Hitler and Women - Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 - Volker Ullrich

Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 - Volker Ullrich (2016)

Chapter 10. Hitler and Women

“The days are sad right now,” wrote Hitler, pouring out his sorrows in a letter to Winifred Wagner on 30 December 1931. “I can’t seem to get over this great loneliness.” He had passed through Bayreuth on Christmas Eve, but had not had the heart to visit her. “How can a person take pleasure in anything if he is sad inside?” he added.1 Hitler’s unhappiness had a concrete personal cause. On the morning of 19 September 1931, his niece Geli Raubal had been found dead in his apartment on Munich’s Prinzregentenstrasse. Next to her lay the pistol that Hitler kept in his desk drawer for protection.

It is not surprising that this incident attracted widespread attention, since at the time the rising new star of German politics was being courted from many sides as a potential coalition partner. For a brief period, Hitler’s private life came into public focus, only to quickly disappear once more. For historians, Raubal’s death provides an occasion to pose one of the central biographical questions: what sort of relationship did Hitler have with the female sex?

The question is difficult to address and will probably never be answered definitively. Hitler’s first biographer, Konrad Heiden, wrote of his “opaque erotic life,” and little evidence has emerged since the 1930s to alter that verdict.2 Hitler always played a game of hide-and-seek with his private life—even towards those closest to him. Authentic personal documents are a rarity: most of the material that existed was probably destroyed by Julius Schaub at the end of the war. It is hardly surprising, then, that no chapter of Hitler’s biography contains more rumours and legends than his relations with women. The most bizarre among them is the perpetual canard about his abnormal genitalia. This myth is based on a former classmate’s story that a goat bit off half his penis as a young man and the assertion made by a Soviet army doctor who performed a post-mortem on Hitler in 1945 that he was missing his left testicle. According to everything we know from his personal doctor Theodor Morell, Hitler’s sexual organs were perfectly normal. Speculation that he was physically unable to have sex is completely unfounded.3

Attempts to discover something pathological in Hitler’s sex life also lead us astray. The only real ammunition for this argument comes from Hanfstaengl’s 1970 memoirs, which include an anecdote designed to appeal to readers’ prurience. One evening when he had left the room to order a taxi, Hanfstaengl wrote, Hitler used the opportunity to “kneel down” in front of Helene Hanfstaengl, declare himself as “her slave” and “lament his pitiful destiny, which had condemned him to the bittersweet experience of making her acquaintance too late.” Helene only just succeeded in getting the grovelling Hitler back on his feet before her husband returned to the room to witness this ambiguous situation.4 It is all too easy to conclude that a man who would later order monstrous crimes to be committed must have been sexually perverse, which is why historians have been so eager to credit this idea.5

Likewise, the claim especially popular among German exiles in the 1930s that Hitler was homosexual has been disproved. Historian Lothar Machtan made this idea the centre of a study that was marketed with great hullabaloo in 2001. Machtan claimed to have shown “that Hitler loved men…and that realising this is essential for understanding both his person and his career,” even though he had to “domesticate his same-sex passion” since homosexuality would have been “a fatal handicap for a political career.”6 For Machtan, Hitler’s “virile posturing and need to impress others was basically just a desperate attempt to cover up his feminine nature.”7 Machtan tried to cite hard evidence to make his interpretation more plausible, but was unable to produce even a single genuine piece of proof that the idea of Hitler’s homosexuality was anything but speculation.

A further curious variation within the broad spectrum of conjectures about Hitler’s physical urges holds that he was completely asexual. The main evidence for this hypothesis is a remark passed on by his long-standing secretary Christa Schroeder that her boss “needed eroticism but not sex.” According to Schroeder, Hitler gained satisfaction from the “ecstasy of the masses,” while his relations with women had been purely “platonic.”8 Joachim Fest picked up such statements, interpreting Hitler’s rhetorical flights as “compensation mechanisms for his dead-end sexuality.”9 This characterisation informs the popular idea that as an egomaniac who believed he was on a historic mission, Hitler was incapable of developing emotional bonds with women. The popular historian Guido Knopp put it succinctly: “In the end, Hitler only loved himself.”10 That is no doubt true in a sense, but is hardly sufficient to explain the complex story of Hitler’s relationships with women.

There is no doubt that Hitler was susceptible to feminine charms. “What beautiful women there are,” he exclaimed in late January 1942 in the Wolfsschanze.

We were sitting in the Bremen Ratskeller and a woman came in, and you would have thought Olympus had opened up! Simply incandescent! The diners all put down their forks and knives and feasted their eyes on this woman! Then, later in Braunschweig, I could have kicked myself afterwards! All the men there felt the same way. A blonde thing jumped up at my car to give me a bouquet of flowers. Everyone could remember her. But no one thought of asking the girl for her address so that I could write her a thank-you note. She was big and blonde and wonderful!11

Hitler also remembered his youthful crush from Linz, Stefanie, as “big and blonde and wonderful.” The 17-year-old had not dared approach her, remaining an admirer from afar. “In my youth in Vienna, I also encountered many beautiful women,” he concluded his monologue in 1942. But as far as we know, he never succeeded in getting to know any of them. Christa Schroeder recalled Hitler describing a woman named Emilie from his Vienna days as his “first love.”12 As the historian Brigitte Hamann has determined, the woman in question was the 17-year-old sister of Hitler’s friend Rudolf Häusler—a shy, sheltered girl to whom Hitler had once given a drawing but with whom he definitely had not had an affair.13 Moreover, there is no indication that Hitler had any contact with women during his time in Munich before the First World War, when he basically lived like a hermit.

