Almost immediately afterward, I was given a biography about Hitler’s mistress – later wife — Eva Braun, written by British-German writer Angela Lambert.
I knew I needed to read more about Hitler and the Third Reich in order to understand more about Germany and the war. Eva Braun seemed a likely place to start.
I just never expected how close that would bring me to Hitler’s living room.
While she’s a main character, Braun is not the novel’s protagonist. (That’s Anna, born just as the war came to an end in Germany.)
But Braun’s 33-year life provides a metaphorical motif for exploring the effects of self-suppression in many lives, especially those of women.
For research, I immersed in reading about her life, and the time period (120+ books), and that “inner circle” that Braun moved within as part of Hitler’s life. I spent hours watching the films she had made, and looking at many of her photographs.
Eventually, I made two trips to the National Archives here in the U.S., where photo albums of hers that were confiscated by the Allies after the war have been stored ever since. Looking at those probably provided my closest sense of connection with her life, and with her as a “character.” As with most of my research, I was looking to read between the lines of what was known to be factual. I was looking for more of the emotional story that her life showed, that the pieces of her experience pointed to.
Among the discoveries my research turned up is the little-known (or infrequently shared) information from testimony given at the Nuremberg Trials that shows how an action she took in the last week of her life saved tens of thousands of Allied prisoners of war. She likely did this to protect Hitler’s reputation – he was going to have them all killed. Among those who were saved were British members of my own family. That discovery stunned me when I unearthed it, and was definitely a turning point for me, as a novelist.
While she is famous because of someone infamous, Eva Braun came from what would be perceived both then and now as an extremely “ordinary” life. Lambert’s biography revealed how much of what was believed about Braun was inaccurate, right down to frequent misidentification of her in photos.
Lots of assumptions and judgments about her have masked key information that her life could provide about Hitler. Paradoxically, although much of what has been conveyed about her was based on presumed understanding about him, it’s a more complete picture of her that can provide the most accurate view of Hitler.
She loved him, I have no doubt. Yet, in many ways, she gave up both her sense of self and of self-determination to “prove” that love, show her loyalty. (Loyalty was very important to Hitler, who trusted so poorly, if at all. But he trusted her.) I think the distorted self-denial she showed is still cultivated in collective culture today in ways designed to keep inequality in place. Many, especially women, give up the freedom of their own wholeness for the sake of proving love, and loyalty. I think the false value this behavior is given is a big part of what allows oppression and repression to continue, along with the imbalance of power that always accompanies them.
I suppose it’s natural that people might assume this novel aims to exonerate or redeem Eva Braun, but that’s never been its goal. She came to represent, for me, the many things that we can form conclusions about without ever delving deep enough to uncover the whole story, in order to genuinely find truth.
If the story aims to convey any sort of message, it’s that no human being is all good or all bad, and human circumstances are always more complex than they appear. If we’re not willing to accept and understand this, we’re unlikely to learn from history.
This is also a story about outlasting the chaos and confusion of war and other kinds of violence and destruction by valuing — and protecting – all of the good that we are willing to build together in our world. Many Germans did this, though until recently, their stories have remained unknown.
The novel is also about the eventual homecoming we must all make to our truest self, and the role that others often mysteriously play in that process.
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