The story of Eva Braun scares the daylight out of me. You see, I’ve never been terribly good at telling the difference between “someone who is good” and “someone who is nice to me.” There are tricks you can use – like watching how someone treats a waiter, this is the best test I can think of – but I’ve never considered it as out of the question that I might be able to fall in love with someone really terrible. Like, say, a Nazi. Like Adolf Hitler, for instance.
Margaret Atwood tackles this all a good deal better than I can in The Handmaid’s Tale, where she writes:
I remember a television program I once saw; a rerun, made years before. I must have been seven or eight, too young to understand it. It was the sort of thing my mother liked to watch: historical, educational…
The interviews with people still alive then were in color. The one I remember best was with a woman who had been the mistress of a man who had supervised one of the camps where they put the Jews, before they killed them. In ovens, my mother said; but there weren’t any pictures of the ovens, so I got some confused notion that these deaths had taken place in kitchens. There is something especially terrifying to a child in that idea. Ovens mean cooking, and cooking comes before eating. I thought these people had been eaten. Which in a way I suppose they had been.
From what they said, the man had been cruel and brutal. The mistress – my mother explained mistress, she did not believe in mystification, I had a pop-up book of sexual organs by the time I was four – the mistress had once been very beautiful. There was a black-and-white shot of her and another woman, in the two-piece bathing suits and platform shoes and picture hats of the time; they were wearing cat’s-eye sunglasses and sitting in deck chairs by a swimming pool. The swimming pool was beside their house, which was near the camp with the ovens. The woman said she didn’t notice much that she found unusual. She denied knowing about the ovens.
At the time of the interview, forty or fifty years later, she was dying of emphysema. She coughed a lot, and she was very thin, almost emaciated; but she still took pride in her appearance. (Look at that, said my mother, half grudgingly, half admiringly. She still takes pride in her appearance.) She was carefully made up, heavy mascara on her eyelashes, rouge on the bones of her cheeks, over which the skin was stretched like a rubber glove pulled tight. She was wearing pearls.
He was not a monster, she said. People say he was a monster, but he was not one.
What could she have been thinking about? Not much, I guess; not back then, not at the time. She was thinking about how not to think. The times were abnormal. She took pride in her appearance. She did not believe he was a monster. He was not a monster, to her. Probably he had some endearing trait: he whistled, offkey, in the shower, he had a yen for truffles, he called his dog Liebchen and made it sit up for little pieces of raw steak. How easy it is to invent a humanity, for anyone at all. What an available temptation. A big child, she would have said to herself. Her heart would have melted, she’d have smoothed the hair back from his forehead, kissed him on the ear, and not just to get something out of him either. The instinct to soothe, to make it better. “There, there,” she’d say, as he woke from a nightmare. “Things are so hard for you.” All this she would have believed, because otherwise how could she have kept on living? She was very ordinary, under that beauty. She believed in decency, she was nice to the Jewish maid, or nice enough, nicer than she needed to be.
So. That is what I think about when I think about Eva Braun. I keep trying to figure out if there was a point in her life as Hitler’s love and then wife, where she might have seen that Hitler was… you know, Hitler. Perhaps that is too charitable, to say that she was blind to the fact that he was killing millions of people. It’s possible that she was completely onboard with the whole “massacring people” aspect of his nature. Perhaps she was a monster herself.
I don’t think she could have started out that way. Eva was born in 1912. She was the daughter of a school teacher and a seamstress. Her parents briefly divorced, but later remarried, and were known to spoil their daughters, perhaps because they felt guilty about that whole “divorce” time. As far as I can tell, they were not mass murderers who sewed a gypsy inside a horse (I’m looking at you, Elizabeth Bathory) so I’m disinclined to believe that Eva’s attraction to Hitler could have been a result of childhood teachings.
She had two sisters, Isle and Margarete, all of whom attended Catholic school. She wasn’t a very good student. However, she was known to have a cheerful disposition and she was good at athletics. She liked nice clothes and make-up. She coaxed friends into doing schoolwork for her. I see her not as a cheerleader, but one of those semi-popular, universally liked girls who are blonde and on the lacrosse team. You know, like this:
Read into this what you will about the final season of Gossip Girl. In reality, I think she was into gymnastics, but that’s a less commonly acknowledged high school stereotype. You can see a picture of her balancing on the beam, her arms held victoriously high here:
She was also known to be an excellent dancer. When she was 16, her parents became worried that she was too boy crazy.
Her parents sent her away to a convent, but Eva left a year later saying that “it was not the life for me.”
Eva then decided to go to work for a photographer. The photographer’s biggest client was the National Socialist party – at that time an up and coming political party – and the walls of the studio were adorned with pictures of a young man named Adolf Hitler, known for his charisma.
