June 2008

Elizabeth Bachner

features

The Banality of Eva: Angela Lambertís Biography of Hitlerís Mistress

When the Chief has won the war, he has promised me that I can go to Hollywood and play my own part in the film of our life story.” -- Eva Braun

There’s a story about Eva Braun in the memoirs of one of his secretaries. Hitler’s bunker, April 22, 1945. Hitler holds a final “situation conference” with the chiefs of the three armed services. He becomes hysterical, cursing his generals and denouncing them as traitors, and then he collapses into a chair, sobbing. He retreats to his private quarters, then summons his secretaries, his personal diet cook, and Eva Braun. With his face pale and expressionless, “like a death mask,” he tells them to get ready, and that in an hour’s time a plane will take them south. “Es ist alles verloren, huffnongslos verloren,” he says. (“All is lost, hopelessly lost.”) Eva walks over to the Fuhrer, takes both of his hands and smiles sweetly. She looks into his eyes and says, “as if talking to a sad child,” “Come on, you know I’m staying with you. I won’t let you send me away.” Hitler’s eyes light up when he understands that his thirty-three-year old mistress is going to die with him, that he can poison her (and his adored dog, Blondi) before he shoots himself. For the first time, after fifteen years of barely acknowledging her in front of high-ups in his trusted entourage, he kisses Eva right on the mouth.

Historical documentation of the life of Eva Braun has been spotty and patchy. At her behest before her suicide, almost all of her business correspondence was destroyed. She asked her sister to bury her letters to Hitler without destroying them, but by the 1970s family members reported Eva’s personal writings as “lost.” There are eight pages of an early journal, some films and photograph albums, and a few odd letters here and there. Many of the memoirs that discuss Eva Braun have the stench of Nazi mythology. Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge and Eva’s cousin Gertraud Weisker, major sources of anecdotes about Eva Braun’s life with Adolf Hitler, often have a sort of dark, fetishized romanticism to their stories, so that reading them is like watching scenes from Luchino Visconti’s The Damned. Indeed, this might be an accurate rendering of the bunker atmosphere, with Magda Goebbels preparing to murder her six angelic blond children, and Eva Braun continuing to change her outfits several times a day, dance around, and manicure her nails.

The Lost Life of Eva Braun by Angela Lambert, newly available in paperback, is only the second English-language biography of Hitler’s mistress. Lambert is the English-raised daughter of a British father and German mother. Her mother was born in 1912, the same year as Eva Braun. She is best known for novels like A Very English Marriage.

There are layers of strangeness involved in reading this troubled and troubling book -- the strangeness of Braun’s life, the strangeness of Third Reich history, the strangeness of Angela Lambert’s perspective and fatally flawed methodology, the mind-bogglingly poor editing of the work and the shocking fact that it was met with largely positive reviews. Any biographer brings his or her own unique vision to the life of the person he or she is chronicling, and that’s often a reward, rather than a deficit of the genre. How do we, as human beings, fit together in history? How do our stories connect? We also bring our own lives and experiences to bear as readers of biography.

The Lost Life of Eva Braun is Angela Lambert’s virtual trial of her blandly anti-Semitic mother, of the “gullible” Eva Braun -- a nice girl, ordinary in intelligence but not the “silly cow” Hitler’s inner circle took her for, who wasn’t even a member of the Nazi party -- and finally, of the women of Germany in general. “When Fraulein Braun first met the Fuhrer,” she writes, “she was seventeen and fresh from her convent school, attractive but not beautiful, not by any means stupid but limited by the tastes of her class and age; quite unsuited to bear the weight of history… Their relationship is worth investigating because his treatment of this one young woman -- first enthralling, then dominating and finally destroying her -- reflects in microcosm the way he also seduced and destroyed the German people.” And later, “Try as one may to be objective… after living with Eva Braun for nearly three years during which she became as real to me as my friends, I found no evidence whatever that she was racist or sadistic… My conclusion, based on the circumstances and her character, is that she should not be condemned.”