Was it shyness or self-imposed asceticism that inclined Hitler to avoid getting to know members of the opposite sex? We do not know, and we can only speculate whether Hitler masturbated, as young men in his situation are wont to do. Onanism, which generations of priests, doctors and teachers had condemned as a serious sin, engendered feelings of guilt in adolescents of all social classes. In his study of neurasthenic conditions around the turn of the century, the historian Joachim Radkau characterised masturbation as the great illicit thrill of the time.14 Perhaps this was one cause of Hitler’s reticence around women. On the other hand, we should remember that after leaving school and failing to get accepted to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, the young Hitler felt like a failure—hardly the best position from which to conquer young ladies’ hearts.

By the time he went off to war in 1914, at the age of 25, Hitler apparently had had no sexual experiences with women whatsoever, and that fact seems not to have changed in his four years on the Western Front. His comrades in the field, whose preferred topic of conversation was sex, often made fun of him for his lack of interest—whether it was play-acted or genuine—but they ultimately accepted him as what he seemed to be: a somewhat bizarre saint who was strangely abstinent when it came to sensual pleasures.15 After 1918, the soldiers who had survived the carnage and the women who had done without their men for so long were eager to make up for lost time. The general relaxation of morals, manifested, for example, in the “dance mania,” was a response to such desires. It has been speculated that Hitler overcame his skittishness around women and plunged into the whirlpool of physical pleasures in the first, wild, post-war years, which also marked the beginning of his political career.16 In fact, his rivals within the Nazi Party in the summer of 1921 accused him of “excessive contact with women.”17 But all we have are second-hand rumours. In 1923, he was alleged to have had an affair with Jenny Haug, the sister of his chauffeur at the time. That at least was the story told by Konrad Heiden, who claimed to have it on good authority.18

Nonetheless, even then Hitler preferred to keep the company of maternal patrons like Hermine Hoffmann, Helene Bechstein and Elsa Bruckmann, who took the ambitious but uncouth and somewhat lost young politician under their wings.19 There was certainly a measure of rivalry between Hitler’s “surrogate mothers.” In March 1942 he recalled that a Munich society lady was excluded from the Bruckmanns’ salon after the hostess had noticed her making eyes at him. “She was very beautiful and would have found me interesting—nothing more,” Hitler remarked.20 Helene Bechstein was so taken by Hitler that she would have liked to see him marry her only daughter, Lotte. “He couldn’t kiss,” the then 15-year-old publishing heiress later said when asked why she had not had a liaison with Hitler.21

Winifred Wagner also conformed to the image of a “surrogate mother,” even though she was eight years younger than Hitler. In November 1926, after reading a biography of Mussolini, she tried to understand her relationship with the friend she so greatly admired. Men who were “called to such exalted positions,” she wrote to an acquaintance, had to be “fully isolated inside” since their mission demanded that they be “above and outside others.” Relations with a female represented “the only bridge and contact with the rest of humanity” and were thus of “inestimable significance” to such men, whose character was almost completely formed by their mothers. Unconsciously, both Mussolini’s and Hitler’s relationships with women, Wagner wrote, were influenced by “the desire for their deceased mothers.”22 Wagner knew what a major role Klara Hitler had played in her son’s life and how much Hitler had suffered because of her early death. Thus she tried to be a surrogate mother to him, even though her own feelings for the man she nicknamed “Wolf” were more than just maternal.

During Hitler’s time in Landsberg, prison director Otto Leybold noticed that as a bachelor he seemed better able to adjust to incarceration than his fellow prisoners who were married. “He isn’t drawn to women,” Leybold remarked, “and he treats those he encounters during visits here with the utmost politeness without getting involved in serious political discussions with them.”23 In fact, Hitler was always quite solicitous around women. Like an old-school cavalier, he greeted them by kissing their hands and gave his voice a soft, insinuatingly warm tone. Those who only knew him as a bellowing, wildly gesticulating rabble-rouser were usually astonished at how charming Hitler could be in private. Leybold, however, was correct in his observation that Hitler did not want women getting involved in his political affairs. History had proved beyond the shadow of a doubt, he proclaimed years later over lunch in the Wolfsschanze, that “women, no matter how clever, are unable to separate reason from emotion in politics.”24

Hitler maintained a traditional view of women. Politics and work were the domain of men, while women were responsible for keeping house, taking care of their husbands and raising children. “The man’s world is large compared to the woman’s,” Hitler pontificated in one of his monologues. “Man belongs to duty, and only now and again do his thoughts turn to women. The woman’s world is her husband. Only now and again does she think of anything else. That is the big difference.” Women depended on men for protection, Hitler repeatedly stressed. Without it they were lost: “That’s why a woman loves a hero. He gives her a sense of safety. She wants a heroic man.”25 Hitler could not conceive of a relationship in which men and women were equal partners.

Hitler decided early on in life to forgo marriage and traditional family life. In June 1924, when his fellow inmate in Landsberg, Rudolf Hess, suggested moving his sister Paula from Vienna to Munich, Hitler dismissed the idea “with every sign of horror,” protesting that it would only be “a burden and an inhibition.” Hitler was afraid his sister might try to influence his decisions. “For the same reason,” wrote Hess, “he refused to get married and avoided, as he himself hinted, strong feelings of attachment to women. He had to be ready at any time to face all perils and if necessary die without the slightest personal, human thought.”26 Hitler would stay true to the principle of never binding himself to a woman in marriage—so as to prevent personal concerns from limiting his political latitude—until shortly before his suicide in his Berlin bunker.

After Hitler was released from Landsberg, there was talk in Nazi circles in Munich of him having a relationship with Ernst Hanfstaengl’s sister Erna. The rumours persisted, so that in early March 1925 Hitler felt compelled to publicly deny them, declaring, “I am so married to politics that I cannot even consider another ‘engagement.’ ”27 Yet that attitude did not rule out relationships with women. After Hitler’s stretch in prison, his new chauffeur, the good-looking Emil Maurice, was tasked with “chatting up girls” when driving his boss around. But as Maurice told Christa Schroeder after the war, Hitler and the women had merely socialised and conversed in the evenings after big events. Hitler had given them money, but had not asked for anything in return.28 It seems that Hitler liked relaxing in the company of beautiful women after strenuous speaking appearances. When he was interrogated in June 1945, Maurice said he was certain that “neither Hitler’s short nor his long amorous relationships had resulted in sexual congress.”29

The same was apparently true for Hitler’s relationship with Maria Reiter. Hitler met her in Berchtesgaden in the autumn of 1926 while he was completing the second volume of Mein Kampf, but the public first learned of the existence of Hitler’s “unknown lover” in 1959, when Reiter was “sensationally discovered” by the West German news weekly Stern.30 Not all of the information supplied by Reiter, who was living then in obscurity in a Munich suburb, was credible. Nonetheless, in a number of respects, the magazine report does shed light on Hitler’s complex relationship with women.

