraqi military a force to be reckoned with, he says: The Iraqis "could have taken over the internal security portion a year ago. They aren't perfect, but they're as good as most countries in that region."

The irony, Visser warns, is that the government's new and improved security forces might stoke violence. "The risk is a turn towards authoritarian tendencies by a regime that will lack popular legitimacy due to a failed democratic process," he explains. Some experts note that the Maliki government has a track record of using certain elements of the security forces -- such as an elite counterterrorism force that takes orders straight from the prime minister -- for arresting political opponents. Viewed through that prism, the ban on Baathists looks less like a sectarian provocation than an attempt by Maliki and his allies in the religious parties to keep a potentially powerful secular rival -- Allawi's al-Iraqiyah -- from gaining a foothold in parliament. The repercussions could put Iraq's still-fragile political institutions under serious strain.

On top of all this, the fate of oil-rich Kirkuk -- claimed with equal passion by Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmen -- remains uncertain. The issue of who controls the region has simmered since the 2003 invasion, but U.S. officials -- with some vital but little-noticed support from the United Nations -- have repeatedly managed to head off mounting confrontations over the region's status between the rulers in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government. That tenuous state of affairs is unlikely to hold much longer. During his term as prime minister, Maliki has increasingly assumed the role of the protector of Arab interests in the region, going so far as to deploy the Iraqi Army in the province at the end of 2008.

This means that the United States might be branding unfinished business an unqualified success. Few of these problems are likely to be resolved by the time the pullout begins. What's more, it's easy to imagine that a weakened U.S. presence will give the Iraqis less incentive to find workable compromises. "The internal problems in Iraq are very serious indeed," Hiltermann says. "It all depends on whether the political order [can] withstand an American troop withdrawal."

That sounds about right. However you look at it, this war isn't over yet.

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