This trial, whether or not she exonerates Eva, or her mother, or the women of the Third Reich, is a ludicrous exercise, beginning with a misguided and disturbing premise. First of all, isn’t everyone “unsuited to bear the weight of history”? And don’t we all bear it nonetheless? Angela Lambert has no training as an historian, and she fails to consider many of the most revelatory materials available on key issues (like Fascism, the S.A., psychosexual issues in the Weimar Republic or the history of women in Germany), yet she cites heavily from book reviews in British newspapers (rather than from the actual sources), and Internet sites (including Wikipedia). She read economics, politics and philosophy at Oxford, yet The Lost Life of Eva Braun is largely devoid of insights on those themes. She barely mentions the existence of any historiographical debate about the origins of the Holocaust.

She suggests that Hitler was a monster, but becomes oddly coy when speculating about his actual behaviors, alluding to sadomasochism but skimping on the details. The three teenage girls that Hitler was (allegedly) intimate with -- Eva Braun, Mimi Reiter and his half-niece, Geli Raubal -- all tried to commit suicide. Geli was found dead from a gunshot wound to the lung, Mimi tried to hang herself and Eva shot herself in the neck in 1932, then tried to overdose on pills in 1935. It is well-documented that Hitler was beaten as a child and that he badly beat his beloved dog. Did he threaten these women physically? Did he verbally and sexually abuse and denigrate them? How common was violence against women in the home in interwar Germany, and during the Third Reich? A discussion of Hitler’s relationships with women would surely be enriched by consideration of George Mosse’s work on German sexuality and culture, or Maria Tatar’s study of the Weimar fixation on sexual murder, or any text by any major scholar of Fascist ideology.

Eva Braun was kept semi-secret from the German public until after her death. Acknowledged as Hitler’s secretary, but certainly not his mistress, her life is little-documented until her last days in Hitler’s bunker, when the Fuhrer finally married her thirty-six hours before they committed suicide together. The bulk of writings on Braun’s life address those thirty-six hours in varied detail. Yet, rather than applying her conjecture to Braun’s sex life, to her most intimate thoughts when she shot herself in the neck in 1932 or tried to overdose on pills in 1935, Angela Lambert only brings creative license to Braun’s final moments in the bunker. Her dramatic reenactment reads like a romance novel, or a Nazi memoir:

Inside the room, charged with tension like an execution chamber, Eva would surely have wanted to know -- to reassure herself as much as him -- "Do you believe in God, Adi? You used to." And the once omnipotent Hitler might have answered bitterly, "God doesn’t believe in me." And then she must have said, for the thousandth, thousandth time, "I love you." Her breathing quickened in the final minutes. To calm herself she… splayed her fingers to admire the new wedding ring… Eva would have needed one last kiss, would have tipped her face trustingly towards his grey lips.

“This is Eva’s book,” Lambert writes, “not a history of the Second World War or the Third Reich, and the progress of the war is relevant only to the extent that it was relevant to her.” Yet elsewhere, she takes on that history, things Eva Braun allegedly knew nothing about. A later chapter titled “What Hitler Did” offers Lambert’s selective military history, recounting events that, by Lambert’s own account, Eva Braun certainly wouldn’t have followed. She keeps reminding us of how singularly evil Hitler was and how Eva, his cronies and ordinary Germans were in his thrall, without once citing any of the key scholars who have argued otherwise. She concludes that, “Eva was much possessed by death… Hitler was the Mephistopheles who promised it, wooing her (as he had wooed other young girls) toward suicide. That too was his diabolic genius.”

Also, Lambert juxtaposes her own memories of her German mother and relatives with Braun’s life. This technique could have been fascinating in different hands -- what was the sexual coming of age like for the average German good-girl born in 1912? Did girls fool around with boys in the corners of the schoolyard? How were unmarried women viewed in the society at large? When men came home from the Great War, crippled, defeated and emasculated, what was family life like? Was there a social construction of women in two categories -- clean, “White,” pure, sexless German women and dirty, syphilitic, sexual, “Red ” women, associated with Jews and the incursion of foreignness, as discussed in Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies? What were little Aryan girls told about men, sex, Germanness, love, marriage, “undesirables,” the War? Did they stumble upon pornography? Were they warned about flashers in trenchcoats lurking in the alleys of Berlin? Were they told that a man wouldn’t buy the cow if they gave the milk away for free?  