Maria Reiter was born on 23 December 1909 in Berchtesgaden. Her father was a tailor and one of the founders of the local chapter of the Social Democratic Party. Her mother ran a women’s fashion shop on the ground floor of the Deutsches Haus, the hotel Hitler stayed at in the autumn of 1926.31 A few weeks before Reiter met Hitler, her mother had died. Her older sister took over the shop, while Maria helped out as a salesgirl. Hitler had observed the blonde, blue-eyed Reiter for quite some time before introducing himself. Their first conversation revolved around the dogs they took for walks in a nearby park. “German shepherds are truly loyal and friendly,” Hitler is supposed to have said. “I can no longer imagine life without this dog. Do you not feel the same way?”

At the time, Reiter was 16, Hitler 37 years old. Like his father, Hitler preferred younger women, and he made no secret of it: “There is nothing better than educating a young thing,” he would declare in 1942. “A girl of 18, 19, 20 years is as malleable as wax. A man needs to be able to put his stamp on a girl. Women themselves want nothing different!”32 That was obviously Hitler’s rationalisation for the problem he had with women of his own age, who displayed self-confidence, were well educated and let him know that they saw through his charming but artificial poses. Encounters with such women stirred feelings of inferiority, as he had displayed by his nonplussed behaviour when interviewed by Dorothy Thompson in 1931.33

With “Mimi,” “Mizzi” or “Mitzerl,” as he soon called his new acquaintance, Hitler could play the role of the vastly superior, paternal friend. He courted her, inviting her and her sister to an NSDAP event in the Deutsches Haus and devoting his entire attention to her at the subsequent private reception. In response to the hotel owner’s daughter’s somewhat indiscreet question as to why he was not married, Hitler declared that he “first had to rescue the German people lying on the ground.” Reiter remembered Hitler touching her legs with his knee and stepping firmly on her toes with his foot as he said this. Such rather crude advances continued later in her sister’s apartment, when Hitler suddenly placed himself in front of her with a penetrating glare and asked: “Don’t you want to give me a kiss goodnight?” When Reiter resisted, protesting that she had never kissed a man, the change in Hitler’s manner was instantaneous: “He pursed his lips, and his gaze lost the warmth it had just had,” Reiter reported.

There is some evidence that Reiter’s story was genuine. Henriette Hoffmann—the young daughter of Hitler’s court photographer Heinrich and later wife of Hitler Youth leader Baldur von Schirach—described a similar incident. Hoffmann claimed that one evening in her father’s apartment Hitler approached her after the other guests had left: “Herr Hitler wore an English trench coat, holding a grey velour hat in his hand, and said something that wasn’t like him at all. He asked very seriously: ‘Don’t you want to kiss me?’ ” Henriette Hoffmann, too, rejected this advance: “No please, Herr Hitler, I really can’t.” In response, “He said absolutely nothing, rapped the palm of his hand with his riding crop and slowly descended the stairs to the front door.”34

How should we interpret this type of behaviour? Apparently, despite all his charm, Hitler was unable to approach women confidently in any way that went beyond the mere exchange of pleasantries. His lack of experience may have played a role in this, but it may also have been an inability or unwillingness to empathise with the wishes and needs of the women he fancied. Thus Hitler launched sudden advances and then turned his back equally abruptly, if his clumsy forays did not meet with approval. He seemed to have lacked an internal emotional compass.

Despite being rejected, Hitler did not end his relationship with Maria Reiter. He accompanied her to her mother’s grave, suggested that they use the informal “du” form of address and asked her to call him “Wolf”—a privilege enjoyed by few women other than Winifred Wagner. They did eventually kiss, although if we believe Reiter’s account, it came about under strange circumstances. Maurice had chauffeured the couple to a forest behind the Bischofswiesen area of Berchtesgaden. He remained in the car, while Hitler led the 16-year-old girl into a clearing, placed her in front of a tall fir tree and stared at her “as a painter does at a model.” Then, according to Reiter, Hitler pulled her close: “He took a firm hold of my neck and kissed me. He didn’t know what he was doing.”

Lothar Machtan has interpreted this scene as proof of Hitler’s homosexuality, asking, “How could he know what he was doing if desire did not show him the way?”35 Another interpretation is more plausible: Hitler may have felt desire but was uncertain how far he should take it. Perhaps he feared that his new girlfriend, if things went beyond one kiss, would make demands on him. In January 1942, he recalled the incident: “Miezel was pretty as a picture. I knew a great many women back then, and many of them liked me a lot. But why should I get married and leave behind a wife?…Back then, this thought led me to pass up on several chances. I forcibly restrained myself.”36

Maria Reiter seems to have believed that Hitler’s intentions were serious. After he left Berchtesgaden, she wrote him long letters. Most of the time, he responded with brief postcards with basically the same message: “My dear child! Receive my most heartfelt greetings. I think of you all the time. Yours, Wolf.”37 In the few letters he wrote to her, he complained about being overworked and having too little time for his private life while pledging his enduring affection: “Yes, child, you truly don’t know what you mean to me and how fond I am of you.”38 When Reiter turned 17 on 23 December 1926, Hitler visited her and stayed for Christmas. She gave him two sofa cushions embroidered with swastikas; he gave her a leather-bound two-volume edition of Mein Kampf. In late 1927, she visited him in Munich, but nothing came of it aside from an innocent tête-à-tête in his apartment on Thierschstrasse. Then, in the summer, Hitler abruptly ended their romance after party headquarters received anonymous letters accusing him of rape. In 1930, Reiter married a hotelier and moved to Seefeld in Tyrol. She later said she visited Hitler in Munich in the summer of 1931, claiming to have spent the night in his apartment on Prinzregentenstrasse, but this story should be viewed sceptically. By that point, there was a new woman in Hitler’s life: his niece Geli Raubal.

