The Lost Life of Eva Braunby Angela Lambert
Eva Braun is one of history's most famous non-entities. She has been dismissed as a racist, feather-headed shop girl, and yet sixty-two years after her death her name is still instantly recognizable.
She left her convent school at the age of seventeen and met Hitler a few months later. She became his mistress before she was twenty. How did unsophisticated/p>
Eva Braun is one of history's most famous non-entities. She has been dismissed as a racist, feather-headed shop girl, and yet sixty-two years after her death her name is still instantly recognizable.
She left her convent school at the age of seventeen and met Hitler a few months later. She became his mistress before she was twenty. How did unsophisticated little Fraulien Braun, twenty-three years his junior, hold the most powerful man in Europe in an exclusive sexual relationship that lasted from 1932 until their joint suicide? Were they really lovers, and what were the background influences and psychological tensions of the middle-class Catholic girl from Munich who shared his intimate life? How can her ordinariness and apparent decency be reconciled with an unshakeable loyalty to the monster she loved?
“[Lambert's] behind-the-scenes tale of an extraordinary man in love with a most ordinary woman is a revelation.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“A fascinating read.” Booklist
“This book offers new insight into the cold heart of Nazi leadership and presents a remarkable, fully developed portrait of a woman who happened to share her life with one of the most hated men in history.” Tucson Citizen
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The Lost Life of Eva Braun
By Angela Lambert
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2006 Angela Lambert
All rights reserved.
The First Strange and Fatal Interview
Schellingstrasse runs from west to east through the heart of Munich, parallel with the grand trio of art galleries known collectively as the Pinakothek. It's a main artery of Schwabing, a district whose atmosphere combines London's Bloomsbury and Soho, the bookish and the raffish. The German word Schellen (as in Schellingstrasse) can mean anything from a jack of diamonds to the jingling of bells, a Turkish crescent, a Chinese pavilion or a fool's cap – images that epitomise the maverick, playful nature of the street. Prosaically, it is more likely to have been named after Friedrich Schelling, the nineteenth-century German philosopher. Today it is lined with bars (more beer than wine, this being Munich), book shops (with well-thumbed textbooks set out on trays on the pavement), cafés (providing free newspapers for their patrons), restaurants and tatty second-hand clothes shops. These cater to a hard-up bohemian crowd, mainly students from the surrounding university faculties. Eva Braun, between the ages of seventeen and twenty-five, spent more of her life in this street than anywhere else, not because she was having fun or studying but because she was working as apprentice and counter assistant at Photo Hoffmann; a flourishing camera supply shop and photographic studio that occupied the ground floor and basement of number 50. Today there is no sign, plaque or indication to the casual passer-by that here, in October 1929, Eva Braun came face to face with Adolf Hitler for the first time.
Heinrich Hoffmann, who owned the shop, had been quick to spot Hitler's potential as a political leader and iconic figure and shrewdly secured the job of his official photographer as early as 1922, when the rabble-rousing orator from the NSDAP (National Sozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or National Socialist German Workers' Party, soon shortened to Nazi Party) scarcely seemed worth recording. Over the next two decades Hoffmann took two and a half million photographs of the Führer, providing a comprehensive history of the man and the Reich. He also took a commission on each picture sold, making him a millionaire within the decade and a multimillionaire ten years later. Host and parasite served one another's purpose. Each was invaluable to the other and Hoffmann knew it, and jealously guarded his privileged position.
Eva had been keen on photography ever since she was given her first camera at the age of about thirteen. Four years later she had progressed from out-of-focus pictures of grinning schoolfriends to more ambitious back-lit shots of the family posed on the balcony. She took pictures of herself (always her favourite subject) in front of the mirror in fancy-dress costume or her latest party frock. Her father hoped to encourage this small talent and Eva was sure that learning to be a photographer would be more exciting than life as a secretary in some dreary office. Photo Hoffmann was ideally placed at the centre of student and artistic life, being a few tram stops or, if she could get up in time, a brisk twenty minutes' walk from the family flat. All this appealed to her, though it fell short of her secret ambitions.
When little Eva Braun applied for a job in Hoffmann's shop, he liked her face and her vivacity. On this slender basis, she was hired. She started at the beginning of October 1929 as a junior assistant and apprentice in the studio and darkroom next door. Her duties included serving behind the counter, typing invoices, filing, learning how to process film and print photographs in the studio, running errands and occasionally modelling for her employer – never, of course, other than fully clothed.
On that momentous October evening in 1929, Eva had only been working in the shop for two or three weeks when Hitler arrived from the Braun Haus – the Nazi Party headquarters further up Schellingstrasse – to select photographs from a recent sitting. He was the first politician to grasp the importance of projecting the right image, and he scrutinised every print. Self-conscious about his bulbous nose and unusually large nostrils (the moustache was intended to obscure them), he retained absolute control over his image, deciding how he should be presented to the German people and censoring any photograph that showed him in an unflattering light. The best would be issued as official portraits.
