The Eva Braun story: Behind every evil man...

She was a good Catholic girl. Her ordinariness was her defining quality. So why did she devote herself to Adolf Hitler? As a major new biography is published, Frances Wilson looks at her strange life - and death

It wasn't much of a wedding; just the bride and groom and a few of his colleagues. Appropriately for a workaholic, the ceremony was held in his office without ceremony, but there was plenty of champagne in the store and nothing left now to do with it, so they drank a hearty toast to the bride. She would have preferred to wear a different dress of course, so it was all a bit disappointing, but she wasn't going to let silly things ruin the moment she had waited 15 years for.

He had said he couldn't marry because he was already "married to the destiny of Germany", but relations in that particular area having irrevocably broken down, he could consider himself a free man. But he left the wedding breakfast early, to dictate his last will and testament.

"There are two ways of judging a man's character," Adolf Hitler apparently told Ernst Hanfstaengl. "By the woman he marries and by the way he dies." Hitler married Eva Braun on 28 April, 1945 and 36 hours later they each took a cyanide capsule and he put a gun to his head. The 700 or so biographers of Hitler have judged his character on rather more than the selection of Eva as bride and cyanide as honeymoon, but it might be possible to say a great deal about Eva Braun based on her peculiar choices of spouse and suicide.

Never less than immaculately turned out, she had her hair done for the occasion, wore her husband's favourite black dress accessorised by a pair of Italian shoes and a diamond watch. She was Frau Hitler for one night only. Hitler, to whom she had been devoted for years, chose to thank her for the many "years of faithful friendship", as he put it in his last will, only as the Russians advanced in on Berlin and his fate was sealed. For some she is the epitome of the Tammy Wynette ideal: she stood by her man to the very last, choosing to die in the bunker as his partner rather than have any kind of future without him.

What kind of woman does this make her? And why are we so fascinated by the women who attach themselves to monsters? From Lady Macbeth to Carmilla Soprano, the claw-like nails of the gangster's moll have a grip on our imaginations. Their love humanises the man and dehumanises themselves.

"Every woman adores a fascist," wrote Sylvia Plath, and while a few of the Nazi party were undeniably dishy - Heydrich, for example - Plath's dictum does not explain the appeal to a pretty bourgeois girl like Eva Braun of the plain, prudish, emotionally immature, lower-middle class vegetarian artist who didn't even look good in a uniform. Power is an aphrodisiac. Myth has it that women were so drawn to Hitler's charisma that some would wet themselves or even reach orgasm during his speeches, but Eva did neither when she first met him: she was bored by politics, and he was not yet famous.

Traudl Junge, the secretary whose book about the last weeks of the Third Reich was turned into the award-winning film Downfall, has reawakened our interest in fascist women. Angela Lambert has now written a biography, The Lost Life of Eva Braun, which sets out to explore what motivated Eva Braun to devote herself to such a man and what he saw in her, the woman he would keep secret from the German nation for 17 years.

Lambert's subject is not an easy one. The Eva Braun who has until now only made sporadic and brief biographical appearances comes across as someone whose most remarkable quality was her emptiness, which is possibly why she is so difficult a figure to judge: was she morally culpable or a childlike innocent? There is no suggestion, as there is with those weird women who become engaged to murderers in prison, that she wanted to "change" Hitler. In Downfall, it is Eva's vacuity which is represented as evil; she feverishly dances the night away as Berlin crumbles.

She attempted to supplement this inner vacuum by a seemingly endless desire to acquire. Her love of shopping and collection of shoes is one of the only things Braun shares with other famous consorts of dictators. She was unconcerned with personal advancement or advancement of her family, spending her time instead floating about, changing her clothes seven times a day, waiting for her Führer to call.

Putting aside the total absence of ethical responsibility which characterised Germany as a whole, Eva Braun seems to have started out a nice enough girl. She was no partner in crime like Myra Hindley, says German historian Richard Overy, for the simple reason that she did not see her Adolf as a criminal. He was a hero, the saviour of Germany. It is not certain that she was ever a member of the Nazi party and it is unlikely, given the Führer's feelings about women interfering in his work, that she knew the details of what he was up to. But this is the problem with Eva: it is her bland indifference to the world her boyfriend was destroying that makes her such a sinister figure.

Eva Braun first met Hitler in October 1929. She was 17, chestnut haired and fresh-faced, one of three sisters from a conventional Roman Catholic family in Munich. She liked dancing, gymnastics, Hollywood movies, and romantic novels, and had the potential required for the ideal Nazi woman: kids, kitchen and church. After leaving her convent school, she began working for Heinrich Hoffman, official photographer to the Nazi party, and it was here that she met the 40-year-old Hitler. As the door opened, Eva happened to be standing on a ladder which gave them both a good vantage point: he looked at her legs, she looked down at his face, they each liked what they saw.