None of the women in Hitler’s life fired the imaginations of both contemporaries and later historians as much as Raubal. Konrad Heiden called her “Hitler’s great lover,” and most other commentators shared the view that Hitler’s niece was the only woman, other than his mother, for whom he developed deeper feelings.39 The speculations and rumours surrounding Hitler and Raubal make it difficult to view the subject objectively. What kind of relationship did they have, and was it really so central in Hitler’s biography?

Angela (Geli) Raubal was born on 4 June 1908 in Linz, a few months after the 19-year-old Hitler had moved to Vienna.40 She was the second of three children from the marriage of Hitler’s half-sister Angela with the tax official Leo Raubal. Leo died in 1910, leaving the family, which at times included Hitler’s sister Paula, in difficult financial straits. The situation only improved when Angela Raubal took up the position of director at a home for female apprentices in Vienna in October 1915. Her ambition was to ensure that her children got a good education. After primary school, Geli became one of the first girls to get a degree from Linz’s prestigious, university-track Akademisches Gymnasium in June 1927. Three years previously, she and her older brother Leo had visited their now-famous uncle in Landsberg. There, prison guard Franz Hemmrich related, Hitler had greeted her with a hug and given her a “hearty kiss on the lips.”41 After she graduated, Hitler invited her entire class to Munich. Geli stayed at the Bruckmanns’ villa, and she and her class were treated to an appearance by the NSDAP chairman at afternoon tea. “We stood in rows before him,” recalled Geli’s classmate Alfred Maleta, who would go on to become the president of the Austrian National Council after the war. “He greeted every one of us with a firm handshake, an audible click of his heels and a penetrating stare with his watery blue eyes, which was obviously meant to be enthralling.”42

In August 1927, Geli Raubal took part in the Nuremberg rally, and afterwards Hitler went on tour through Germany with her, her mother Angela and Rudolf Hess. “The Tribune’s young niece is a tallish, attractive teenager, always cheerful and as clever with words as her uncle,” Hess wrote. “Even he can hardly compete with her quick-witted mouth.” Hitler wanted her to attend university in Germany, but was convinced that “she would barely get past the second semester before someone would marry her.”43 Henriette Hoffmann also described Geli as “tall, cheerful and self-confident,” adding: “Photos didn’t do justice to her charm. None of the pictures my father took captured her.”44 In the autumn of 1927, she moved to Munich, where she began studying medicine.

In no time, the attractive young woman was the much-admired centre of attention among the regulars at Café Heck. Her “tomboyish, easy-going manner” captivated the men, Heinrich Hoffmann recalled. “When Geli was at the table, everything revolved around her,” Hoffmann wrote, “and Hitler never tried to dominate the conversation. Geli was a magician. Thanks to her natural ways, entirely free of flirtatiousness, her mere presence put everyone present in the best of spirits. Everyone rhapsodised about her, most of all her uncle, Adolf Hitler.”45

The same was true of Emil Maurice. The chauffeur always hovered around Geli whenever he drove Hitler’s entourage to a picnic on Chiemsee Lake in the big black Mercedes. Maurice would get his mandolin out of the trunk and sing Irish folk songs. Hitler never went swimming. At most, he would remove his shoes and socks and carefully bathe his pale feet in the shallow water. Geli and Henriette Hoffmann, whom she befriended, would seek out a spot concealed behind bushes and go skinny-dipping. “We swam naked and let the sun dry us off,” Hoffmann recalled. “We wanted to get a complete tan.”46

Shortly before Christmas 1927, Maurice told his boss about his feelings for Geli, which she apparently reciprocated, effectively asking Hitler for her hand in marriage. Hitler reacted with a fit of rage. He had never seen his boss so angry, Maurice later recalled: “I seriously think he would have liked to shoot me dead at that moment.”47 Hitler threatened to send Geli back to her mother in Vienna, if a number of conditions were not met. Maurice and Geli, who had secretly got engaged, were to submit to a two-year trial phase. “Remember, Maurice,” Geli wrote in her Christmas letter to her fiancé, “we have two full years in which we can only kiss now and then under the watchful eye of U[ncle] A[dolf].” But they submitted to Hitler’s will, with Geli writing, “I’m so happy I can stay with you.”48 Hitler, however, had no intention of permitting her any further contact with his chauffeur. In January 1928, Maurice was fired without notice and quickly became a persona non grata.49

We can only speculate about the reason for Hitler’s furious reaction. Maurice believed it was jealousy. Hitler, he thought, had fallen in love with his niece, “but it was a strange, unacknowledged love.”50 By contrast, Hitler’s long-time housekeeper Anni Winter thought that Hitler was only trying to live up to his role as Geli’s guardian: “He only wanted the best for her. She was a foolish girl.”51 Whatever the case may have been, from the spring of 1928, Geli was an integral part of Hitler’s entourage. She accompanied her uncle to the cinema, the theatre and the opera, and even when she went shopping, he trotted behind her “like a patient lamb.”52 In July, the two spent several days on holiday with Goebbels and Angela Raubal, on the island of Heligoland.53 It went without saying that Geli was in attendance in November 1928, when Hitler made his first appearance in Berlin’s Sportpalast. “The boss is here,” noted Goebbels. “Energised as ever. With his pretty niece you’d almost want to fall in love with.”54 Geli spent Christmas 1928 with Hitler on the Obersalzberg at Haus Wachenfeld, which her mother now ran. There they also celebrated her twenty-first birthday in June 1929.55 In early August she was seen again at Hitler’s side at the Nuremberg rally. Goebbels was happy: “Geli Raubal. A beautiful child. Had dinner with her, her mother and the boss in his room. We laughed a lot.”56

