By Klaus Wiegrefe
The field research on the details of the relationship between Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun began while the dictator was still alive. The "Führer" was a late sleeper. In the late morning, after he had left his bedroom, with its connecting door to Braun's quarters, and the staff had removed the bed linens, the curious employees would scrutinize the sheets and pillowcases, searching for clues to what had happened there in the previous night.
"We snooped around in the beds," Herbert Döhring, the manager of the Berghof, Hitler's home in the Bavarian Alps, confessed to a television team decades later. But they found nothing, leading Döhring, a member of the Waffen-SS, to conclude that the relationship between the dictator and Braun, 23 years his junior, must have been platonic.
In the Third Reich, Döhring was one of only a small group of people who knew about Braun's close relationship with Hitler. It wasn't until after the war that the public learned that the dictator had spent many years in the company of an attractive blonde from Munich, who he married hours before the couple committed suicide, on April 30, 1945, in the Führer's bunker in Berlin.
Their secretiveness was based on political calculation. "Many women find me appealing because I am unmarried," Hitler believed. "It's the same thing with a film actor: When he marries, he loses a certain something among the women who worship him, and they no longer idolize him quite as much anymore".
Correcting the Image of Braun
Because of the relatively clandestine nature of their relationship, after the war the public was all the more intrigued about the daughter of a Munich vocational school teacher who had spent about a decade and a half at his side -- mostly at the Berghof in Obersalzberg in the German Alps, and occasionally in Berlin. But the initial answers did little to satisfy that curiosity. British historian and intelligence officer Hugh Trevor-Roper, who questioned Hitler's entourage immediately after the end of the war, concluded that Eva Braun was "uninteresting". Every other notable Hitler biographer would eventually arrive at the same conclusion.
But is it true?
Berlin historian Heike Görtemaker has now taken on the task of correcting this image of Braun, by writing the first scholarly biography of Braun, published by the prestigious Beck publishing house. Several, lighter works on Hitler's mistress have preceded the new tome.
By taking a strictly academic approach, Görtemaker manages to dispense with many of the anecdotes that have amused and occasionally titillated readers. According to one of these stories, Braun allegedly complained, in the Führer bunker, about her constant arguments with Adolf about meals. Hitler, an adamant vegetarian, allegedly demanded that she eat only gruel and mushroom dip, which she found disgusting ("I can't eat this stuff").
According to another story, told by one of the dictator's secretaries, Braun would secretly kick Hitler's German shepherd Blondie, supposedly because she was jealous of the dog. She is said to have gloated over Blondie's howls after abusing the dog ("Adolf is surprised at the animal's strange behavior. That's my revenge").
'The History of that Sofa'
Görtemaker puts as little stock in such "tabloid" stories told by the people in Hitler's immediate surroundings as she does in Döhring's bed-linen analysis. Instead, the historian assumes that the couple had a normal, intimate relationship, as Braun's friends and relatives would later report. According to those accounts, when Braun saw a photo depicting British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain sitting on the sofa in Hitler's Munich apartment in 1938, she giggled and said: "If he only knew the history of that sofa!".
The historian takes the character at the center of her book seriously, and in the material she has analyzed, there is credible evidence that Braun was more to Hitler than an "attractive young thing" in whom the dictator "found, despite or perhaps because of her unassuming and insipid appearance, the sort of relaxation and calm he was seeking," as Hitler's personal photographer Heinrich Hoffmann later claimed.
In his will, which Hitler drew up in 1938, Braun's name appeared immediately after that of the Nazi Party. Under the provisions of the will, the party was to pay her a substantial, lifelong pension, to be drawn from his assets. Propaganda minister and Hitler confidant Joseph Goebbels noted several times how much the dictator appreciated his mistress ("A clever girl, who means a lot to the Führer").
She was involved in the plans for the conversion of the Austrian city of Linz into the Führer's cultural capital, where Hitler, a native of Austria, planned to retire after the Nazi's final victory. And if he had had his way, Braun would also have survived the demise of the German Reich. He repeatedly asked her to leave Berlin in the final days of the war and fly to Bavaria. But Braun refused. Until the very end, Hitler spoke of her "with great respect and inner devotion," Albert Speer, Hitler's crown prince, said in his first statements to the Allies in 1945.
