Sunday, December 11, 2011
REVIEW: The Lost Life of Eva Braun by Angela Lambert
I hesitate as I start out in the writing of this review, because to attack The Lost Life of Eva Braun feels almost as if to attack Angela Lambert herself. In retrospect, this should have been an early warning of one of the book's deepest flaws, that Lambert is acting as such a deeply and personally involved interpreter of events rather than pretending any kind of objective distance as a historian. She admits from the very first pages that she has an agenda in defending Eva Braun from a slew of male historians who dismiss her as a "bimbo" or any number of other gendered insults by offering a female perspective on Hitler's mistress. She also states that she seeks to understand her own German mother, who was born in the same year as Braun and only miles away, and was understandably very reticent to talk about her experiences growing up in Hitler's Germany. Anecdotes about Lambert's mother and aunts litter the book; this is a problem. One cannot give an objective account when the historical subject has become aligned with one's own mother and, increasingly, the entirety of German womanhood over the period between WWI and WWII.
Eva Braun was Hitler's mistress; even that statement seems to cast aspersions, doesn't it, implying looseness of sexual morals (in a time period where slut-shaming was seen as right and good) and psychopathy by default because, well, he was Hitler. Shouldn't she have just known? Shouldn't she have sensed something? The only explanations for her long-term fidelity to one of the twentieth century's greatest monsters that many can accept is that she was either an equal participant, or so stupid that it's a wonder she managed to cross the street without guard. This is a dangerous strategy to take, for it places Hitler above the realm of man and into a fairytale monster, makes it inconceivable that any right-thinking person could have been seduced by him. As history can attest, his type is not actually that uncommon.
Unfortunately, Lambert, in trying to overturn both of these views of Eva Braun, only winds up further condemning the woman that she was trying to save. Braun was Hitler's long-term secret, known only to a handful of those in his inner circle. As such, there is very little information on her save for oral history carried (and tinged by) her family, whose surviving members Lambert was lucky in being able to interview before they passed. That's still not a lot of information on which to base a book. There is enough before Braun fell under Hitler's sway to paint the picture of a naïve, vivacious young woman who was eager to please and not terribly troubled by being dominated, a personality profile that psychopathic men are drawn to often enough. For every serial killer who lived alone, there is another who has a spouse standing in the wings and swearing against all evidence that their loved one could not possibly have done such things. This was Eva at 17, however; she was thirty-three when she committed suicide with Hitler, and had been living in the seat of power for much of her adult life. In her zeal to prove that Eva wasn't the ditz that Hitler's perpetually jealous and backbiting inner circle wanted to dismiss her as, Lambert does her job a little too well: no, Braun was not stupid, however much she became very good at playing compliant and passive in order to accommodate Hitler's whip-crack moods. She was surrounded by the most powerful men of the Reich and their wives, many of whom, contra Lambert's assertions that the women were deliberately kept in the dark, knew very well what was going on, and yet is supposed to have been blithely innocent of any knowledge. (As Lambert herself admits, largely by Braun's own design.) Lambert attempts to counteract this by pointing to Eva's sweet nature and usual gentleness (and that of Albert Speer, who himself ain't no great shakes as a human being) as if knowing the difference between right and wrong makes her better than the likes of Goebbels, Eichmann, et. al. even as she passively refused to act upon this enlightenment. At one point, in fact, Lambert also attempts to deflect blame from Eva by stating that many Jews who knew that something was very, very wrong at the end of those trains even if they didn't know the full extent of it still chose to stay rather than face the difficulties and uncertainties of fleeing to reluctant asylum nations. At that point I had to put the book down for a bit and go play with the cat until my temper could cool. It's a rare misstep for Lambert herself; on the whole, while I doubt her historical conclusions, she's very careful not to diminish the sufferings of the Jews or the ordinary German people throughout the war.
Lambert also attempts to say that heroism is something to be lauded when it is displayed, not condemned when it is not, and in that sense she is correct. One gets the impression, however, that she is moving beyond trying to redeem Eva Braun and into an attempt to redeem her own mother and perhaps every adult woman of Hitler's Germany as a whole. Lambert's mother married an Englishman and was living in England during the war, where by Lambert's account she was treated very cruelly by her in-laws on the basis of her nationality. She might or might not have had the knowledge, but she certainly didn't have the power to do anything about it; she needs no redemption. As it is extremely gray as to how much the average woman in Germany knew at the time, we cannot condemn them out of hand, either. (Though it is curious that Lambert, in nearly the same breath as she says that we cannot expect heroism as a necessary component of decency--rightly, or most of the human race would fail outright--eagerly lists the number of German women who did go above and beyond to protect Jews while it was a struggle to keep immediate family members from starving to death.) But they weren't enjoying the fruits of power (Lambert also excuses Braun's increasing high-handedness with her own family as the strain of maintaining a relationship with a psychopath, while dismissing elder sister Ilse's coldness towards Eva as jealousy rather than ideology; Braun's family was ardently against the anti-Semitism of Hitler's policies), they weren't putting a relationship with Hitler above all else as late as 1945, when there was little not to know.
It's an odd sort of historical biography wherein the most interesting personality in the stew is that of the author herself. One gets the sense in reading this book that in every portrait of Braun Lambert is actually seeing Ditha and trying to redeem her in spite of a paucity of evidence suggesting that she did anything to put her in need of redemption. Darlin', your mother ain't the one that did it.