The number of books written about Adolf Hitler is uncountable, and yet the German historian Heike B. Görtemaker manages to surprise. For example by in Hitler’s Court to make way for the women in the life of the Nazi leader. Women are often absent from books about the Second World War, especially if those books are about decision-making. After all, there were no women in the Nazi leadership. And they also played a subordinate role in the ideology of the Nazis, one that was mainly limited to their role as a birthing machine. Hitler himself did not want to know anything about marriage for a long time, just before his death he married his girlfriend Eva Braun. ‘The worst thing’ about a marriage, he once said, was the ‘legal obligations’.
But, observes Görtemaker, about half of the circle with which Hitler surrounded himself for years consisted of women. It is mainly this circle, described as ‘the Berghof community’ or the ‘surrogate family’, that her book is about. The Berghof was Hitler’s residence on the Obersalzberg in southern Germany, where he increasingly withdrew after his seizure of power in 1933.
But the story begins well before that time, with the rise of National Socialism and Hitler as its main representative. Before taking power, Hitler mainly surrounded himself with old comrades in arms (some he still remembers from the First World War) and people who can help him move forward socially. Some are also willing to support him financially and materially so that he can adopt the lifestyle of a statesman. Elsa Bruckmann, the wife of publisher Hugo Bruckmann and ‘the salonnière of the better circles in Munich’. Helene and Edwin Bechstein, wealthy benefactors who also bring Hitler into contact with Winifred Wagner, the wife of the ‘son of the master’. They donate cars and watches to him, finance his travels and redecorate his “scruffy home” in Munich so that he no longer comes across as “an impecunious man asking for help.”
After his seizure of power in 1933, Hitler no longer needed his sponsors. Now that he can afford it, he himself donates a Mercedes to the Bruckmanns. To ‘buy himself free’, concludes Görtemaker. He also puts his real family at a distance. His unmarried sister Paula has to call herself ‘Wolf’ instead of ‘Hitler’, so that she is not immediately associated with him.
Also literally Hitler distances himself, he withdraws more and more often to the Obersalzberg. There he surrounds himself with people he can control. ‘The circle before Hitler turned into the circle around Hitler’, summarizes Görtemaker. That circle consists of adjutants, doctors, secretaries, favorite architects and personal photographers. It is they who have easy access to the Fuhrer. Joseph Goebbels and his wife Magda are also often present. But other Nazi leaders, such as Hermann Göring and Heinrich Himmler, rarely make it to the mountain.
There is a persistent image of Hitler, writes Görtemaker: that of the ‘contact poor despot’. The people she targets are ‘only vaguely perceived as extras and fringe figures of a supremely powerful dictator’. She cites the well-known Hitler biographer Joachim Fest who wrote that around Hitler there was ‘a space without people’. Hitler’s Court is a – successful – attempt to bring that group to the fore.
There is a peaceful atmosphere on the mountain, even when the war is raging on all fronts, writes Görtemaker. She bases herself, among other things, on the unpublished notes of Maria von Below, the wife of Hitler’s adjutant Nicolaus. The mountain is ‘a piece of home’ for her. She has been staying there regularly since 1938. According to Görtemaker, this period is ‘her biographical highlight’: ‘In the afternoon the official greeting by Hitler, then the pleasant table arrangement, the harmonious stops in the tea house with apple pie and chocolate, cinema, classical music, pillow fights on the long, the Great Hall and the “endless evenings in front of the fireplace” where she learned more than at her boarding school.’
Only when there is an unexpected visitor are the women out of the picture. Then it is said: ‘Whither with the ladies, up the Kehlstein’. On that nearby mountain, Hitler also has a house, the Eagle’s Nest.
Architect Albert Speer later writes in his memories that Hitler’s intimates do not listen attentively ‘with pretended attention’ to the Führer when he once again holds an endless monologue. According to Speer, the conversations on the Obersalzberg are mainly about ‘unimportant things’. Cows and calves. Görtemaker doesn’t believe it. She is convinced that Speer created that image after the war to downplay his own role.
Politics is indeed being discussed, and women are also taking part in it. For example, Marion Schönmann, a Viennese friend of Eva Braun, criticizes the appointment of Josef Bürckel as governor of Vienna in January 1939. She prefers an Austrian, writes Görtemaker. ‘Even after the war, Baldur von Schirach, who became Bürckel’s successor in Vienna two years later, still complained about Schönmann’s influence on Hitler, who had believed her ‘talk’ about the failing Nazi leadership in Vienna.’
In 1943, when the Germans are pushed back on the Eastern Front, Hitler retreats to his mountain for almost three months. In 1944 the dictator and his court still lead a ‘peaceful life’ (according to adjutant Nicolaus von Below). On April 20 he celebrates his birthday and on June 3 he organizes the wedding of Margarete Braun, Eva’s sister, and SS-Gruppenführer Hermann Fegelein. Hitler’s intimates remain loyal to him and help maintain the appearance of normality. They owe him too much to push him aside. “The war was lost, but only Hitler’s death could end it.”
Many members of Hitler’s court got off with mild sentences after the war. Four months after her release in 1948, secretary Christa Schroeder found a job as a shorthand typist in a foundry. Within a few weeks she rises to the position of secretary to the director.
But most remarkable is the story of Heinrich Hoffmann, the ‘court photographer’. Like Speer, he gives the impression after the war that he was ‘merely a spectator at a play performed by Hitler’. But when Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Nazi foreign minister, flies to Moscow in 1939 to sign a non-aggression pact with Stalin, Hoffmann is there. Not as a photographer, but as a confidant of Hitler to report later on the actions of the German participants.
Hoffmann is also in the Führertrein, Hitler’s mobile headquarters, when deportations and murders are decided there during the invasion of Poland. And Hoffmann camps endlessly in the Berghof, where his photos help to maintain the image of Hitler as ‘the lone soldier’ – an image that is therefore incorrect.
Hoffmann is also in Nuremberg, when Nazi leaders are tried there after the war. Not as a suspect, but as a witness. He even has an office in the courthouse, where he keeps himself available for information with 40,000 glass negatives. The American historian Philipp Fehl, interrogator at the tribunal, later remembers Hoffmann as a ‘servant old gentleman’.
After the war, the members of the royal household corresponded happily. And they continue to believe in National Socialism. Christa Schroeder is delighted with The way, the organ of National Socialists who escaped to South America via the ‘rat line’ via Italy. That magazine, she writes, stands up ‘for the deeply buried truth’. Hitler’s intimates still see each other regularly after the war, although from the 1960s this has become increasingly common at funerals.
Heike B. Görtemaker has done something clever. She focuses on Hitler’s partly anonymous intimates. In doing so, she also tells a story about the Nazi leader himself. The book can therefore be seen at the same time as an alternative Hitler biography, written compactly and fluently. Hitler comes forward as a socially deficient person, someone who felt uncomfortable in large groups. This is already apparent in 1927 at the wedding of Rudolf Hess, his later deputy. Hess writes to his mother that Hitler followed the wedding ceremony “shivering and pale with excitement” and that “from sheer excitement” he could barely swallow a bite. But Hitler liked to surround himself with people, especially women. Why? Heike Görtemaker resists the temptation to psychologize. That’s nice too.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 11 June 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of June 11, 2021