Devoid of Friends?
The notion that Braun meant something to the dictator is not as banal as it may seem at first glance. The perception of her as an inconsequential accoutrement contributed greatly to the image of Hitler as a purely political being. This is the perspective conveyed by best-selling Hitler biographers Joachim C. Fest, Sebastian Haffner and Ian Kershaw.
According to their versions, Hitler lived a life devoid of friends, love and passion -- a life that was easy to discard and, therefore, was accompanied by a constant readiness to commit suicide. For Haffner, at least, Hitler's 1945 suicide in his Berlin bunker was "to be expected." In a broader sense, the all-or-nothing policies Hitler pursued until total defeat could also be interpreted as a consequence of the dictator's emotional emptiness.
Görtemaker avoids directly criticizing this interpretation, but it is clear that her account raises the issue, once again, of Hitler's psyche. Of course, her book also shows how difficult it will be to find answers, because of the order Hitler issued in 1945 to destroy all private records. The order most likely extended to his correspondence with Braun, which has been proven to have once existed.
For this reason, the historian can only draw on a few letters Braun wrote to female friends and relatives, as well as fragments of a 1935 diary, although its authenticity is disputed. She also makes use of statements made by Hitler's servants, bodyguards, his chauffeur and various senior Nazis in the decades following the war, although she treats this information with a healthy dose of skepticism, and rightfully so. A constant thread throughout the book is Görtemaker's acknowledgement that there are many questions she cannot answer.
Even the beginnings of the affair are relatively murky. Hitler apparently met Braun in 1929, when she was 17, at the "NSDAP Photohaus Hoffmann," a photography shop, on Amalienstrasse in Munich. The young woman, who looks mischievous in pictures, had previously attended a girls' school for home economics and office management, and was now working in the photography shop. Her boss Heinrich Hoffmann, who was chosen as Hitler's official photographer, was one of the early members of the Nazi Party. A hard-drinking anti-Semite, Hoffmann made a fortune with propaganda photos and picture books, including a book titled "The Hitler Nobody Knows".
For Hitler, a 40-year-old opposition politician at the time, there were many opportunities to pay a visit to Hoffmann's shop. The Nazi Party's national office was around the corner, as were the editorial offices of the party newspaper Völkischer Beobachter and, of course, Hitler's favorite restaurant, the Osteria Bavaria.
If what Hoffmann's daughter later said is true, the party leader charmed the teenager with snide Viennese charm: "May I invite you to the opera, Miss Eva? You see, I am always surrounded by men, and so I can appreciate my good fortune when I find myself in the company of a woman".
When he was with women, the mass murderer's manners were refined, and he never showed the slightest inclination toward womanizing. The naïve Braun, who fantasized about the world of films and loved fashion magazines, succumbed to the strong suggestive powers that even neutral observers ascribed to Hitler. Soon after meeting Braun, the Nazi leader apparently issued orders to look into whether the Braun family had any Jewish ancestors.
No one knows when the banter turned into a relationship. In 1932, Braun tried to commit suicide with her father's gun, which some contemporaries suspected was an attempt to pressure Hitler to pay more attention to her. The Nazi leader had his eye on the chancellorship, and it would have been the second suicide by a young woman that could have been tied to Hitler. His niece, Geli Rauball, shot herself to death, presumably to escape the attentions of her jealous uncle.
The Back of the Group
Young Eva Braun, on the other hand, seemed to have suffered from a lack of attention or recognition from Hitler. The World War I veteran, who had been a failure in civilian life, continued to live a Bohemian existence after coming to power in 1933. He was often absent for days from the business of running the government in Berlin. He spent his time strolling through Munich, going to the opera and the theater with his shady entourage and visiting construction sites, which Hitler, a lover of architecture, felt were important. In good weather, the group would drive out to the countryside, and Braun often went along on these outings.
Of course, she was required to travel in a separate compartment with the secretaries, and during the country walks her place was at the back of the group. On occasion, Hitler would openly hand her an envelope filled with cash, which reminded Speer of "American gangster films".