Somehow, though, Lambert’s forays into personal memoir don’t address these issues. Most are plodding, stodgy and irrelevant, like the kind of BBC programming you want to flip past -- there’s a lot about how much she loved her Great Aunt Lidy or her favorite songs, but little that sheds any light on the deeper undercurrents of the experience of German women over the course of Braun’s lifetime. With its editorial problems (repeating the same sentence verbatim on subsequent pages, third-hand references, strange formatting that makes it hard to tell whether you’re reading Gertraud Weisker’s memories of Eva Braun or Lambert’s family stories), inadequate research and odd orientation towards contemporary scholarship, Lost Life is not “Eva’s book.” It’s Angela Lambert’s story, and unlike her subject, she has willingly taken on the “weight of history.” And dropped it, with a resounding thud.

A great thing about biography as a genre is that infinite studies can be made of the same life. Eva Braun, a simple girl from Munich, is more of a cipher than the average biography subject. Even her 1935 diary -- the only historically verifiable written document of Eva Braun’s secret, innermost thoughts about her affair with Hitler, leading up to her second suicide attempt -- is strangely blank, interpretable in different ways by different readers. Angela Lambert reads the diary with affection, mixing more of her simple-girl-betrayed-by-a-monster mythology with personal nostalgia. “What does the diary reveal about her character?” She writes:

She was generous, both to her family and to Hitler… Unusually for the mistress of a rich and powerful man, her material expectations were modest… A woman whose highest hopes are for a dog or a chest of drawers and who consoles herself with a handful of cheap jewelry cannot be called mercenary. Nor was she ambitious for power or status… In spite of everything, she was an optimist. She rarely indulged in self-pity but always tried to look on the bright side, making an effort not to wallow in her darkest moods… It also, poignantly, reminded me of my mother. She formed her numerals exactly as Eva did. They must have been taught from the same copy book.

Alison Leslie Gold, author of The Devil's Mistress: The Diary of Eva Braun, the Woman Who Lived and Died With Hitler, a fictional journal created around Braun’s actual diary entries, paints a strikingly different picture, of an Eva Braun who is abusive, racist, manipulative, hateful, self-indulgent and money-hungry. In my own reading (in translation), Eva is an obsessive, wallowing in self-pity. If her relationship to the Fuhrer is to be read as a microcosmic manifestation of his hold on “the German people” -- one of Lambert’s most pernicious claims -- then “the German people” were pathetic, desperate and half-formed, like zombies or lab animals. The diary-Eva is like a stray cat that bonds in a twisted way to someone who passes it a scrap of food.

When we read biographies or diaries, even flawed ones, we start to feel that we know the person we’re reading about. We stare at pictures of them for clues. We learn their secret nicknames and read their personal letters. I had nightmares while reading The Lost Life of Eva Braun -- about Eva’s powdery dressing table, about the Fuhrer’s lone testicle, about the strangely bland atmosphere at Auschwitz today and the tinkling laughter of Polish tourists in hotpants walking near the barbed wire fences there. Albert Speer, who was a good friend of Eva Braun and often kept her company during her long hours of confinement as she waited for Hitler to call, once said that, “For all writers of history, Eva Braun is going to be a disappointment.” Did he mean that, as Lambert argues, she was dull and pleasant, well-intentioned, not too smart or too beautiful, not an icy mastermind or the power behind the throne? She was, like Adolph Hitler, a human being. That it is possible to publish a book like Lost Life about her -- a book with vignettes of her lakeside gymnastics and notes about her optimism and generosity, a book in which she is described as “gentle, naïve, a fantasist” -- is somehow dark. Angela Lambert thinks that Adolph Hitler stole Braun’s life, but what would she have been? And if Braun had never existed, what would Hitler have been? She never got the chance to be a satin-clad movie star playing herself. Or, did she?