This kind of makes sense. I firmly believe that if anyone comes into contact with someone whose poster hung on their wall as a teen, despite the fact that, in real life, that person might be weird and certainly would not be airbrushed, we would still experience a certain amount of desire for them.
Of course, those weren’t the pictures hanging in Eva’s room exactly; they were hanging in the room of . . .the guy she worked for, but Eva seemed to fall in love with men left and right during those years. So okay. I say my theory still holds up.
Also, let’s take a moment to reflect on how weird it would be to work in a photo shop where pictures of Hitler were everywhere.
Haha, no, just kidding, there aren’t “photography shops” anymore (although that is a picture of the one Eva worked at).
Interestingly, Eva was actually quite clever in terms of photography. While she was employed as a shop clerk, she studied the photographers’ work and learned how to develop pictures on her own. That may seem like a minor skill, but I once took a photography course in high school and oh my God it was hard. You have to remember how to do ten different processes in a room lit only by red lights. A hell room, basically.
I think this is pretty fine evidence that Eva wasn’t just a dumb blonde.
The shop owner knew that Hitler, his client, whose pictures dotted the windows, had a fondness for pretty young girls. When Hitler first met Eva in 1929, she was on a ladder arranging items on the shelves. Her boss introduced them, though he originally introduced Hitler as “Mr. Wolff.” I am pretty sure this is because crazy men love going by secret aliases. I think it makes them feel like superheros.
Eva did not recognize him, and greeted him as “Mr. Wolff.”
How? How was that possible? She saw his photo first thing every morning.
I understand that celebrities are sometimes shorter in person or whatever, but it was Hitler. He was kind of distinctive.
I know I decided Eva couldn’t be dumb because she single-handedly taught herself photography, but I do think she might have suffered from facial-blindness.
When her boss explained it was Hitler, she said “Him? I don’t know anything about the famous Hitler.”
Dude. HIS PHOTO WAS IN ALL THE WINDOWS.
You know, maybe she wasn’t that bright after all.
Hitler returned to the shop and began inviting her out to dinner. Eva’s father disapproved and said that Hitler was an imbecile. Meanwhile, Eva’s sister, Isle, worked for a Jewish doctor and, understandably, kind of thought Hitler sucked. Her other sister, however, liked him. Margarete and Eva soon began sharing an apartment. Sometimes, Hitler would take them both out (but I think in a friendly, third wheel kind of way, not a menage-a-trois way.) Hitler was 23 years older than Eva, another reason her family disapproved of him.
However, Hitler soon came to power in the Weimar Republic. He would become Germany’s Chancellor by 1933. I don’t know if Eva’s relatives decided they liked him better as his power increased, but I bet they started keeping quiet about their feelings.
Recounting this, I can’t help but think of that other Eva – Eva Peron, who I am kind of in love with. She seemed to have begun her relationship in a similar way – entranced with a political figure much older than she was, agreeing with him on everything, really idolizing him – but then she began to learn about politics, and, by his side, became an influential political figure herself.
Nothing of that kind would transpire with Eva Braun.
But then, Juan Peron, whether he was just being indulgent or not, taught Eva Peron all about politics. He let her sit in on all his meetings. Meanwhile, Hitler told Eva that he loved her because she was a “nice girl of no importance.” He once said:
“Imagine if on top of everything else I had a woman who interfered with my work! In my leisure time I want to have peace . . . I could never marry. Think of the problems if I had children! In the end they would try to make my son my successor.”
And Eva Braun was seemingly besotted with Hitler. Just as Eva Peron might have pursued politics because it made her indispensable to Peron, Eva Braun might have avoided learning about politics because that seemed to be what her lover wanted.
While Hitler said he loved Eva (he once told his valet that she was “the only girl for him”) their relationship always seemed somewhat stiff. In 1931, after they’d been dating for two years, Eva wrote Hitler the following letter:
“Dear Mr. Hitler, I would like to thank you for the pleasant evening at the theater. It was unforgettable. I count the hours until the moment when we shall meet again.”
It’s that “Mr.” that kills me.
As Hitler’s political power grew, he began to pay less attention to Eva. In 1932, especially, Eva missed Hitler desperately. She wrote him love letters telling him how much she missed him. Hitler was the kind of asshole who didn’t write back.
I mean, I know he was busy, but I think Hitler is someone we can use the word “asshole” about without fear of judgement.
Eventually, Eva took her father’s gun and tried to shoot herself in the heart. This definitely wasn’t just a cry for help – this was a gun aimed at her heart. She was only saved because the gun jerked upward at the last moment. She ended up shooting herself in the neck, and her sister found her. The two convinced their parents that the injury had been an accident.