Without doubt, Geli Raubal enjoyed being the centre of attention and having the men in Hitler’s circle compete for her favour. She would have been flattered that “Uncle Alf,” as she called Hitler, was so fond of her and allowed her to participate in his breathtaking rise in 1929-30 and the aura of power and success it brought. Hitler loved appearing in public at her side. As Maurice put it, Hitler was “proud of being seen with such an enchanting person.”57 But as much as Hitler enjoyed the company of this young woman, he avoided any displays of intimacy even in his innermost circle. “Never did Hitler reveal his feelings in society,” Heinrich Hoffmann observed. “He always behaved completely correctly towards Geli. It was only his gaze and his warm tone that betrayed his affection.”58

Nonetheless, Geli Raubal’s constant presence at Hitler’s side gave rise early on to rumours within the Nazi Party. In October 1928, Goebbels wrote in his diary that soon-to-be Hamburg Gauleiter Karl Kaufmann had told him “crazy things” about Hitler: “He and his niece Geli and Maurice. The tragedy that is woman. It’s enough to make you desperate. Why do we all have to suffer so because of this woman? I have complete faith in Hitler. I understand everything. The true and the untrue.”59 But Goebbels himself repeatedly complained that Hitler got distracted from serious business by “too many stories with women.”60 There is no way of settling whether Hitler had intimate relations with his niece. Opinion was divided within his circle. Hanfstaengl was convinced of the “incestuous character” of the relationship, writing that Hitler’s “inhibited sex drive found willing fulfilment and completion” in Geli’s “directionless libidinousness.”61 By contrast, on the basis of conversations with Anni Winter, Christa Schroeder felt confident that Hitler had loved Geli without ever having had sex with her.62

In October 1929, Geli gave up her room in a boarding house and moved into Hitler’s Prinzregentenstrasse apartment—a sign of just how close their relationship had become. She was given a cheery corner room which she could decorate as she pleased. Hitler’s household personnel—Anni and Georg Winter, his former landlady Maria Reichert and his cleaning woman, Anna Kirmair—were not exactly thrilled about their new flatmate. They thought Geli was exploiting her uncle’s generosity, and that he was spoiling her. Geli had quit studying medicine to train, in accordance with her uncle’s wishes, as a singer. To that end, Hitler hired the bandleader Adolf Vogl, whom he had known since May 1919, and paid for private lessons at a singing school.63 In July 1930, Hitler and Geli travelled together with the Bechsteins to the Bayreuth Wagner Festival and then visited the Passion Play in Oberammergau.64 But Geli does not seem to have taken her singing career very seriously. She preferred to amuse herself in the company of others and read the serialised novels in the newspapers—something Hitler often complained about.65

As far as we can tell, Geli Raubal increasingly came to view life on Prinzregentenstrasse as a burden. Here she was entirely subjected to her uncle’s control. His solicitousness shaded over into rules and coercion. Hitler continued to buy her fashionable clothing and shoes without complaint,66 but when the amateur photographer wanted to buy herself an expensive Leica camera to replace her Rolleiflex, Hitler refused. “Geli sulked and they finished the walk without her saying a word,” reported Julius Schaub, who had served as Hitler’s “constant companion” since 1925 and who would be promoted to his personal assistant in 1933.67 Hitler jealously watched over his niece’s every step and increasingly sought to restrict her freedom. She enjoyed going out, but when she wanted to attend a carnival ball in 1931, Hitler only gave in after Heinrich Hoffmann and Max Amann agreed to serve as chaperones. When Hoffmann reproached him, Hitler answered: “What Geli sees as coercion is simply caution. I want to prevent her from falling into the hands of someone unworthy.”68 That was no doubt an excuse: Hitler did not want to share Geli with anyone else.

Thus, as Henriette Hoffmann observed, the carefree young thing gradually became melancholic and introverted,69 and quarrels erupted with increasing frequency on Prinzregentenstrasse. In mid-September 1931, Hitler forbade his niece from making a trip to Vienna, which she probably intended as a way of escaping her uncle’s watchful eye for a time. On the evening of 17 September, Julius Schaub’s wife, who went with her to a theatre production, described her as “absent, disconsolate, almost tear-stained.”70

The following day, before Hitler left for a campaign trip to northern Germany, the two butted heads again, and after Hitler’s departure, Geli locked herself in her room. When she failed to appear for breakfast on 19 September and did not respond to knocks at her door, Anni Winter summoned her husband. Together they broke down the door and were greeted by a terrible sight. Geli lay sprawled on the floor, her nightgown covered in blood. Her head rested on one arm; the other was outstretched towards the sofa, where they found a 6.35-millimetre Walther pistol.71 The Winters immediately notified Hess, who hurried to the apartment with Nazi Party treasurer Franz Xaver Schwarz. Hess then returned to the Brown House, where he tried to telephone Hitler.

