This review of Eva Braun: Life with Hitler originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post in 2012.
What was it like, being seduced by Adolf Hitler? Apparently he “gave the most thrilling compliments.” When he first met the teenage Eva Braun, in the Munich studio of the Nazi Party’s official photographer in 1929, Hitler turned on the charm: “May I invite you to the opera, Miss Eva? I am always surrounded by men, you see, so I know very well how much the pleasure of a woman’s company is worth.” Eva was a goner. Who, she demanded, “could withstand” that? Who indeed?
Somewhat less romantically, Hitler immediately ordered his loyal thug Martin Bormann to investigate the Braun family genealogy, to make sure they were “Aryan” – in other words, Hitler wanted assurances that his prospective mistress wasn’t of Jewish descent. This test, at least, she passed. By 1933, when the Nazis were surging chaotically to power, Eva Braun – “an ordinary girl from Munich” – had become the secret consort of the leader of Europe’s most successful far-right party. Twelve years later, in a damp bunker in the grounds of the Old Chancellery in Berlin, Braun swallowed a cyanide capsule while Hitler shot himself in the head. They had been married for only a few hours.
So who, exactly, was Eva Braun? Heike Gortemaker has marshalled the few scant traces that Hitler’s consort left behind. The documentary evidence is thin – no letters between Braun and Hitler survive, and a twenty-page fragment is all that appears to remain of Eva’s diary. The story is fascinating nonetheless. To all appearances, Eva Braun was “a young woman of average abilities from a conventional, lower-middle-class family.” She was, as Albert Speer and other surviving Nazis always insisted, never “political.” Neither was she the type of the Aryan Ice Maiden so beloved by Nazi propaganda. She was, however, perhaps the most unhinged and devoted acolyte of the Hitler cult – a worshiper of the Fuhrer who also happened to share his bed. In this sense, Braun’s trajectory was the trajectory of Germany itself during the Nazi period – from bourgeois normality to the homicidal delirium of fascism, in sixteen dreadful years.
Our usual picture of Braun is of a political innocent, swept up in the charismatic nightmare of Nazism – deranged, certainly, but not an ideologue. Gortemaker revises this. She points out that Braun set about insinuating herself into Hitler’s inner circle with the devotion of a woman obsessed. On two occasions – August 1932 (her father’s revolver) and May 1935 (sleeping pills) – Braun attempted suicide. They weren’t serious attempts; they were designed to get Hitler’s attention. And they worked: without ever acknowledging her publicly, Hitler began involving Braun in official Nazi events. After the second suicide attempt, Hitler gave Braun her own apartment in Munich. She attended the 1935 Nuremburg Rally dressed in “expensive fur.” And by the time the War broke out, in September 1939, she was ensconced at the Berghof, Hitler’s private retreat on the Obersalzburg, with Speer, Martin Bormann, and Hitler’s physician Karl Brandt. Eva was in charge of selecting the movies they watched.
At this point, Gortemaker’s book – starved for facts about Eva – broadens to become a portrait of life at the Berghof, where Hitler assembled his closest associates into a kind of ascendancy of the mediocre and the mad. The narrative, already compelling, here becomes truly absorbing. Hanging out at the Berghof with Hitler was, it seems, a rum experience. Speer remembers being bored. Speer’s wife, on the other hand, had a blast. And Hitler, we learn, spent a lot of time in bed. Eva went on skiing trips and nagged her lover about being late for dinner. And while this gallery of lunatics was enjoying its fantasy of country-house life, the world collapsed into war.
The end was inevitable – Hitler seemed to know it, and Eva knew it, too. “If something happens to him, I’ll die,” she said when Hitler set off for the Polish front in 1939. She meant it literally. Their last days were spent in the “Fuhrerbunker,” where they sat around discussing how to kill themselves. “I want to be a beautiful corpse,” Braun announced. “I will take poison.” And so she did, after what has to have been the strangest wedding in history. The Red Army was hammering on the door.