He was introduced by Hoffman as Herr Wolf, which was good enough for Eva who had never heard of Hitler anyway. To her, he seemed "a gentleman of a certain age with a funny moustache and carrying a big felt hat". To him, Heinrich Hoffman recollected, "she was just an attractive little thing, in whom, in spite of her inconsequential and feather-brained outlook - or perhaps just because of it - he found the type of relaxation and repose he sought... But never, in voice, look or gesture, did he behave in any way that suggested any deeper interest in her."

At first glance, the attraction between them seems based on no more than a direct appeal to one another's egos: "A highly intelligent man should always choose a primitive and stupid woman," the Führer explained - he liked young girls because he could mould them. Eva, ever vain, was flattered by the attentions of an Alpha male. But Hitler, it is important to remember, was already involved with his young niece, Geli Raubal, and he only began to take Eva seriously in late 1931, after Geli's suicide. Geli, according to Ian Kershaw, Hitler's most authoritative biographer, was the only woman about whom Hitler was ever to have intense feelings or to be emotionally dependent. Eva Braun was a classic rebound.

Her diary entries for 1935 suggest that even by this stage his interest in her had not shown signs of deepening. "Why do I have to go through all this?" she writes of his continual absences. "If only I had never set eyes on him! I am utterly miserable. I shall go out and buy some more sleeping powder and go into a dreamlike state."

Braun seems to have been in a dreamlike state most of the time. A depressive, she attempted suicide twice before Hitler set her up in a house of her own, but not even being on the Führer's payroll entitled her to public acknowledgement and she was bundled away whenever important guests arrived. She spent much of her time alone and bored to sobs. Her cousin, Gertrude Weisker, said she was "the unhappiest woman I ever met".

The story of Eva Braun is shrouded in speculation: did she enjoy any kind of sex life with Hitler? We know that he liked her to sport chamois leather underwear, but whether she was ever more than his fetish object is anyone's guess. Did he like her defecating on him, as Geli had done? Was she ever in love with Hitler, and how well did she actually know him? Did she realise how mad he had gone by the end? As for the question of why she put up with such a life and such a man: once she became his mistress she surely had no choice. Nobody left the Führer, unless, like Geli, you went out feet first.

The big question, however, is how much she knew about what was happening to the Jews. The representation of Eva as shallow, foolish, young and naive, like that of Traudl Junge in Downfall, seems a convenient way of containing the evil of Nazism by placing it firmly in the male camp. The refusal to ask questions, as Junge says, is itself a crime. "Eva Braun will prove a great disappointment to historians," predicted Albert Speer, Hitler's architect, but maybe she is interesting precisely because of her shallowness. As Oscar Wilde put it: "Only shallow people know themselves."

BAD WIVES

Mrs Mao

Chairman Mao's fourth wife, the Westernised film actress Jiang Qing, became the most hated figure in the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Rumour had it that along with political enemies, she had rival actresses executed. She is said to have been jealous of Imelda Marcos's clothes and shoes on a visit. On trial in 1981 she said: "I was Mao's mad dog. Whoever he asked me to bite, I bit." She was imprisoned and died in 1991.

Mrs Marcos

Over Imelda's years as the wife of the Philippine president, the ex-beauty queen amassed 3,000 pairs of shoes, £6m worth of jewellery and several houses. The couple were accused of looting £2.6bn from their country's treasury. Marcos was ousted in 1986 and died three years later. Imelda, who lives in an opulent house in Manila but wears recycled plastic jewellery, has been ordered to pay billions of dollars in reparations to victims of human rights abuses.

Mrs Mugabe

Grace, Zimbabwe's first lady, nicknamed the "first shopper" is said to have spent £200m just on the fuel for shopping trips abroad in her private jet. Asked how she justified such extravagance while her people starved, she replied: "I have very narrow feet, so I wear only Ferragamo." She met Mugabe, 40 years her senior, when he was married to his first wife, Sally. No one knows what happened to Grace's first husband and child.

Mrs Ceauçescu

Elena, the Lady Macbeth of Romania, held various positions in Nicolai Ceauçescu's hated ruling Communist party. She is blamed for the birth-control ban that led to many babies ending up in orphanages, and denied the existence of Aids. Despite being virtually uneducated, she was showered with academic awards. Executed with her husband on 25 December, 1989.

Katy Guest

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