However, Eva’s father became more adamant than ever against Eva seeing Hitler. He wrote Hitler a letter saying:
My family has been torn apart because both of my daughters have moved into an apartment which you put at their disposal. As head of the family, I am confronted with an accomplished fact. I stand by the old fashioned point of view, in moral respect, that children should not be taken from their parents’ care until they are married.
However, Eva intercepted the letter and tore it up.
You know, maybe you should listen to your parents. They just don’t want you to commit suicide. That’s all.
Hitler started paying more attention to Eva, and she started spending the night in his Munich apartment. They had sleepovers. Her family was very upset that they weren’t married. In an attempt to soothe over any ill feelings they might have, Mr. Braun was sent a gold watch from Hitler and was invited over for a meal.
I can find no information as to whether or not Mr. Braun accepted, but I kind of doubt he did.
By the time Hitler became Chancellor, atrocities were already beginning to take place. However, Eva seemed oblivious. She was doing yoga.
And she was riding around in Hitler’s car, and going on vacations, and buying dresses and saying she only wanted “a merry life.” On May 28th, 1935, Eva wrote in her diary, “His head was full of political problems all the time. But isn’t there a relaxation now?”
However, soon after, Hitler left Eva again. Political problems. Months went by with no letters from him. Eva fell, once again, into deep despair. She wrote in her diary, “Oh, God, I’m afraid there won’t be a reply today. If only someone would help me. Everything is horribly bleak. Maybe I shouldn’t have written him. This uncertainty is more hard to bear than a sudden end. I must speak to him today. Tomorrow will be too late. This time, I have decided on 35 tablets. If only he would get someone to telephone me.”
Eva keeps striking me as a Jackie Susann character, but surely, everyone, at some time, has felt that terrible anxiety over a lover who seems to be ignoring you. The anxiety is almost unbearable. It’s only shocking in this case because her anxiety was caused by Hitler.
After her second suicide attempt (after ingesting 35 tablets, she was discovered by her sister once again, and revived) Hitler began to take her around with him, introducing her to party members as his private secretary. The position meant that she could enter the Chancellery by way of the side staircase somewhat unnoticed.
Throughout all of this drama, the German people remained unaware of Hitler’s romantic relationship with Eva. The only time the link was ever mentioned was when Eva sat near Hitler during the Winter 1936 Olympics. That was in spite of the fact that, by then, Eva was spending much of her time at Hitler’s estate, the Berghof.
She played lady of the house, drinking wine while Hitler drank tea and entertaining anyone who came to visit. She was in charge of the twelve servants, and she began taking pictures of the Nazi party members who visited, selling somevof the photographs to her old boss. She took up mountain climbing and sunbathing, and watching illicit American films.
She called the estate The Grand Hotel, because she was a fan of the Greta Garbo movie. She also learned how to bowl, and installed an alley in the cellar. Hitler left her with a huge allowance, which meant she could have her hair styled daily, and buy as many clothes and jewels as she liked.
The unfortunate aspect here is that this all sounds kind of nice and domestic. Except that sex with Hitler sounds terrible.
Hitler took primitive love potions. By the same token, if Eva was having her period when Hitler came to visit, she was told to remedy it. I have no idea how one even begins doing that, other than some bizarre bargaining with God.
“He just needs me for certain purposes,” Eva lamented in her diary in 1935.
Hitler, meanwhile, began to see other women, most notably Leni Riefenstahl. She became the Third Reich’s “filmatographer”. Her epic flm, Triumph of the Will,
made Nazis seem unbelievably appealing. The film won the gold medal in Venice in 1935 and the gold medal at the World Exhibition in Paris in 1937 (though it later destroyed her career for years after the war). Hitler was enthralled by Leni’s wit and intellect – characteristics that Eva had never developed.
However, he stopped seeing Leni when he learned she was cheating on him with a German pilot.
And so, Hitler returned, as always, to the ever devoted Eva, who tried to learn how to make and develop films. Hitler was generally the subject of her films.
But then Hitler began to see other women again. When WWII came, Eva rejoiced saying, “At last he will have no more time for other women.”
If any man makes you feel like you would be grateful for a world war, please just break up with him. It – and he – are not worth it.
In 1940 Poland, Vienna and Paris belonged to Hitler. Eva celebrated by wearing Parisian lingerie and Viennese swimsuits. Eva began to refer her lover not as “Mr. Hitler” but as “The Fuhrer.”
She must have noted that events were going wrong. Her sister had been fired by the doctor she worked for. That was incredibly perceptive, because around that time, people were only begining to understand the difference between Jews and Aryans. Hitler began establishing concentration camps.
It seems very unlikely that Hitler would not have told Eva that he hated Jews, and that she did not know what was going on. Her sister Isle, continued to criticize Hitler adamantly; Eva once said, “If the Fuhrer puts you in a concentration camp, I will not help you.”
When the convent she went to as a teenager was turned into a Nazi training camp and the nuns begged for help, she responded, “Let your hair grow.” Because nuns have short hair.
Lady, it may not have been “the life for you” but it was the life of some people. I understand that Eva might have wished to remain as apolitical as possible, but it shocks me – shocks me! – that she didn’t want to use her influence to help those who were close to her. She was literally in bed with Hitler.
There was only one time Eva stood up to Hitler. In shifting over to a wartime economy Hitler was trying to stop cosmetics and hair products from being produced in Germany. Eva told him that German women would not stand for this lack. Hitler arranged for their production to be decreased, rather than actually banned.
So she had influence. Influence which she applied terribly.
In 1944 an assassination attempt was made on Hitler’s life. He wrote Eva shortly afterwards:
“Mein Liebes Tschapperl,
Don’t worry about me. I’m fine though perhaps a little tired. I hope to come home soon and then I can rest in your arms. I have a great longing for rest, but my duty to the German people comes before everything else. Don’t forget that the dangers I encounter don’t compare with those of our soldiers at the Front. I thank you for the proof of your affection and ask you also to thank your esteemed father and your most gracious mother for their greetings and good wishes. I am very proud of the honor – please tell them that – to possess the love of girl who comes from such a distinguished family. I have sent to you the uniform I was wearing during the unfortunate day. It is proof that Providence has protected me and that we have nothing more to fear from our enemies.
From my whole heart, your A.H.”
I am beside myself. I am dying of anxiety now that I know you are in danger. Come back as soon as possible. I feel as if I am going insane.
The weather is beautiful here and everything seems so peaceful that I am ashamed of myself … You know I have always told you that I would die if anything happened to you. From our first meeting on, I have promised myself to follow you wherever you go, even to death. You know that I live only for your love.
Oh my God, this woman needs a drink.
Shortly afterwards, in 1945, Eva followed Hitler to the bunker.
By that time everyone knew that the Russians would come to Berlin, and everyone suggested Hitler leave. Hitler said “no, I will stay here until the end.” Eva said “I will follow him until the end.”
THIS WAS VERY BAD PLANNING.
Eva Braun and Hitler hid underneath the Chancellery headquarters. Hitler blamed the military failure entirely upon the Jews, claiming that Jewish capital assisted the Russians. This was, incidentally, not accurate. Hitler then executed Eva’s brother in law, as he suspected him of being a traitor.
Eva, perhaps knowing that her own life was about to come to an end, did not seem overly moved by this. But then, perhaps she was distracted as she was excited for her own wedding.
Miraculously, Hitler were able to get a registrar come in from the front. They were married, and hosted a wedding breakfast. Immediately afterwards, she said to her hairdresser “I would like to be a pretty corpse.” The couple, after all, intended to commit suicide.
A shot rang out soon afterwards. Hitler shot himself in the head. Eva was with him, but took cyanide tablets. The tablets had first been fed to, and tested on, Hiter’s beloved dogs. Somehow, this strikes me as the saddest part.
This time, Eva’s suicide was successful.
She had a dark blue dress on, with roses. It was supposedly lovely. Eva and Adolf Hitler were found side by side. Then their corpses were set on fire.
Her sister later gave birth to a baby, which she named Eva.
I think is difficult to say whether Eva was a terrible influence – because her presence likely did convince Hitler that he was justified in some of his actions – or simply another victim of the Holocaust. At Nuremberg, she was tried posthumously and she was not found guilty, since she did not exert her influence in any way.
But that is a kind of guilt.
This in itself seems like a very bad way to go through life. Martin Luther King Jr., who knew what he was on about once said that “The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.”
It’s actually those who betray their benefactors, but some circle of hell is surely reserved for those who maintain their neutrality (I’m looking at you, Switzerland).
In any event, I am afraid Eva did all too little. But she was young, and she was so stupidly in love. In such times, I suppose we might all be culpable.
I have, and perhaps you have, too, spent this report thinking about ways I might be different than Eva. We, all of us, have the capacity to love people who are not necessarily good people. But what strikes me is that, with the exception of her sisters, who were absolutely terrified of contradicting her because they might be thrown into a concentration camp, Eva never seemed to have any female friends. All of her pictures are of Hitler or of his officers. If we are different from Eva perhaps it is because a lot of us have female friends who, when we start to pen letters about wanting to follow our dictator lovers to the grave, will pull us aside and say, “Let’s go get a scotch.”
Be good to your female friends. Listen to your parents, too. Our judgement is weak and flawed, because we are people, and people have soft, stupid hearts. But if you can surround yourself with people who love you and have your best interest at heart, there will be someone to drag you up from your emotional bunkers.
I wish Eva had that, because, at times – when she was 19 and developing her own photography – she seems like the kind of girl it would have been fun to be friends with.
Also, don’t date mass murderers. Those are your two lessons for the day.