From chiefs to presidents, from visionaries to celebrities, humans have always responded to strong leaders. A consequence of our hierarchical coding that demands we cohere around powerful personalities, we have allowed them to create our culture, establish our social norms and organize our governments. We have let them inspire us to be better and we have permitted them to terrify us into committing to ruinous war. For good and ill, we remember them better and longer than anyone else, their potent legacies handed down to us through fables, a gallery of giants with lessons to teach. But what attracts us to these luminaries of history? What gives them the power to compel our fealty? Surely it is more than a quirk of evolution that allows them to master us and imprint upon us their ideas for a glorious future. Of all such figures, few have been responsible for more horror and more fascination than Adolf Hitler. This is the history of the woman who followed him unto death.
The product of a seamstress and a schoolteacher, Eva Braun was born and raised in tumultuous times. Germany, an empire at her birth, collapsed, during her adolescence, into a doomed republic burdened by hyperinflation and the punitive reparations the Treaty of Versailles compelled it to grant to victorious France. This scarred and defeated country was the place of Braun's formative years, a giant brought to its knees by trickery and betrayal. Or this was at least the palatable fiction pedaled by Hitler and his Nazis, a movement comprised of proud and angry men who could not stand to abide the notion that mighty Germany could have been vanquished in war fair and square.
Fascinated by photography, Eva Braun fell in with this vehement crowd in 1929 when she was hired on by the National Socialist's official photographer. By 1933, she was not only committed to the cause, she had graduated to Hitler's inner circle of confidantes, rejecting the moderation of her parents to become a creature comfort to a dictator at the age of 21. Deploying the real threat of suicide as a means of binding herself to the standoffish Fuhrer, Braun eventually became Hitler's most loyal supplicant, willing to keep herself clear of his public life if only he would share with her his private one. The mutual bond grew throughout World War II until, finally, when all other hope for victory was gone, they married in the rubble of Berlin, at the heart of a world annihilated by their actions.
Eva Braun is fascinating work. Dismissing the popular notion that female Nazis were merely dragged along in the wake of their powerful husbands, Ms. Goertemaker constructs a portrait of Eva Braun that leaves little doubt that Hitler's only wife was devoted to both her man and his cause. Successfully placing Braun at key meetings throughout the war, the author convincingly argues that Braun was in a better position than most to understand the extent of the devastation her lover was visiting upon the world. Moreover, it is clear that it was well within Braun's powers to reject the ugliness into which she'd happily sold herself. That she refused to do so, that she contentedly and knowledgeably followed him into death sets up, for the reader, the age-old question of immoral leadership.
Do electrifying leaders use their innate charisma to compel their followers to abandon reason for cruelty and war, or do the followers themselves enchant their leader with the very charisma they then credit him for bewitching them with? Does the monster make himself, or is he the gestalt of the pain, the suffering and the wounded pride of all his creators? Eva Braun is a case study for the latter for Ms. Goertemaker leaves little doubt that the young woman was like the millions of fellow Germans who joined the Nazi party, desperate to believe in something and someone who could erase their degradation, who could give them work, and who could imbue them with worldly purpose. It did not matter if the result of sewing this corrupted seed would be a blighted crop. All that mattered was the restoration of what should have always been.
Ms. Goertemaker adopts an academic's scholarly remove to narrate the history of a woman at the center of a fascinating time. Her account suffers somewhat from a lack of correspondence that would have allowed us to hear Braun's own voice, but the author fills in the silhouette of her subject with the backgrounds of relevant figures with whom she interacted, using their biased opinions to help complete the image of a youthful woman utterly devoted to her man. (3/5 Stars)