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‘An ordinary Munich girl’

Eva Braun worked her way into Hitler's life and remained a strong presence there — while all the time remaining invisible to the public gaze

Weekend Review

Adolf Hitler was the son of a Filipino eye doctor and polymath called Jose Rizal who was studying in Heidelberg when he impregnated a chambermaid. This story, widely believed in the Philippines (and explaining his dark hair, dark eyes and short stature), is no more credible than the myth, widely believed in Nazi Germany, that Hitler had no private life at all — an idea that few people promoted more shrilly than he. "I have another bride, Germany!"

Right up to the moment of his real marriage, hours before the couple's joint suicide in a Berlin bunker, the notion that the ascetic Fuhrer might be living alone with a lower-middle-class photographer's assistant 23 years younger than himself was routinely dismissed. To foster what Ian Kershaw calls "the nimbus of the unapproachable", Hitler had cast himself as the husband of every German woman — "exalted above the level of sex and lust", in the belief of Reinhard Spitzy, a star-struck Austrian fighter pilot who in 1937 dined with the German leader at his Berghof mountain fastness. Spitzy was therefore shocked when a blonde-headed woman poked her head around the door and told Hitler to stop talking and come and eat. It devastated the pilot to learn that Hitler "had taken unto himself an ordinary female". Just how ordinary Eva Braun was, and the nature of her 14-year relationship with Hitler, is the subject of this fascinating study by the German historian Heike Gortemaker.

Her portrait is a model of plausible speculation and reconstruction in the face of suppressed evidence, contradictory statements and unreliable memoirs. To maintain his cult of isolation, Hitler tried to ensure that nothing linked him with the future Frau Hitler. Only two documents survive in which he writes her name; one photograph alone shows them together in public, at the 1936 Winter Olympics — and even then she is pictured sitting behind him. In Braun's deliberate absence from the records, Gortemaker discerns a hole that is the size and shape of a much more important presence than we have been willing to imagine. If Braun did not stand out, she did stand for something in Hitler's life. It is Gortemaker's contention that her "normality" at the centre of this atmosphere of "evil incarnate" helps to shed new light on this evil.

In September 1929, Eva Braun answered an advertisement in a Munich newspaper for a trainee position at a photographer's studio, selling postcards of local political figures. She was 17, the largely uneducated daughter of an unhappily married teacher, and interested in jazz, fashion, films, outdoor sports and the works of Oscar Wilde.

A few weeks later, a "Mr Wolf" comes to the studio. In one account, he devours her "with his eyes the whole time" and offers her a lift home in his Mercedes. She refuses. Her boss chastises her. Didn't she realise who "Mr Wolf" was? His face is on the postcards she has been selling. A platonic courtship ensues and, Gortemaker says, "The exact circumstances and precise development of their relationship remains unclear." But early in 1932 they become lovers at Hitler's flat, a place of fluffy cushions embroidered with saccharine sentiments and smelling, in Albert Speer's untrustworthy memory, "of cooking-oil and leftovers". For Speer, too, Braun was just "an ordinary Munich girl" who did not know what was going on. His derogatory put-downs were repeated by others jostling for Hitler's attention. But Gortemaker disputes the common picture that has emerged of "an entirely apolitical young woman", who was unaware and uninterested.

Stripping the vested interests of those involved, she gives us an alternative version — one that suggests as much about Braun as it exposes of Hitler's inner circle, off whom Braun is glancingly (but convincingly) reflected. Gortemaker proposes that Braun "used self-inflicted violence to fight her way to a place at Hitler's side". In 1932, in the first of two suicide attempts, she shot herself in the neck; she had aimed, she said, "at her heart" — which suggests she was either a remarkably bad shot or, Gortemaker's thesis, that the seat of her emotions was more calculatingly cerebral. Hitler, who had been ignoring her, took this as a sign of the loyalty he demanded. "Now I must look after her." (Intriguingly, his niece Geli had killed herself in his Munich flat, with his pistol, the year before.)

Braun consolidated her position with another attempt on her life in 1935, this time taking sleeping pills. Three months later, she moved in with Hitler in the Berghof. From then until their deaths, "their relationship was like a marriage". In their last days, Hitler would gaze at the gigantic model of Linz, the "world city" where he planned to pass his twilight years. "Aside from Fraulein Braun, I'll take no one with me." She would be the "lady of the house".

As it turned out, the Hitlers' last-known resting place was miles from Linz. In 1970, the KGB re-burnt the remains of husband and wife, and scattered their ashes on a river near Magdeburg. Meanwhile, the real truth of their relationship probably lies in "a water-resistant packet" which contained all "the letters from the Fuhrer" and which Braun bequeathed to her sister Gretl, urging her to "bury them if need be", but insisting, "Please don't destroy them." This packet has not yet been traced.

-The Telegraph Group Limited, London 2011

Eva Braun: Life with HitlerBy Heike B. Gortemaker,Translated by Damion Searls, Allen Lane, 336 pages, £23