Hitler turned up at Hoffmann's discreetly, at closing time. When he entered the shop Eva was not in the least intimidated by the stranger towards whom her employer was being unusually genial and ingratiating. She was a well-brought-up girl who had been taught manners by her parents and her convent school so she was polite to Hitler although she hadn't the least idea who he was. That evening, it seems, she told her sister Ilse what happened next:
I had climbed up a ladder to reach the files that were kept on the top shelves of the cupboard. At that moment the boss came in, accompanied by a man of a certain age with a funny moustache, a light-coloured English-style overcoat and a big felt hat in his hand. They both sat down on the other side of the room, opposite me. I tried to squint in their direction and sensed that this character was looking at my legs. That very day I had shortened my skirt and I felt slightly embarrassed because I wasn't sure that I had got the hem even.
She climbed down from the ladder and Hoffmann presented her fulsomely as: 'Our good little Fräulein Eva ...' before introducing their visitor as 'Herr Wolf' – Hitler's preferred alias, part of the blackly romantic imagery he liked to create around himself.
It was part of Eva's job at Photo Hoffmann to develop and print, enlarge and make copies of, among others, Hitler's publicity photographs. She spent hours under the ruby-red light of the studio darkroom, poring over strong-smelling chemicals, swirling them round the developing tank, watching the white sheets of photographic paper darken and coalesce into the glowering face of Adolf Hitler. His stern, unsmiling gaze and the subliminal message it conveyed were to be imprinted on the mind of every German. Eva's task, bent over the tank and counting down the seconds until the image was correctly developed, and one endlessly repeated, would over time stamp his features on her consciousness like a watermark.
Heinrich Hoffmann later described Eva Braun as she was then:
In spite of her nineteen years she had a somewhat naive and childish air. Of medium height, she was greatly preoccupied with her slim and elegant figure. Her round face and blue eyes, framed by darkish blonde hair, made a picture that could only be described as pretty – an impersonal, chocolate-box type of prettiness. [ ...] She had not yet aspired to lipstick and painted fingernails.
Her younger cousin Gertraud Weisker, source of many personal insights about Eva, said:
She had dreamed of an artistic career, either as a photographer or in the cinema. She was twelve years older than me and as a child I hero-worshipped her. She was not vain, but conscious of the effect her 'dreamy beauty' had on others. Even in those days she was vivacious and feminine; already dedicated to her appearance. She was interested in clothes and fashion, mad about sport, and she liked to take pictures. That was her world. [ ...] When she met Hitler she was a very healthy young girl, full of life and curiosity. She was sporty – she bicycled to the nearby lakes and like me and my parents, climbed the mountains, sleeping in little huts ... She was simply a very nice young girl.
Her new employer needs a proper introduction. He had been the only other person present at Adolf and Eva's original meeting – which he would have encouraged – and he remained a figure of lasting importance to both for the rest of their lives.
One of the first men to join the newly founded NSDAP, or Nazi Party, in 1920, Heinrich Hoffmann was four years older than Hitler. His father had been court photographer to Prince Regent Luitpold and King Ludwig III and young Heinrich had worked in the family shop as a boy. In 1908 he opened his own premises at 33 Schellingstrasse, later expanding into the larger shop at number 50. During the First World War he had served as an official cameraman in the Bavarian army. He met Adolf Hitler in 1919 when Hitler was thirty and the two men took to each other at once. It was the start of a lifelong friendship.
Heinrich Hoffmann, though generous and convivial, was a chancer, a fixer, a manipulator, quick to exploit a person or a situation to his own advantage. When their relationship began he was already well established and prosperous, unlike Hitler who hadn't enjoyed home comforts for years. From 1920 onwards the unkempt and as yet little known Adolf was a constant visitor to Hoffmann's house, enjoying the lavish hospitality of his beautiful first wife Lelly and playing with their two small children, Henriette, or 'Henny', and Heinrich, or 'Heini'. The family home in the smart Munich suburb of Bogenhausen became a haven, a place where he could relax, enjoy home-baked cakes and talk about art and music – subjects on which both men considered themselves experts. Soon Hitler was spending so much time at the Hoffmann villa that it had become almost his second home.
Even in those early days Hoffmann hadn't been exactly abstemious and, after Lelly's death in 1928, his behaviour degenerated from wit and gusto into drunken boorishness. Yet he remained one of Hitler's closest and most trusted colleagues; one hesitates to use the word 'friend' only because it's doubtful that Hitler was capable of having a real friend. His pictures of the Führer sold in their tens of thousands, postcards by the million. Hoffmann expertly boosted his subject's appeal with heroic poses and artful lighting, transforming his mentor into the last and greatest of the Teutonic Knights. Through his lens, in his studio, he created the mythical, long-awaited leader destined to lead Germany into a glorious thousand-year future.