As was his wont, Hitler had spent the previous night at the Deutscher Hof hotel in Nuremberg and continued his journey north that morning. Shortly after he had set off, his car was overtaken by a taxi. A bellboy told Hitler that a Mr. Hess from Munich urgently needed to speak with him. Hitler’s entourage turned around, and Hitler rushed to a phone booth. Heinrich Hoffmann, who had followed him, listened in. “Hitler exclaimed hoarsely, ‘That’s terrible,’ ” Hoffmann recalled after the war. “He then screamed down the phone line: ‘Hess, give me a clear answer yes or no—is she still alive? Hess, on your honour as an officer, don’t lie to me. Hess! Hess!’ Hitler stumbled out of the telephone booth. His hair hung down, dishevelled, in his face. His gaze was unsteady. I only saw him like that on one other occasion: in the Reich Chancellery bunker in April 1945.”72

Even if we assume that Hoffmann wanted to make his account as dramatic as possible, the news of Geli Raubal’s death no doubt shook Hitler to the core. He raced back to Munich. His car was pulled over by the police in the town of Ebenhausen—the speeding ticket was preserved.73 Hitler arrived back on Prinzregentenstrasse at 2:30 p.m. and was able to see the body before it was taken to the viewing hall at Munich’s Eastern Cemetery. By that time the police investigation had already been concluded.74

Only after Hess and Schwarz had left the apartment at around 10:15 a.m. did Georg Winter call the police. Two detective superintendents and a police doctor were sent to investigate. Their report concluded that “death was caused by a gunshot wound to the lung and rigor mortis indicated that it had occurred many hours (17-18) previously.” All the evidence, as the officers saw it, pointed to suicide, even though there was no note or anything expressing suicidal intentions in Raubal’s room. “There was only a partially completed letter to a female friend in Vienna on the table, which contained no indication of extreme world-weariness,” the report noted.75 When questioned, Hitler’s servants could think of no reasons why Raubal might have killed herself, although Maria Reichert did say that she had been “very emotional of late.”76

That afternoon, after arriving at his apartment, Hitler had already overcome the initial shock, making a composed impression on the police officers who interviewed him. While he admitted quarrelling with his niece about her future, he played down the significance of the fight. Geli, he said, had wanted to continue her education in Vienna since she did not feel up to being a singer. “I agreed on the condition that her mother, who lives in Berchtesgaden, accompanied her,” Hitler said. “When she said she didn’t want that, I came out against the plan. She must have been very angry about it, but she did not get particularly upset and said goodbye to me quite calmly when I left on Friday afternoon.” His niece had been “the only relative he was close to,” Hitler told the police, and her death had shaken him badly. The police report then recorded a remark which suggested that he was already thinking about the political fallout of Raubal’s death: “And now this had to happen to him.”77

Hitler’s political adversaries were not above making use of the scandal. In an article entitled “A Mysterious Affair,” the Social Democratic Münchener Post tried to sow doubt that Raubal’s death had been a suicide. The newspaper reported that a massive row had broken out in Hitler’s apartment because his niece had announced her engagement. The Post also claimed that Raubal had been found with a broken nose and other serious injuries.78 The article prompted the state prosecutor to order the police doctor to re-examine the body. His conclusions were unambiguous: aside from the gunshot wound to Raubal’s chest, the body revealed no signs of violence—to the nose or anywhere else. The two women employed by the city to take care of bodies in the morgue confirmed these findings.79 In a denial written on the evening of 21 September and published by the Post the following day, Hitler rejected such speculations as falsehoods. His niece had wanted to travel to Vienna “to have a vocal coach reassess her voice.” There had been “no scene” and “no excitement,” Hitler attested, when he left the apartment on 18 September.80

Still, rumours about the causes of Raubal’s death persisted. According to one, Hitler had his niece murdered by the SS because she had got pregnant by a Jewish university student. Another held that Hitler had killed Raubal himself in a fit of rage—an equally absurd idea since he was in Nuremberg at the time.81 The idea that Raubal’s death had been an accident—that she had been playing around with Hitler’s pistol and unintentionally pulled the trigger—also enjoyed currency. Winifred Wagner believed in this story, and Hitler himself appears to have found some consolation in it. When she was interviewed by American investigators in Berchtesgaden in May 1945, Angela Raubal told them that an accident was the most likely explanation for her daughter’s death because Geli had had no reason to commit suicide.82 The accident thesis is hardly plausible, however, since we know from Henriette Hoffmann that Geli Raubal was well acquainted with Hitler’s pistol. The two women had even done target practice with it near Munich.83

If all the signs point towards a suicide, why did Raubal kill herself? Contemporaries and historians have racked their brains over this question. Some have tried to establish a connection between Raubal’s death and Hitler’s allegedly abnormal sexual proclivities. One key witness for this theory is Otto Strasser, who told representatives of the American Office of Strategic Studies in 1943 that Hitler had compelled Raubal to engage in perverse sexual practices and spiced up his tale with a series of disgusting details.84 In his memoirs, Hanfstaengl also contended that Raubal had told him: “My uncle is a monster. No one can imagine the things he expects of me.” Hanfstaengl illuminated this somewhat cryptic statement with an anecdote. On the way home after an evening the three of them had spent together, Hanfstaengl wrote, Hitler had issued wild threats against his enemies and underscored his words with a resounding crack of his riding crop. Hanfstaengl happened to be watching Raubal’s face and was shocked to see an “expression of fear and disgust…that distorted her face at this whistling sound.”85 This was Hanfstaengl’s none-too-subtle way of insinuating that Geli Raubal was the victim of Hitler’s sado-masochistic lust. But Hanfstaengl also invented pornographic drawings by Hitler that allegedly showed Raubal in poses “that every professional model would have refused [to adopt].”86

Other observers have speculated that Raubal might have been jealous because Hitler had been courting other women and she feared that she was “beginning to lose her power over ‘Uncle Alf.’ ”87 But that would only be plausible if we assume that Geli Raubal had developed a deeper, romantic affection for Hitler—of which there is no evidence. It seems that the question of Raubal’s motives will never be definitively answered. Most likely, Raubal felt unable to live up to the expectation of becoming a singer and was worn down by Hitler’s need to control her, which restricted her freedom and hemmed in her own initiative. She may have felt that Prinzregentenstrasse was her “golden cage.”88 Perhaps, in an increasingly intolerable situation, she saw no other way out than to take her own life. At her mother’s request, her body was taken to Vienna and buried on 23 September in the city’s central cemetery.

