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The Lost Life of Eva Braun by Angela Lambert
Eva Braun, Frau Hitler for a mere 36 hours, has always been impossible to fathom or pin down. Can the consort of the monster really have been such a blank?
Sunday 26 March 2006
In 1981 Gore Vidal published an essay in The Nation entitled "Pink Triangle Yellow Star". The title referred to the two badges worn by inmates of Hitler's concentration camps, the yellow star to denote the Jews, the pink triangle for the homosexuals. But the principal target of a typically excoriating attack was not the Holocaust but the overt homophobia of the American intelligentsia. One paragraph in particular burned itself into my own consciousness at that time, a period which also saw Martin Sherman's play Bent put on at the Royal Court (and later in the West End). It starred Ian McKellen and Tom Bell and dealt seriously for the first time with the plight of homosexuals in the concentration camps.
"I was present," wrote Vidal, "when Christopher Isherwood tried to make this point to a young Jewish movie producer. 'After all,' said Isherwood, 'Hitler killed 600,000 homosexuals.' The young man was not impressed. 'But Hitler killed six million Jews,' he said sternly. 'What are you?' asked Isherwood. 'In real estate?'"
This might seem of doubtful relevance to Angela Lambert's long and exhaustively researched study of Hitler's only long-term mistress and, for some 36 hours, his wife, Eva Braun, but it in fact replicates one of her main subsidiary themes in the book. She is unhappy with the term Holocaust and prefers to use the phrase Black Events to describe the scale and variety of the Nazi atrocities on the grounds that, for most of us, Holocaust indicates exclusively the slaughter of the Jews. In fact, Nazi extermination policy and practice encompassed Jews, negroes, gipsies, Communists and physical, mental and moral "degenerates", all of whom had to be extirpated from the pure Aryan glory of the Thousand Year Reich.
Lambert, as a non-Jewish English writer, is well qualified for her work since her mother was German, was born within a month of Eva Braun's birth date in 1912 and came from a similar social class and background to Braun. Thus, for Lambert, Braun is not some exotic creature but an ordinary woman of a specific German type, not unlike Lambert's mother, who married an ordinary Englishman and survived the war because she was living in England while the rest of her family suffered on the civilian front in Germany. Given that Lambert's mother pops up periodically throughout the narrative to reinforce several of her arguments, I hope I'll be forgiven for a personal note in this review.
I was born in London in 1935, the son of academic German Jewish refugees who fled Germany in 1933, the year Hitler came to power. My parents helped as many of their relatives as they could to get out of Germany but could not save not all of them. Some refused to leave or were too old or infirm, and thus became part of the six million. So I never knew my grandparents. Since you can't really miss what you have never known, this did not affect me particularly deeply but became of great interest only as I watched my own children grow up and appreciated their relationship to their three grandparents. What I personally lost through the Black Events only really struck home in the last three years, as I have become a doubtless fond and foolish grandfather, and have been able to feel personally the deprivation of having had, thanks to Hitler, no contact at all with my own grandparents. Thus I can envy Lambert for her knowledge of her German grandparents and her virtual bilinguality in English and German, which she has used to such effect in this book. My own bilinguality ceased and evaporated at the age of four. With a war on, little English boys didn't speak German.
I became a keen student of history and, as a book publisher, helped to feed the avid interest of the British in Nazism. In one of the books I published I came across a Nazi list of Jewish intellectuals who had fled to England, were still living there and were to become an immediate part of the Final Solution when the SS and the Wehrmacht completed their successful invasion of these islands. When I showed the list to my father, then a respected Cambridge don, with his name circled by me in felt pen, I was aware of a distinct sense of pride coming off him as he saw the roll-call of those German writers, academics, artists and businessmen with whose talents Hitler had so strongly benefited his foes and conquerors.
As a publisher and a writer who, even now, finds the history of Germany from 1933 to 1945 endlessly absorbing 60 years after the war ended, I took considerable pleasure in some of the books I made available to British readers. The most fascinating was Walter Langer's The Mind of Adolf Hitler, the work - once secret - of a psychologist commissioned by America's OSS to construct a psychological profile of the Führer and analyse his weaknesses based on known biographical facts plus all available secret intelligence. The one that gave me the most pleasure was the selection of Goebbels' Diaries, introduced by Hugh Trevor-Roper. They were entirely genuine and uniformly horrible, but they did sell. My pleasure came from my giving a substantial part of the profits to The Jewish Quarterly, then still edited by its founder, Jacob Sontag, a journal and a human being of the kind that would have made Goebbels, perhaps the most revolting of all the Nazi leaders, spin furiously in his grave. The Swiss lawyer who represented the Goebbels estate was, I learned, sublimely unhappy when he saw the notice about the profits and The Jewish Quarterly on the copyright page of our edition.