In 1929, when Adolf Hitler first met guileless young Eva Braun, he was already well known in Munich as the orator and driving force behind the NSDAP. His face should have been familiar to her from Hoffmann's pictures as well as newspapers and posters, but Eva didn't recognise him. Despite having grown up in the city that was the birthplace and epicentre of the Nazi Party, Eva's knowledge of politics was scant and her interest nil. Her family mistrusted and disliked the Nazis, who in turn despised Christianity for its Judaic roots. If Hitler's name were ever mentioned in Eva's home, her father Fritz Braun would no doubt have dismissed him outright. At their first meeting it was beyond Eva's – beyond anyone's – imagination to picture the genocide. Hitler would initiate, even if she'd read Mein Kampf, which she certainly hadn't. Her convent sermons had evoked the Devil and all his works with sadistic hellfire imagery that presaged the gas ovens of Auschwitz, but in 1929 no one yet suspected what was to come, except the handful of men close to Hitler whose dream, like his, went beyond anti-Semitism to the complete annihilation of the Jews. Now, in the light of what we have learned about the Holocaust, about the decade between 1935 and 1945, we cannot see him without the retrospective contempt of history, but at the time Hitler made a very different impression. Already a charismatic public figure, he could be equally charismatic in private.
It may be anathema to those who regard him as the incarnation of evil but the truth is that the German Führer was far from being overtly sinister or repellent, let alone an absurd little fellow with a black cow's lick over his forehead and a toothbrush moustache, as portrayed by Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator. Quite the reverse. Hitler was a most attractive man, particularly when talking to impressionable young women, whom he liked to charm. Everyone agreed that his gaze, through eyes as blue as forget-me-nots, was mesmerising. Like all extremely powerful men, especially politicians, Hitler projected a force field that was impossible to resist. Seen through the eyes of a gullible girl, fresh from the convent and meeting him for the first time, he would have radiated magnetism. Gitta Sereny, whose books castigate the evils of the Nazi régime, told me: 'As far as his looks were concerned, I met him once, in Berlin in 1940, and was actually surprised at how nice-looking he was. He wasn't ugly. He was well-groomed, extremely clean and always smelled freshly of soap, although he did have halitosis, which he fought with constant tooth-cleaning.' She stressed the uncomfortable truth:
Power is very attractive, you know. It's a huge sexual come-on. And of course Hitler had considerable charm. He had far, far more intelligence than most people want to admit. He was an extremely intelligent man who was a monster. He liked to be surrounded by women, he enjoyed chit-chat, hand-kissing and all that and was incredibly charming to those close to him.
This, not a monster, was the so-called 'Herr Wolf' whom Eva encountered. Seen through the eyes of a gullible girl, fresh from her convent and meeting him for the first time, he would have radiated magnetism.
Yet quite why a giddy seventeen-year-old should have been so powerfully drawn to a man much older than herself remains a mystery. When an ignorant girl meets any man who takes an interest in her she's bound to be flattered, but there was more to it than that. The histrionic explanation would be that he was Eva's destiny, as he was Germany's destiny. 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.
* * *
The Hoffmanns' comfortable house in Schnorrstrasse was five minutes' walk from the shop and conveniently close to the party's headquarters. It was here that Hitler met like-minded friends including Ernst Röhm and Bernhardt Stempfle, men who crucially helped to shape his political philosophy, and they would become overexcited and garrulous over beer and cigars (except for Hitler, who detested smoking and alcohol), projecting visions of a glorious Nazi future that as yet only a few thousand converts believed in. Hoffmann, by providing this Nazi 'salon', the seedbed of its racist ideology, was a formative influence.
At other times it was simply a place where the Führer, who had been effectively homeless since his mid-teens, could relax and feel at ease in, a family home. 'After lunch at the restaurant Osteria Bavaria,' Albert Speer remembered later,
he would go on to his next destination: the home of his photographer in Munich-Bogenhausen. In good weather coffee would be served in the Hoffmanns' little garden. Surrounded by the gardens of other villas, it was hardly more than 2000 feet square. Hitler tried to resist the cake but finally consented, with many compliments to Frau Hoffmann, to have some put on his plate. If the sun were shining brightly, the Führer and Reichs Chancellor might even take off his coat and lie down on the grass in shirtsleeves. At the Hoffmanns he felt at home.