Hitler did not attend the funeral, retreating instead for several days to the house of the Völkischer Beobachter publisher, Adolf Müller, on Tegernsee Lake. In his memoirs, his companion Heinrich Hoffmann remembered Hitler as seeming like a “totally broken man.” There were even fears that Hitler might harm himself, and his chauffeur Julius Schreck confiscated his pistol. For a time Hitler was said to have even considered giving up his political career.89

That, at least, was the story, which also found its way into serious literature on Hitler. Joachim Fest wrote that “for weeks Hitler seemed close to a nervous breakdown and repeatedly decided to withdraw from politics.”90 But that idea does not accord with the fact that by 24 September, Hitler was already meeting with Goebbels and Göring in Berlin. Reportedly he was more withdrawn than usual but seemed fully in control of himself. And that evening he spoke in top form to 10,000 supporters in Hamburg.91 Two days later, he travelled to Vienna incognito and laid flowers on Geli Raubal’s grave.

His niece’s death no doubt affected Hitler deeply, and his grief was real, not put on for show. He kept her room in Prinzregentenstrasse unchanged, and his servants were required to keep a fresh bouquet of flowers there at all times. Later, Hitler commissioned Munich sculptor Ferdinand Liebermann to create a bronze bust of Raubal. On the first anniversary of her death, Hitler visited her grave, accompanied by his half-sister and Goebbels. But after that, his period of mourning was over. The whole affair was never again directly mentioned in his entourage.92

The private tragedy did not put a damper on Hitler’s political plans. On the contrary, he was able to make capital out of it, stylising himself once and for all as a politician who had foresworn personal happiness on behalf of his mission to serve the German people. This trick impressed even his closest friends within the party. In late October 1931, Goebbels noted after a conversation with Hitler: “Then he spoke of Geli. He loved her very much. She was his ‘good comrade.’ He had tears in his eyes…This man, at the pinnacle of success, is without any personal happiness, devoted only to the happiness of his friends.”93 Hitler also told Otto Wagener how much he missed Raubal: “Her cheery laughter was always a real joy, and her harmless chatter was such fun.” But Hitler immediately added: “Now I’m completely free, internally and externally. Now I belong only to the German people and my mission.”94 In November 1931, Hess remarked that Geli Raubal had been Hitler’s “sunshine” and that he would surely miss the few hours of relaxation with her in his own home. “Because his mission so totally occupies him,” Hess went on, “the poor man can’t grant himself the benefit of a marriage.”95 Hitler’s strategy of cloaking himself in the aura of a man without a private life convinced not only his contemporaries. It also made its mark on history. How else to explain why all the serious Hitler biographers—from Heiden and Bullock to Fest and Kershaw—assumed that there was not much of interest to relate about the private life of this “non-person”?96

Nonetheless, as Fest wrote, Raubal’s death was “one of the key moments of Hitler’s life as an individual” which changed him, since his niece was the only woman besides his mother for whom he had felt deep emotion.97 Thus Hitler’s ability to love, if one could even use the phrase, was further limited, and Hitler himself increasingly isolated. In the words of Henriette Hoffmann, from that point on the “tender element” was missing in his life, and the “seed of inhumanity” planted.98 But this was a far-fetched interpretation, which ignored the fact that in the Hotel Kaiserhof in the late summer of 1931, Hitler met a woman with whom he began to flirt straight away: Magda Quandt.

Apparently Hitler did not know that Goebbels had already begun an affair with the ex-wife of industrialist Günther Quandt in February of that year. For Magda Quandt’s part, the attraction seems to have been mutual. Goebbels, at least, was jealous. “Magda loses herself a bit around the boss,” he complained to his diary in late August 1931. “I’m suffering greatly…I didn’t sleep a wink.” A few days later he wrote: “Magda must invite the boss home and tell him about us. Otherwise love and a silly jealousy will come between us.”99 The clarifying talk took place in mid-September, only a few days before Geli Raubal’s suicide. Magda Quandt told Hitler she intended to marry Goebbels, who noted happily: “Hitler resigned. He is very lonely. He has no luck with women…His angel, he said. He loves Magda. But he doesn’t begrudge me my happiness. ‘A clever and beautiful woman. She’ll challenge you instead of hemming you in.’ He embraced my hands, with tears in his eyes.”100

On 19 December 1931, Magda Quandt and Joseph Goebbels got married. They had come to an understanding with Hitler, who served as best man: he became part of their relationship and could bask as an oft-invited guest in their affection. In Magda Goebbels, he had also found an attractive woman who could stand by his side on public occasions and take the role of a first lady once the Nazis had risen to power.101 At the same time, Goebbels continued to ponder how he could help Hitler overcome the loss of Geli Raubal. In January 1932, the two men once again discussed “marriage questions.” Goebbels noted: “He feels very lonely. Longing for a woman whom he never finds. Touching and moving. He likes Magda a lot. We have to find him a good woman. Someone like Magda.”102

Hitler, however, reacted sensitively when he thought people were trying to pair him off with someone. “I like having beautiful women around me, but I can’t stand it when someone tries to force something on me,” he told the actress Leni Riefenstahl, with whom he had a rendezvous on the North Sea beach at Horumersiel in May 1932 and who became Hitler’s star film director after he assumed power.103 And what the Goebbelses did not know was that soon after Raubal’s suicide, Hitler had intensified his relationship with a young Munich woman whom he had known for some time. She would play the most important role in Hitler’s life of any woman, save his mother.

Eva Braun was born on 6 February 1912 as the middle of three daughters of the schoolteacher Friedrich Braun and his wife Franziska, a seamstress.104 The household was affluent, and the children were baptised and raised as Catholics. From 1918 to 1922, Eva went to primary school; afterwards she attended the high school for girls on Munich’s Tengstrasse. In 1928, she had a year of finishing school in the prestigious “Institute of English Fräuleins” in the town of Simbach on the German-Austrian border. There she not only learned how to run a household, but also typing and accountancy. In September 1929, she responded to a newspaper advertisement and was promptly taken on as an intern at Heinrich Hoffmann’s atelier, Photohaus Hoffmann. In his memoirs, Hoffmann described her as “of medium build and very watchful of her waistline…Dark blond hair framed her round face. With her blue eyes, you could say that she was attractive, if somewhat doll-like. A standard sort of beauty like you see in popular advertisements.”105

Probably in October 1929, several weeks after joining Hoffmann, Eva Braun met Hitler. Later, Braun described the meeting to her sister Ilse. One evening, as Eva climbed up a ladder to file away some documents, her boss appeared with a gentleman who stared quite directly at her legs. “I climbed down, and Hoffmann introduced us: ‘Herr Wolf—our good little girl Eva.’ Then he said: ‘Do us a favour, Fräulein Braun, and fetch us some beer and meat loaf from the restaurant on the corner.’ ” While he ate, the stranger continued to devour her with his eyes, and after he left, Hoffmann asked her: “ ‘Did you not guess who Herr Wolf really is? Don’t you ever look at our photos?…It’s Hitler himself, our Adolf Hitler!’ ‘That was him?’ I replied.”106

It is unclear whether this account is fact or fiction, but there is no doubting that the 40-year-old Hitler felt instantly drawn to Hoffmann’s 18-year-old assistant. She may have reminded him of “Mimi” Reiter, and as he had done with her, Hitler turned on the paternal charm, paying Eva Braun compliments, giving her small gifts and taking her out every once in a while.107 It was not until Geli Raubal’s death that their relationship intensified, and opinions differ as to when and if Eva Braun became Hitler’s lover. Christa Schroeder, who considered her boss to be an asexual being, always believed that the relationship was just for show. She even claimed that Braun had told her hairdresser that she had never had sex with Hitler, but that strains credibility.108 Henriette Hoffmann, on the other hand, was convinced that the “love affair” started in the winter of 1931-2, only a few months after Raubal’s suicide. Hoffmann also offered up a couple of details about their early days together: “After Geli’s death, Frau Winter was in charge of Hitler’s apartment, and she was a stickler for morals. Hitler had to do what a high school student does who wants to take a girl to his room in his parents’ house. He had to get Frau Winter and her husband tickets to the theatre so he could enjoy a private hour with Eva.”109 But if Hitler tried to keep his affair secret from his housekeeper, he had no success. After the war, Anni Winter repeatedly testified that Braun and Hitler became intimate in the early months of 1932.110 And if anyone would have known for sure, it was her. Eva Braun’s biographer Heike Görtemaker has also uncovered evidence to suggest that a love affair commenced in early 1932.111 But nothing is absolutely certain.

In contrast to Geli Raubal, Eva Braun was not allowed to accompany Hitler to public events, and from the very beginning Hitler was very discreet about the relationship, even amongst party friends. On the one hand, he felt this was necessary due to the sudden interest in his private life that his niece’s suicide had whipped up. Moreover, the visible presence of a lover would have undermined his attempts to portray himself as a Führer who sacrificed his private life on behalf of his ceaseless service to the German nation. “I have another bride: Germany,” he proclaimed over and over. “I am married: to the German people and its destiny.”112 His role model for this persona was most likely Wagner’s operatic hero Rienzi. In Act Five of the opera, the popular tribune reacts to his sister Irene’s accusation that he has never loved with the words:

Well I did love, too, oh Irene

Don’t you remember my love?

I loved painfully my exalted bride

Because I saw her deeply humiliated

Outrageously mistreated, horribly disfigured

Rejected, dishonoured, abused and scorned!…

My life I devoted only to her

Only to her, my youth and strength as a man

For I wanted to see her, my exalted bride

Crowned the queen of the world

Know this: My bride’s name is Rome!113

Part of Hitler’s strategy of self-concealment was his private and perhaps honest admission to his inner circle that he had “overcome the need to possess a woman physically.”114 Eva Braun was probably the ideal woman for the female role Hitler envisioned: she seemed to be willing not just to meet his sexual needs but also to play along with the masquerade. For Hitler, this was an easy relationship, initially without much commitment. When asked by his former superior officer and later assistant Fritz Wiedemann whether he did not find the bachelor’s life troublesome, Hitler allegedly responded with a smile: “It has its advantages. And as far as love is concerned, I keep a girl in Munich.”115

The year of decisions—1932—was full with election campaigning anyway. For long stretches of time, Hitler resided in Berlin’s Hotel Kaiserhof near the Reich Chancellery, which he was soon to take over. He had little time for his girlfriend in Munich. Eva Braun felt neglected. In the latter half of the year, she allegedly tried to commit suicide with her father’s pistol. Her sister Ilse claimed that Eva had been found on her parents’ bed but that she had been able to summon a doctor, a brother-in-law of Heinrich Hoffmann, herself. He had her taken to hospital.116

Did Eva Braun really try to kill herself? Heinrich Hoffmann reported that Hitler, who had hurried to her sickbed, had asked the doctor the same question, and when the answer came in the affirmative, Hitler vowed to take better care of her in the future: “You heard it, Hoffmann. The girl did this out of love for me.”117 Christa Schroeder saw the incident as “blackmail”: Eva Braun wanted to tie Hitler more closely to herself by faking a suicide attempt.118 If that was Braun’s intention, she succeeded. On the verge of gaining power, Hitler could ill afford another scandal casting a dubious light on his private life. He began spending more time with Braun.

On 1 January 1933, Braun and Hitler attended a performance of Wagner’s Meistersinger in Munich’s National Theatre, accompanied by Hess and his wife, Hoffmann and several other members of Hitler’s entourage. Afterwards, they all celebrated at the Hanfstaengls. Ernst Hanfstaengl recalled that Hitler was “bright-spirited and entertaining as in the early ’20s.” In the Hanfstaengls’ guest book, Hitler wrote “On the first day of the new year,” and he assured his host: “This year belongs to us. I’ll give you that in writing.”119