Lambert's book contains, inevitably, since Braun as a biographical subject exists only as Hitler's creature, a kaleidoscope of snapshots of the Führer as seen through the eyes of those of his contemporaries and colleagues who wrote about him, notably Albert Speer and Putzi Hanfstaengel. Lambert also makes good and frequent use of the best previous writing on Hitler, particularly Gitta Sereny's great book on Speer and Trevor-Roper's Hitler's Table Talk. Without this skilful interweaving, to write a life of Eva Braun would be to try and make bricks without straw; a use of cliché which has its own irony since that was the impossible task imposed upon the Children of Israel by their Pharaonic masters. Because Braun, without her relationship to Hitler, would have received no biographical attention whatsoever, it's fair to say that she now exists in such detail in this book simply because there is still this vast need to satisfy our curiosity about the Nazi period; a curiosity which is, I suspect, partly voyeuristic and partly a desire to try to understand how such a period of sustained evil could be largely unquestioningly tolerated by the German people.
Merely to tell us Eva's life story gets us no further in this endless quest, which is doubtless why Lambert also interweaves a potted history of the Hitler years, making skilled - and fully acknowledged - use of the work of Richard Evans, Antony Beevor, Alan Bullock and others, as well as their German counterparts and Günter Grass's novel Crabwalk, the first important German book to examine the horrors of life as an ordinary German civilian during the War.
It is almost too obvious to state that the key figure in the book is not Eva Braun but Adolf Hitler. Since Hitler had dictated what the ideal German woman should look like, that's what Eva looked like. He had decreed that the perfect Nazi woman would stand by her man and breed as many new little Nazis as possible, while evincing no interest in or knowledge of politics; for this the absolute model was not actually Eva Braun but Magda Goebbels, who bore Josef six immaculate blonde children and shut her eyes not only to his evil politics but also to his constant philandering.
Eva was - apart from Hitler's niece Geli Raubal, who, unable to cope with her uncle as both Führer and lover, killed herself - the only woman he allowed himself to love. She gave Hitler no children because, Lambert suggests, he officially refused to marry because he was married to the Party, and, in reality, refrained from marriage because marriage in his society dictated children and he refused to breed because, while he disapproved of degeneracy and brought in outrageous eugenic laws to stamp it out, he knew his own family history was dangerously prone to a madness he did not wish to pass on or perpetuate.
Hitler first met Eva in 1929 when she was a teenage assistant in the Munich photographic business of Heinrich Hoffmann, who had shrewdly spotted Hitler's potential as early as 1922 and battened on to him as his official photographer until the end. Hitler was 23 years older, charismatic, potentially rich - the royalties from the preposterous Mein Kampf were huge - and already marked by power. On his part, the relationship grew slowly but eventually he bought her a small house in Munich and, when in charge of Germany, made an apartment for her in the Berghof where he ran things when not in Berlin.
While Eva was deeply in love with him, he did not or could not publicly acknowledge her even as a maîtresse en titre. She was never introduced to his high-powered visitors. She was referred to, if at all, as a secretary, of which he had several. Except at night, she rarely saw him privately and even more rarely alone. She spent endless hours swimming, exercising, grooming, changing her clothes, shopping and buying lots of Ferragamo shoes. The Nazi wives, with the exception of Henriette von Schirach and Margret Speer, ignored or snubbed her, a safe activity for them since she had no official status and her name did not even appear in the Berghof phone directory.
During the Downfall period she moved into the Führer bunker and, for a day and a half, following a hurried civil ceremony, she was Frau Hitler. Goebbels and Martin Bormann were the witnesses. With the Russians encircling the bunker, Magda Goebbels poisoned her six children before her husband shot her and himself. Hitler gave Eva a cyanide capsule. When she had swallowed its contents he bit on his and simultaneously shot himself through the mouth. Their corpses were cremated in the garden by Hitler's adjutant and valet.
As Lambert makes clear Eva Braun was a pretty, pleasant woman devoid of malice and certainly no Nazi. She wasn't really interesting yet Lambert has written an interesting book about her and her still horribly absorbing period. Albert Speer, who had been fond of her, said "For all writers of history, Eva Braun is going to be a disappointment." For me at least her life is a terrible reminder of what Hannah Arendt wrote in her great book about Eichmann: "It was as though in those last minutes he was summing up the lessons that this long course in human wickedness had taught us - the lesson of the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil."
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