Hitler called their daughter Henny, who was exactly a year younger than Eva, 'mein Sonnenschein' (my sunshine) and he became so fond of her that at one stage her father even hoped the two might marry; but this was an ambition too far. Hitler wasn't looking for a relationship let alone marriage, not with little Henny and even less with some 'alpha-female', as brainy as she was beautiful. He was not ready to marry, now or ever, for reasons that not even Hoffmann guessed.
When she came on the scene, Eva Braun was dismissed by Hitler's friends and acolytes as a feather-brained nonentity. They would have preferred the Führer to consort with someone more sophisticated, elegant, polished; they failed to grasp that it was precisely her lack of these qualities that suited him. Even so, Hitler might never have picked her out had she not single-mindedly pursued him over the next two years, aided by the machinations of Hoffmann, who contrived to bring her to his notice as often as possible. Herbert Döring, who had known both men since the 1920s, recalled:
'My wife and Hitler's sister always said after the war that in the ordinary course of events Hitler and Eva Braun would never have come together. But Hoffmann was so cunning in the way he continued to present the girl as if on a silver platter, presented her like this to Hitler. He kept holding her out until Hitler took the bait.'
Excerpted from The Lost Life of Eva Braun by Angela Lambert. Copyright © 2006 Angela Lambert. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Angela Lambert was born to a German mother and an English father. She studied at Oxford and worked as a civil servant, journalist, and TV reporter. Her first book was shortlisted for the Whitbread Prize.
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Angela Lambert¿s ¿The Lost Life of Eva Braun¿ is not your typical biography. This 466 page book is not about Adolf Hitler, the Nazi Party (she was never a member), or does it offer an explanation for the Second World War, although one can not discuss Eva Braun¿s life and subsequent death in that dank and dark tomb beneath the Reich Chancellery without understanding how these factors congealed to bring to Berlin in 1945 and her death beside the man she so loved and the world so despised. Eva Braun was born into an average middle class family in Munich Germany in February of 1912. Her childhood and youth has been wonderfully detailed by the author. Eva always envisioned a life outside the ordinary¿perhaps as an actress, but never as a simple ¿hausfrau¿. She was often rebellious and had a craving to be the center of attention. It was perhaps this desire for something out of the ordinary that led her to Heinrich Hoffman¿s photography studio, where she modeled and clerked. It was here that she meets the mysterious ¿Herr Wolf¿, client and friend of her employer in October of 1929 at the age of 18. This strange patron would later be revealed to her as a raising politician by the name of Adolf Hitler. Ms. Lambert provides a vivid description of how Eva¿s early infatuation blossomed into a secretive romance, and her idyllic and yet terrible seclusion among the Southern Bavarian Alps at the Berghof (she was hidden away wherever there dignitaries were present). Here too Ms Lambert details how Eva interacted among the Nazi chieftains (her chief ally being Albert Speer), their wives, and mistresses, along with the others living on ¿the berg¿. Often alone (with occasionally her sister or a childhood friend), she would pass the days by swimming, exercising (aerobics, bicycling, skating), and lounging in the Bavarian sun. However, make no mistake it soon became clear that she was the (albeit unofficial) ¿Mistress of the Mountain¿ retreat as the author recounts through interviews and thoroughly researched documents. Finally, in minute detail, Ms. Lambert describes Eva¿s decision to join Hitler in Berlin in January of 1945 with the full knowledge that doing so would only bring her death. While many of the Nazi leadership ran like roaches in the light, only Eva and a small handful of others remained loyal. For her devotion, she achieved her single ambition---to become Hitler¿s wife, which she did for 36 hours. Her death came as she expected. She remained cheerful, compassionate, and loyal to the end. If this was where it ended, the book would still be well worth the $29.95 (USD). However, Ms. Lambert goes further by interlacing the story with that of her mother, another Bavarian girl very much like Eva and born at about the same time. By doing so, the book becomes in many way a story of her own past, and by extension, those whose parents, grandparents, or great grandparents lived through this horrific chapter of history. ¿The Lost Life of Eva Braun¿ is a solid read.
Try as she might, Angela Lambert could not make Eva Braun a sympathetic character for me. The author continually tried to brush off previous historical descriptions of Hitler's mistress that painted her as dim and present her as both thoughtful and deep. I can't help but feeling however, that it would serve her memory better to be seen as oblivious and unaware of the brutal carnage her lover inflicted on so many, than to have been aware and not at least have left him. After all, it seems as time passed it became somewhat of a chore for him to keep her placated. And the dual story line that tied in the author's mother's life growing up in Germany around the same time served only as a distraction. I was not interested. One thing I did find interesting was that Lambert noted in her biography that often the biographer will superimpose his or her own opinions about their subject matter into the story, and this seemed very much the case with her biography of Braun. She seemed to want us to like her or to at least sympathize with her plight. At the end while I might not outright condemn Eva Braun, neither could I feel any empathy for her, and I think that is the best Lambert should hope for.