In 1935, Braun attempted suicide again, this time with sleeping pills, and there are some indications that the relationship only became more intimate after that. Hitler paid for her apartment and later installed her in her own house, so that she could finally move out of her parents' house. She grew into the role of hostess at the Berghof, where Hitler would often spend weeks at a time, even during the war. Her official title was "private secretary." But at some point Hitler and Braun became more familiar with each other around other people.
Of course, the dictator continued to keep the relationship out of the public eye. Only one photograph of the couple eluded the censors and was released to the press. It depicts Hitler attending the 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, with Braun sitting in the row behind him.
Detrimental to his Image
Despite his efforts to conceal the relationship, the Allied press eventually learned that Hitler had a girlfriend named Braun, and Time reported the story in 1939. But it remained a secret in Germany, and Hitler was probably correct in his assumption that going public with the love affair would have been detrimental to his image as Führer.
Reinhard Spitzy, a staunch Nazi and employee of the former German ambassador to London, Joachim Ribbentrop, was astonished when a young woman with whom he was unfamiliar suddenly interrupted a conversation between Ribbentrop and Hitler at the Berghof, and said that the men should "finally" come to dinner. A colleague explained Braun's position to Spitzy, who was appalled. He had imagined Hitler as an "ascetic, above sex and passion." Instead, his hero was no different from anyone else.
Braun had a strong interest in photography and making films, and she also liked to be photographed. The photo albums and films of her that have survived depict her as a carefree, athletic and extroverted woman, who sometimes posed in her bathing suit and even filmed her sister when she went swimming in the nude. After the war, a former member of the SS complained that she did not conform to the "ideal of a German girl." According to the SS officer, Braun would start "making the initial preparations for all kinds of amusements" -- parties at the mountain hideaway -- shortly after Hitler's limousine had pulled away from the Berghof.
Such statements conform to the image of an apolitical entourage that everyone involved -- from lowly servants to luminaries such as Albert Speer -- described after the war, and into which Braun seemed to have integrated herself seamlessly. There was said to be a rule at the Berghof: that politics was not to be discussed in the presence of women. Instead, the topics of discussion were apparently fashion, dog breeding and operettas.
Biographer Görtemaker doesn't have any trouble introducing arguments against the exclusiveness of this version. A look into Braun's photo albums, which include pictures she took on Aug. 23, 1939, is enough to support this notion. On that day Ribbentrop, who had been promoted to foreign minister by then, was in negotiations with Stalin in Moscow over the partition of Eastern Europe between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Hitler wanted the alliance so that he could invade Poland. The photos show how tense and visibly restless he was while waiting for the outcome of Ribbentrop's talks with Stalin. It was pure politics, and Braun was there.
Görtemaker also believes that the woman at his side "shared Hitler's worldview and political opinions uncritically." The circumstances alone suggest that this was the case. Braun spent almost half of her 33 years in the company of fanatical Nazis.
It is well known that in 1939 Hitler spoke openly before the Reichstag of the destruction of European Jews -- and in his second will, which he wrote shortly before committing suicide, he once again underlined his hatred of Jews. It is hard to believe that Braun could have endured the 2,280 days between those two events if she hadn't been an anti-Semite herself. However, we will probably never know whether she tried to influence him in any way.
The Making of Legends
Braun was faithful unto death, and it was this unconditional loyalty that Hitler presumably valued in her above all else. "Only Miss Braun and my German Shepherd are loyal to me and belong to me," he is believed to have said near the end of the war, when Europe was in ruins and the murder of European Jews was already largely a fait accompli.
At that point, Braun had already decided to remain with the Führer. She even had someone teach her how to use a pistol when the Red Army had already advanced into Berlin. "We are fighting to the end here," she wrote from the Führer's bunker to her closest friend on April 22. "I will die as I have lived. It will not be difficult for me".
According to the records of the Berchtesgaden District Court, Eva Braun died on April 30, 1945, at 3:28 p.m., after biting into a capsule of potassium cyanide. Hitler followed her two minutes later.
The making of legends could begin.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan