The Berghof Society and the Führer’s Mistress - Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 - Volker Ullrich

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

Chapter 18. The Berghof Society and the Führer’s Mistress

“Noon at the Obersalzberg,” Goebbels noted on 17 July 1936, shortly after the Berghof was officially opened. “The Führer received us with great joy on the steps and showed us the new house with rooms for all of us. It’s magnificent. Comfortable guest rooms. A wonderful hall. The whole thing is a unique mountain manor. You can relax here. The Führer is very happy. Here he feels at home.”1 In 1928, when Hitler rented Haus Wachenfeld for the first time, he secured a right of first refusal to purchase it. In September 1932, the owner, an affluent widow named Margarete Winter from the northern German town of Buxtehude, offered to sell it to him. In June 1933, shortly after he became chancellor, the titles to the house and its entire inventory were transferred to Hitler’s name. When Albert Speer visited for the first time in the spring of 1934, he was less than impressed, however: “After Berchtesgaden, there was a steep mountain road full of potholes up to the Obersalzberg, where Hitler’s comfortable little wooden house with its protruding roof and tiny rooms awaited. The furniture was old-fashioned German ‘Vertiko’ rustic and gave the living spaces something cosy and petit bourgeois.”2

As Speer recalled, Hitler decided to expand his modest holiday home into an imposing mountain manor in the summer of 1935. The dictator himself made the initial sketches, on the basis of which architect Alois Degano from the village of Gmund on Tegernsee Lake drew up blueprints. Haus Wachenfeld was not torn down. Instead, walls on the ground and first floors were opened up, so that old parts of the structure could be integrated with the new ones, whose 17-metre gables and total length of 37 metres seemed very ostentatious in comparison. Construction work, which began in March 1936, was pushed through at an accelerated pace. The Berghof was inaugurated on 8 July, with the Berchtesgaden Christmas Marksmen marching by and firing their guns in salute.3 Martin Bormann, in his role of staff director of the deputy to the Führer, had been invaluable in getting the project financed. In the process he gained a useful entrée to the dictator’s private circles and exploited Hitler’s trust to make himself indispensable. Even before construction had been completed, Bormann began buying up land, lot by lot, around the Berghof. Those who did not want to sell were subjected to massive pressure, including threats that their property would be confiscated and they themselves sent to a concentration camp. The old farmhouses were demolished. In their stead, Bormann had new buildings constructed: a barracks complex for a company of SS men; an agricultural estate that was to serve as a model farm; a greenhouse to provide the vegetarian Hitler with fresh fruit and vegetables all year round; a small tearoom at the Mooslahner Kopf peak a few hundred metres down the mountain from the Berghof proper; and a further tearoom (the most expensive and difficult of Bormann’s projects) on the Kehlstein peak some 800 metres higher up.4

In the early years of the Third Reich, Hitler’s admirers had been able to make pilgrimages to the Obersalzberg at will in hopes of glimpsing their idol up close. Hitler often took walks in the surrounding area, for instance to Hochlenzer, a small mountain restaurant where customers could enjoy the sun and a refreshing drink on wooden benches. But in 1936, the Obersalzberg was declared a “Führer protection zone” and completely sealed off with barbed wire. Special ID was required to enter it, and access to the core of the area was strictly monitored by the SS. That ruled out any accidental contact between Hitler and the public at large.5

The Obersalzberg remained a major construction site up until the start of the Second World War. “Small, idyllic paths through fields were turned into broad lanes and concrete roads,” recalled Otto Dietrich. “Where previously teams of oxen had picturesquely gone on their way, there was now the constant din of gigantic trucks and diggers. Alpine pastures were buried under scree, and stretches of forest gave way to barracks and camps. The mountain stillness was shattered by the rumble of dynamite detonations.”6 In private, Hitler occasionally joked about Bormann’s mania for building, jesting that his name was fitting since he was “boring holes in the mountains,”7 but he also appreciated his industrious underling’s reliability. Bormann was like a wandering notebook, ever ready to record the Führer’s every wish.

Bormann’s rise to a central figure at the dictator’s mountain court did not escape the notice of Hitler’s entourage. Goebbels, who always wanted to see himself as Hitler’s favourite and was thus particularly sensitive to rivals, wrote in late October 1936: “The Führer is very satisfied with Bormann. He possesses energy and discretion.” After a visit to the Obersalzberg, Goebbels added: “Bormann works decisively and reliably up there. He’s firmly in the saddle.”8 In order to be at Hitler’s side whenever required, Bormann himself purchased a villa on the Obersalzberg. Göring, too, built an atypically modest house there in 1934. Speer was not about to be outdone. In the early summer of 1937, he rented a farmhouse, which he converted into a family holiday home, and built an adjacent studio, where he could work on his architectural plans.9

Hitler’s Alpine residence featured thirty rooms spread over three floors. The showpiece was the Great Hall and its gigantic retractable window looking out onto the Untersberg, where legend had it that the German emperor Friedrich Barbarossa was slumbering, waiting to return some day. In front of the window was a 6-metre-long marble table. Documents awaiting Hitler’s signature were often spread out on it, as were architectural blueprints and later, during the Second World War, military maps. Beside the table was a similarly oversized globe whose symbolic significance in terms of the Nazis’ emerging territorial designs was all too obvious. Two groups of chairs—one surrounding a coffee table near the window, and the other arranged around a fireplace on the far side of the room—completed the furnishings. They had been selected by Gerdy Troost, the widow of architect Paul Troost. Hitler thought highly of her, visiting her studio whenever he was in Munich. She was also responsible for the two Gobelin tapestries in the Great Hall which were more than just wall decoration. They also served a function in Hitler’s nightly film screenings: one covered the small window to the projection room, the other the screen on the opposite wall.10

Hitler was especially proud of his collection of works by sixteenth-century Italian masters and nineteenth-century German artists on display in the Great Hall. They included Venus and Amor by Paris Bordone, Roman Ruins Landscape by Giovanni Paolo Pannini, Madonna tondo by Giuliano Bugiardini, Eve and Her Son Abel by Edward von Steinle, an exponent of the nineteenth-century Nazarene movement, and The Arts in Service of Religion by Moritz von Schwind. His favourite work was Anselm Feuerbach’s Nanna portrait, which bore a certain similarity to Hitler’s niece Geli Raubal. “Is not Nanna wonderful?” he told one of his secretaries. “I can’t help looking at her over and over again. She has a marvellous spot above the fireplace. Her hand glows as if it was alive.”11 And, of course, the collection would not have been complete without a bronze bust of Richard Wagner by Arno Breker. It stood on a massive chest of drawers which housed the loudspeakers for Hitler’s film screenings.

Separated from the Great Hall only by a heavy velvet curtain, the rustically furnished living room left over from Haus Wachenfeld was the only room that recalled the old house and emanated a certain cosiness. It was dominated by a large green ceramic stove, whose tiles had been handmade by the Munich artisan Sofie Stork, the fiancée of Hitler’s main assistant, Wilhelm Brückner. During the winter months, in particular, guests liked sitting on its surrounding benches since the enormous Great Hall was always rather cold. To the right of the window was a large bookcase, containing, among other things, Meyer’s Conversational Lexicon. Hitler enjoyed consulting its volumes whenever there was a disagreement, to prove to others how phenomenal his memory was and that he was right once again.12

An expansive hallway connected the living room with the dining room, which had hardwood floors and patterned pine panelling. A long dining-room table offered space for twenty-four people. One length of the room had a semicircular bay window, in front of which guests would breakfast while Hitler was still in bed.13 Hitler’s private quarters—an office, a bedroom and a bathroom—were located on the first floor. Next to his bedroom, separated from it only by a small space with two connecting doors, was Eva Braun’s apartment, which consisted of a bedroom, a small living room and a bathroom. “Why did the housekeeper of the Berghof, as Eva Braun was introduced to us, need a special entrance to Hitler’s bedroom?” wondered Rochus Misch, who was part of the Führer’s escort command from 1940, in his memoirs. “Everyone imagined a reason.”14

After becoming chancellor, Hitler had continued his relationship with the young woman from Munich. During his frequent visits to the Bavarian capital, they would meet in his private apartment on Prinzregentenstrasse. On 6 February 1933, for instance, he celebrated Braun’s twenty-first birthday there, giving her jewellery.15 When interviewed by U.S. investigators in 1945, Hitler’s housekeeper Anni Winter testified that sometimes Braun had been taken home at night, and sometimes she had stayed in the apartment.16 The pilot Hans Baur recalled surprising Hitler and Braun during a rendezvous in Hitler’s apartment shortly before Christmas 1933. Braun, he wrote, blushed, while Hitler had been “somewhat embarrassed.”17 Apparently, in the early years of their affair, Hitler wanted to keep it secret from his entourage. This was confirmed by the clandestine manner in which Hitler had her brought to the Obersalzberg. Speer recalled that several hours after the official motorcade arrived, a small, hardtop Mercedes would pull up with Hitler’s secretaries Johanna Wolf and Christa Schroeder. “They were usually accompanied by a simple girl,” Speer recalled. “She was pleasant, more a breath of fresh air than a beauty, and was modest in manner. There was no sign that she was the ruler’s mistress: Eva Braun.”18 Speer added that the astonishment was all the greater the first time Hitler and Braun disappeared together in the direction of the upstairs bedrooms. Most of the evidence, however, suggests that the dictator did not allow her to stay the night in Haus Wachenfeld but rather put her up with his other visitors in nearby guest houses.19

The woman who initially ran the household on the Obersalzberg was Hitler’s no-nonsense half-sister Angela Raubal, and the copious receipts for goods and services she accumulated over the years attest to her attention to even the smallest details. A number of Munich businesses profited handsomely for her diligence in keeping up Hitler’s mountain retreat, in particular the city’s largest department store, Horn am Stachus, which supplied her with everything from blankets, tablecloths and pillows to deck chairs. From April 1933 to August 1934 Raubal spent almost 12,000 marks at Horn alone.20 Angela Raubal felt a lively antipathy for Eva Braun, ignoring her wherever possible and addressing her, when it could not be avoided, only as “Fräulein.” In the words of one of Braun’s biographers, she saw the young woman from Munich as “a decorative doll craftily spinning her web to ensnare her brother, who was always naive and inexperienced around ‘brazen hussies.’ ”21 The two are often thought to have fallen out in 1935, but the first big quarrel actually occurred a year earlier at the Nuremberg rally. Raubal, Magda Goebbels and other prominent Nazi wives were not at all happy about Braun taking a seat on the VIP stand for the first time. They found that the young woman behaved “very conspicuously,” although most probably the mere presence of the Führer’s girlfriend was an eyesore to them. The women badmouthed her, and after the rally Raubal promptly told Hitler about the incidents on the stand. But instead of dropping Braun, Hitler flew into a rage, forbade anyone to meddle in his private affairs and ordered Raubal to quit the Obersalzberg immediately.22

The other women who had made derogatory remarks about Braun, including Henriette von Schirach, were also banned from Hitler’s Alpine residence. The scandal even temporarily clouded Hitler’s relationship with Magda Goebbels. In mid-October 1934, the wife of the propaganda minister cleared the air with Hitler in the Reich Chancellery. Goebbels noted:

As I suspected, a huge bit of tittle-tattle staged by Frau von Schirach. You have to feel sorry for the Führer. Now he wants to withdraw entirely. Silly women’s prattle. Nothing better to do. It makes my blood boil. Frau Raubal already sent back to Austria. No women any more in the Chancellery. That’s the result of it.23

In April 1935, Goebbels met Raubal in Frankfurt am Main: “She told with tears in her eyes what happened in Nuremberg…Poor woman! I consoled her as much as I could.”24 But whereas Hitler’s relationship with the Goebbelses soon returned to normal, Raubal remained persona non grata. In mid-November 1935, she came to Berlin, but was not admitted to see the chancellor. Over coffee at the Goebbelses’ home, she bemoaned her fate. “She’s to be pitied,” wrote the propaganda minister. “It would be good if the Führer would accept her again. She’s been punished enough.”25 In January 1936, Raubal married Professor Martin Hammitzsch, the director of the State Architectural Academy in Dresden. She was “completely happy,” she wrote to Hess, especially since she had spoken to her half-brother while he was visiting the Saxon city.26 But that was as far as their reconciliation went. Hitler remained reserved towards his half-sister and rarely saw her.27

By removing Raubal, Hitler signalled unmistakably to his entourage that anyone who dared meddle with his private life and speak ill of his mistress would fall from grace and lose power and influence. Eva Braun’s position was thus cemented. Indeed, as one of Braun’s biographers put it, she became “practically untouchable within the inner circle.”28 Yet Hitler remained unusually secretive about their relationship. When he was in Berlin, he played the role of the ascetic Führer, nobly sacrificing himself for the nation and forgoing any sort of personal happiness. Even Goebbels fell for this pose. “He told me about his lonely, joyless private life,” he noted in his diary in late January 1935. “Without women, without love, still consumed by memories of Geli. I was deeply moved. He’s such a fine man.”29

Since Hitler left his inner circle in the dark as to the precise nature of his relationship with Braun, it is doubly difficult for historians to put together a halfway reliable picture of it. The lack of authentic historical documents in particular is frustrating. In her final letter from the Chancellery in Berlin on 23 April 1945, Eva Braun ordered her sister Gretl to destroy all her private correspondence, especially her business letters. “An envelope addressed to the Führer to be found in the safe of the bunker”—likely the bunker in the small Munich villa at Wasserburgerstrasse 12 which Hitler purchased for Braun in 1936—was also to be destroyed. “Please do not read it,” Braun told her sister. “I would ask you pack the Führer’s letters and my answers to them (blue leather-bound portfolio) and perhaps bury them. Please do not destroy them.”30 Braun’s most recent biographer, Heike Görtemaker, has speculated that Julius Schaub, who arrived at the Berghof on 25 April 1945, burned this correspondence along with other private Hitler documents before Gretl Braun could take them to safety.31 But that would assume that the correspondence was in fact kept at the Berghof and not at Wasserburgerstrasse. It is possible that Gretl Braun ignored her sister’s instructions and destroyed all the material. In any case, no letter from Eva Braun to Hitler or vice versa has ever been found.

That gives all the more significance to a twenty-two-page excerpt from Braun’s diary covering 6 February to 28 May 1935. The authenticity of this document—which was found by American soldiers after the war together with films and photo albums and brought to the National Archives in Washington—is by no means beyond question. Braun’s older sister, Ilse Fucke-Michels, confirmed that the pages were genuine when asked by the American journalist Nerin E. Gun, who first published them.32 Werner Maser, who published facsimiles in 1973, also trusted their provenance.33 By contrast, in 2003 the historian Anton Joachimsthaler claimed that a simple handwriting test proved that the diary excerpt was a fake: “Numerous documents show that between the ages of seventeen and thirty-three Eva Braun wrote an idiosyncratic, angular, left-leaning hand in Latin letters, which by no means conforms to the flowing, right-leaning diaries in traditional German Sütterlin script.”34 This is a serious objection, and as long as we have no authenticated example of Braun’s writing in Sütterlin, doubts must remain. Görtemaker, however, tends towards considering the diaries authentic, arguing that, where Hitler’s visits to Munich are concerned, they correspond exactly to Goebbels’s diary entries and contain no internal inconsistencies.35

If we assume that the excerpts did indeed come from Braun’s diary, what do they reveal about her relationship with Hitler? First and foremost they tell of the emotional ups and downs of a young woman uncertain about the true feelings of her much older lover. “I turned 23 today,” Braun wrote on 6 February 1935. “But that does not necessarily mean I’m a happy 23. At the moment, I’m definitely not.” Hitler had stayed in Berlin and had his assistant Schaub bring her a bouquet of flowers and a congratulatory telegram. Braun felt neglected, but she tried to keep up her spirits: “Do not give up hope. Soon I’ll have to have learned how to be patient.”36 Just twelve days later she seems completely transformed. Hitler had “quite unexpectedly” come to Munich, and the two had spent an “enchanting evening” together. On this occasion, Hitler seems to have promised her that he would buy her a “little house” and that she would no longer have to work in Heinrich Hoffmann’s photo studio. “I’m so endlessly happy that he loves me so and pray that he always does,” she wrote.37

On 2 March, Braun also met Hitler in Prinzregentenstrasse, where she spent “a couple of wonderful hours.” Subsequently her lover allowed her to amuse herself at a carnival ball in the city. But Hitler failed to keep an appointment to meet her the following day, and she waited in vain for news from him: “Maybe he wanted to meet alone with Dr. G[oebbels], who’s also in the city, but he could have let me know. It was like sitting on red-hot coals at work with Hoffmann. I thought he’d arrive any minute.” That evening Hitler left Munich without saying goodbye. Braun was left racking her brains about what she had done to make him treat her so thoughtlessly.38 The inconstancy of the relationship seems to have taken a toll on Braun’s nerves. “If only I’d never come into contact with him,” she wrote on 11 March. “I’m desperate. He only needs me for certain purposes. Otherwise it’s impossible [to understand].” A few days later, though, she herself dismissed this diary remark as “foolish.”39

Occasionally, Braun’s complaints about Hitler’s unreliability were tempered by flashes of understanding. Once she wrote, “Actually it’s self-evident that he has no great interest in me right now after having so much to do politically.”40 In fact, during the period covered by the diary excerpt, Hitler was preoccupied by his next foreign-policy moves. On 16 March, he announced the reintroduction of compulsory military service, and on 23 March, he held his talks with the British politicians John Simon and Anthony Eden in Berlin. He would have had scant time for his mistress in Munich. Late that month, he did invite her out for dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel in the Bavarian capital. Numerous people seem to have been in attendance, and Braun found out that in company Hitler treated her very differently—as if they hardly knew one another—than he did in the familiar confines of Prinzregentenstrasse. “I sat next to him for three hours and was hardly able to exchange a single word with him,” she complained. “When we parted he gave me, as he has done once before, an envelope full of money.” This businesslike gesture might be an indication of how little attention Hitler paid to his girlfriend’s feelings. Braun was hurt: “It would have been nice if he’d written a goodbye or something nice. That would have made me happy.”41 Her status as a mistress, who was not allowed to appear as such in public, could not have been made any clearer.

Hitler kept his distance from Munich in April and May 1935. “Love seems to have been crossed off his programme at the moment,” Braun wrote in late April.42 She was also plagued by jealousy after Hoffmann’s wife had cattily remarked that Hitler had found a “replacement” for her. “She’s called Valkyrie and looks the part, including her legs,” Braun wrote. “And he likes such dimensions.”43 The woman in question was Valkyrie Unity Mitford, a young British aristocrat who had come to Munich in October 1934, ostensibly to learn German, but whose main interest was meeting the dictator, whom she revered. In February 1935, she succeeded in attracting Hitler’s attention in his favourite restaurant, the Osteria Bavaria. Since then, she had been part of Hitler’s entourage and accompanied the dictator on trips. She was spotted at party rallies and at the Bayreuth festival. Hitler’s assistants nicknamed her “Unity Mitfahrt”—Unity Along-for-the-Ride. Her closeness to the leaders of the Nazi regime was evident in the fact that Goebbels himself hosted her sister Diana’s wedding to the British fascist leader, Oswald Mosley, in his house in Berlin in October 1936, with Hitler in attendance. “A matter that has to be kept top secret,” noted the propaganda minister.44 In terms of appearance, Eva Braun and Unity Mitford were very different. Braun was small, delicate and brunette. Mitford was almost six foot tall, athletic and had light blond hair and blue eyes—closer to Hitler’s stated feminine ideal. But the dictator was not interested in her physical charms. He used his connection to her to gain information about the attitudes of the British upper classes and get messages passed on to Britain.45 The two were never intimate.

Eva Braun thus had no reason for jealousy. Nor was there any truth to the rumour of an affair between Hitler and the beautiful Baroness Sigrid von Laffert, the niece of the salonnière and Nazi patroness Victoria von Dirksen.46 There were other reasons why Hitler paid so little attention to his mistress in April and May 1935. Not only was he very busy; he also had health problems. He had been suffering for months from hoarseness, the result of years of straining his voice, and feared he might have throat cancer like Kaiser Friedrich III, who had died of the disease after only ninety-nine days on the throne in 1888. On 23 May, the director of the ear, nose and throat division at Berlin’s Charité hospital, Professor Carl von Eicken, operated on Hitler. A polyp removed from his vocal cords proved benign. But the chancellor had to rest his voice. He did not fully recover until late June 1935.47

Hitler does not seem to have told Braun a thing about his illness, and she interpreted his lengthy silence as a sign that he had turned his back on her. “Is this the mad love he always assured me of, if he does not have a friendly word for me in three months?” she asked on 28 May. That day, she decided for the second time to end her life, this time by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. “I’ve decided on 35 pills,” she wrote. “This time it’s going to be ‘dead certain.’ ”48 But whether Braun truly meant to kill herself is even less certain than in her first suicide attempt in 1932. In the 1960s, Ilse Fucke-Michels told Nerin E. Gun of finding her sister “deeply unconscious” in their parents’ apartment on the night of 28-29 May 1935 and of administering first aid. Afterwards, she called a doctor she could trust to be discreet and tore the pages from this period from Eva Braun’s diary. She said she later returned them to her sister, who kept them in a safe place. But Fucke-Michels is the only witness to this incident, and even she voiced suspicions during the interview that her sister might have “staged her suicide a bit.”49

We do not know whether Hitler, who on 27 May travelled to Munich for a few days to rest his voice,50 ever learned of these events. One indication that he did might be the fact that in August 1935 Eva and her younger sister Gretl moved into a three-room apartment at Widenmayerstrasse 42, which Hitler had Hoffmann rent for them. It was only five minutes away from Hitler’s own apartment on Prinzregentenstrasse. Apparently the dictator wanted to signal how important his relationship with his mistress was: he probably also wanted to get Braun out from under the thumb of her domineering father.51 A short time later, Hitler had Hoffmann buy the villa at Wasserburgerstrasse 12 in the exclusive Bogenhausen district. Eva and Gretl Braun moved in there in March 1936. In September 1938, the titles for the house were transferred to Eva Braun, “private secretary in Munich.”52 With that, Hitler kept his promise to procure her a house of her own and make her financially independent, even if she was officially still in Hoffmann’s employ.53

From the outside, the two-storey house looked fairly inconspicuous, but it was decorated with luxurious furniture, fine carpets and valuable oil paintings in keeping with Braun’s status as the mistress of the most powerful man in Europe.54 To avoid publicity, however, Hitler rarely visited Wasserburgerstrasse. As soon as he arrived in Munich, he would call his housekeeper, Anni Winter, ordering her to tell him the latest Munich gossip and get Braun on the telephone. The Führer’s mistress would then get into her small Mercedes, a further status-symbol gift from Hitler, and have herself driven over to Prinzregentenstrasse.55 When Hitler was not in Munich, she enjoyed inviting friends to her house for lively parties.56

On the Obersalzberg, her second home, Braun soon grew into the role of the woman of the house involuntarily vacated by Angela Raubal. But she did not have to run the household. That responsibility fell to others: first Else Enders, who had previously worked in the Osteria Bavaria; from 1936 onwards a couple named Herbert and Anne Döhring; and during the Second World War, Willi and Gretel Mittelstrasser. On special occasions, the Chancellery building manager Arthur Kannenberg and his wife were also summoned to provide support.57

The privileged status Braun enjoyed at the Berghof was clearly underscored for everyone who worked there by the fact that her private quarters were next to Hitler’s own and had separate access to them. Nonetheless, everything possible was done to prevent the news that the Führer had a mistress from getting beyond his inner circle. Both the service personnel and Hitler’s guests had to swear to keep this fact confidential. “See nothing, hear nothing, say nothing” was the order of the day, Hitler’s manservant Heinz Linge recalled.58 Anna Mittelstrasser, a cousin of the Berghof manager who began work as a maid there in May 1941, was instructed on her first day: “Everything you now know, everything you see here and everything you hear here must stay here. You aren’t allowed to say anything. Not to anybody. Never…Is that clear? And especially nothing about the Führer and Eva Braun.”59

In January 1937, Reinhard Spitzy, secretary to the German ambassador to Britain, Joachim von Ribbentrop, got a big surprise while visiting the Berghof for the first time. Hitler and Ribbentrop were pacing around the Great Hall, lost in conversation, when the heavy velvet curtain in front of the living room opened, and a young woman announced that they should sit down to dine. The guests could no longer be kept waiting. “It was like being hit by lightning,” Spitzy reported. “Who would dare to speak to the Führer like that? Who was this woman? Where did she come from?” After the meal, Spitzy put these questions to Wilhelm Brückner and was told: “Our Führer also has a right to a private life, and I would advise you never to tell anyone about what you have seen and heard in this regard…It would be best for you yourself to forget it. Otherwise…” The threat was unmistakable, and Spitzy “loyally joined the conspiracy of silence,” as he put it in his memoirs.60

In addition to a gagging order on staff and guests, a series of other measures were taken to try to keep Hitler and Braun’s liaison a secret. During official receptions and visits by foreign guests, Braun would withdraw to her private quarters.61 Albert Speer remarked that Hitler apparently considered Braun “only partially suitable for polite society.”62 But Speer misunderstood what was likely the primary motivation for Hitler—wanting to keep his private life out of the public eye in order to maintain the myth of the Führer sacrificing himself day and night for his people. That was the main reason Braun was not allowed to appear at Hitler’s side at public events. She travelled to the Nuremberg rallies with Heinrich Hoffmann’s party or with other members of Hitler’s entourage, and she never stayed in the same hotel as Hitler.63There was only one published press photo showing the two of them together. It was taken during the 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen and shows Braun sitting two rows behind the dictator. Anyone who did not know better would never conclude from looking at the image that the two were involved in an intimate relationship.64 And when Hitler went abroad, for instance during his state visit to Italy in May 1938, she—unlike the wives of the other high-ranking Nazi officials—travelled separately from the inner circle and never took part in official functions.65

Yet despite all the secrecy, there were many rumours about the Führer’s alleged mistress. His assistant Nicolaus von Below, who met Braun when he visited the Berghof for the first time in November 1937, remembered that Hitler’s private life had been a “topic of conversation” when he was subsequently invited to the home of War Minister von Blomberg. Hans Baur also recalled that Munich was full of gossip about Hitler being involved in “hanky-panky” with Braun.66 In the autumn of 1937, a Czech newspaper published a photo of Braun taken in Berchtesgaden with the caption “Hitler’s paramour.” A friend of the Braun family had bought the paper while on a business trip to Vienna and showed it to Eva’s father Friedrich, who accused his daughter of immoral behaviour.67 But the German public took no notice of this publication. Only a small circle of people knew about Eva Braun’s true status. Most Germans remained unaware that Hitler had a mistress until the end of the Second World War.68

The character of Hitler’s relationship with Braun remained opaque even within his most intimate circles. Officially she was part of the Berghof staff, working as his “private secretary,” and when others were present, Hitler tended to treat her with “awkwardly maintained distance,” strictly avoiding any displays of intimacy or tenderness.69 Like everyone else at the Berghof, Braun addressed Hitler as “my Führer,” while he referred to her towards others as “Fräulein Braun” or Fräulein Eva,” only occasionally calling her his “Tschapperl,” an Austrian word meaning “small, cutely naive child.” Initially, the two used the formal form of address “Sie” when others were around, although they gradually adopted the informal “du” in front of other Berghof regulars.70 “If you were not in the know,” Below observed, “it was almost impossible to tell that Braun and Hitler had a special relationship with one another.”71

It is no wonder that after 1945 speculations were rampant about Hitler and Braun’s sex life. Even people who claimed to have known Hitler well disagreed radically. Contemporary eyewitnesses can hardly be trusted on this issue, however, and historians are well advised to view their statements with extreme scepticism. Albert Speer, for instance, contradicted himself on a number of occasions. At his first interrogation at Kransberg Castle in the summer of 1945, he testified that Braun was Hitler’s true love and that the Führer had always been faithful to her. “She meant a great deal to him,” Speer said, “and he spoke of her with enormous respect and inner admiration.”72 But in Spandau prison in March 1949, Speer already voiced doubts as to whether Hitler was “even capable of honest feelings of friendship, gratitude and loyalty” towards Braun.73 In his memoirs, published in 1969, three years after his release from prison where he’d written much of them, Speer’s doubts had become certainties. Speer depicted Hitler as an emotionally raw, ruthless despot who had, in Braun’s presence, made statements like: “Very intelligent people should make sure they get a primitive, stupid woman.”74 In conversation with Joachim Fest, who assisted him with publishing his memoirs, Speer offered a very simple explanation for Hitler’s relationship with Braun: Hitler had “kept” her “exclusively for certain biological needs…so to speak for the regulation of his hormones.”75 But Speer gave no indication of why he was so certain.

If there was anyone close to Hitler who knew about sexual relations between him and Eva Braun, it would have been the Berghof staff: the couples who managed the place, the servants and the maids. But when they were questioned after the war, their answers were contradictory. House manager Herbert Döhring testified that neither he nor his wife had “gone out of their way to inspect the bed sheets,” but that they would have seen indications, had there been intimate contact between Hitler and Braun. The relationship was not even a “true friendship,” Döhring asserted, but rather an “amiable acquaintance.”76 Heinz Linge, by contrast, had no doubts that Hitler loved Braun and that the two had been intimate. He even maintained that he had once seen them in a “deep embrace.”77 Gretel Mittelstrasser, the wife of Döhring’s successor, also assumed that Hitler and his girlfriend slept together. She even told her niece Anna, the maid, that she had procured medications so that Braun could delay her period when the Führer came to the Berghof.78

There is a fair amount of evidence to suggest that, behind his façade of inhuman inapproachability, Hitler maintained a normal romantic relationship with Braun. But there is no saying for sure, and biographers should beware of titillating readers with through-the-keyhole fantasies. “The duty of the chronicler must halt before and respect the most personal spheres of a human being,” as Otto Dietrich once remarked.79

There is one definitive indication that Braun occupied an important position in Hitler’s private life and was more than mere “decoration” or a “shield to ward off other female advances.”80 On 2 May 1938, seemingly concerned that something could happen to him on his imminent trip to Italy, Hitler personally wrote out his will and testament. It began by specifying that “Fräulein Eva Braun of Munich” was in case of his death to receive “1,000 marks a month, or 12,000 annually, for the rest of her life.” His half-sister Angela Raubal and his sister Paula, who were to receive the same amount, were mentioned second and third.81

Who was admitted to the Berghof society and who was not? The most important criterion for inclusion was not party rank, but Hitler’s personal likes and dislikes, and this depended, among other things, on how well a given individual got on with Eva Braun and accepted her role at the mountain manor. At the Berghof, Hitler wanted to surround himself with people—men and women in equal numbers—in whose presence he felt at ease and in whose company he could relax. In contrast to the Chancellery in Berlin, the Berghof circle on the Obersalzberg was far more familial, which was down primarily to the greater presence of the female element.82

That explains why Göring, although he too owned a house in the vicinity, was not part of the Berghof circle. He appeared at official events, but Hitler had no private contact with him. The same was true of Himmler: Hitler valued him as the unscrupulous organiser of a Reich-wide apparatus of terror and repression, but in private he also made fun of the Reichsführer-SS’s cultish worship of everything Germanic.83The situation was no different with Ribbentrop, whom Hitler made Reich foreign minister in 1938 but whom he consciously kept at a distance from the Berghof. By contrast, Ribbentrop’s liaison to Hitler, Walter Hewel, was invited to the Berghof because Hitler liked him personally.84

Hess only appeared at the Berghof in his official function. He had lost the exclusive position he enjoyed prior to 1933 as Hitler’s private secretary when he became deputy to the Führer. His place was taken by Bormann, who had earned the dictator’s favour with his tireless work on the construction on the Obersalzberg and his discreet handling of all the financial issues connected with it. He further ingratiated himself with Hitler by paying special attention to Braun, a point upon which, as Otto Dietrich noted, Hitler was “extraordinarily sensitive.”85 Bormann was Hitler’s constant shadow at the Berghof, while his wife Gerda, who was the daughter of the “uppermost party judge” Walter Buch and whom he kept regularly pregnant, was only allowed to visit as a guest by her power-hungry husband.86 Goebbels’s situation was rather in-between. He and Magda were frequently invited to the Obersalzberg for private visits, but unlike in Berlin, here they were not part of Hitler’s standard entourage. Most of their visits only lasted a few days, and during that time they were housed a short distance from the Berghof in the Bechsteins’ villa, which had been used since 1935 as a guest house for Nazi elites.87

Albert and Margarete Speer, on the other hand, were regular, privileged guests. The architect had gone to the Obersalzberg with Hitler as early as 1933, and after introducing Hitler to his wife, who apparently found the dictator’s favour, the couple was accepted into the Berghof circle.88 It was Hitler’s express wish that the Speers buy a house on the Obersalzberg, and on special occasions, such as the Führer’s birthday, their children, dressed in their Sunday best, were allowed to come along and present Hitler with bouquets of flowers. Hitler did his best with the children and tried to engage with them in “friendly, paternal fashion,” Speer recalled, but he never found the “right wholehearted manner” and soon turned his back on them “after a few words of praise.”89

The Speers were especially solicitous of Eva Braun. They took her skiing, which Hitler greeted with a furrowed brow as he feared that there would be an accident. Hitler hated snow anyway. “The cold, lifeless element was deeply foreign to his nature,” wrote Speer. “The mere sight of snow made him act irritated.”90 In his memoirs, Speer claimed to have befriended Braun, the “unhappy woman…who doted on Hitler,” because he felt sorry for her. But Heike Görtemaker has rightly questioned this idea. Like Bormann, Speer realised early on what an important role Braun played in Hitler’s life, and he knew that he could deepen his connection with the Führer if he maintained friendly relations with her.91

Karl and Anni Brandt were close friends of the Speers. It was the wife in this case who had brought her husband into the Berghof circle. Competing under her maiden name, Anni Rehborn, she had been one of the most famous female swimmers of the 1920s, winning several German championships in the 100-metre freestyle and the 100-metre backstroke and setting numerous records. Hitler, whom she first met in 1927 or 1928, immediately liked her. In the early 1930s, she introduced him to her fiancé, then an assistant physician in the Bergmannsheil Clinic in the mining city of Bochum. Both joined the NSDAP, and in June 1933, Hitler invited them to the Obersalzberg.92 When, on 15 August 1933, Wilhelm Brückner got in a car accident near the village of Reit im Winkel, Karl Brandt happened to be travelling in the car directly behind him. The young surgeon administered first aid, drove Brückner, who had a serious head injury, to the hospital in nearby Traunstein and operated on him himself.93 Hitler was impressed and offered the physician the chance to become a member of his personal staff, accompanying him on trips so that he could receive immediate medical attention should he be the victim of an accident or assassination attempt. That new status automatically made the Brandts members of the Berghof circle. Karl and Anni Brandt’s wedding in Berlin in March 1934 was attended by Hoffmann, Brückner, Hitler, Goebbels and Göring. In July 1934, Hitler invited the couple for the first time to the Bayreuth festival.94

On the Obersalzberg, the Brandts rented a suite in the Bechsteins’ villa so as to be permanently contactable by Hitler. They shared the Speers’ enthusiasm for sports, and that also gave them something in common with Braun, whom they included in their joint activities. Brandt and Speer were uncannily similar. Both were young men—around thirty—who personally owed their meteoric careers to Hitler. Both were good-looking with engaging personalities, entirely unlike the coarse “old fighters.” Both were very competent in their areas of expertise, extremely ambitious and willing to follow Hitler without scruple. It was no accident that with the start of the Second World War Hitler charged Brandt with carrying out his forced euthanasia programme.

Brandt was not the only physician in Hitler’s entourage. In the spring of 1936, Hanskarl von Hasselbach, an NSDAP member since 1932, was hired as Hitler’s second travelling doctor. He was a university friend of Brandt and transferred with him in November 1933 from Bochum to the university clinic in Berlin. He remained a member of Hitler’s entourage, even if his relationship with the Führer was more remote than his colleague’s.95

Another doctor appeared over the course of 1936. Fifty-year-old Theodor Morell ran a practice, frequented above all by screen and stage stars, near the Memorial Church on Berlin’s Kurfürstendamm. His patients included Hoffmann, who recommended him to Hitler. During the tense months after the remilitarisation of the Rhineland, Hitler suffered from stomach complaints and eczema on his legs. Among other things, Morell prescribed Mutaflor capsules to restore Hitler’s intestinal bacteria, and the treatment was a success. A former ship’s doctor, Morell seems to have known how to exploit Hitler’s hypochondria to ingratiate himself. In any case, Hitler swore by Morell’s abilities, remarking privately: “He saved my life! Wonderful, how he helped me!”96 As of 1937, Morell and his wife, the actress Johanna “Hanni” Moller, were an integral part of the Berghof society. The couple were also clever enough to court Braun’s favour, and she smoothed their way.97 Towards Hitler, Morell acted like a selfless assistant whose only wish “was to keep Germany’s greatest man free of physical complaints for a long time.”98 In reality, he not only craved attention but had an excellent head for business. He exploited his privileged status of “the Führer’s personal physician” for material gain, for instance in the form of lucrative shares in pharmaceutical companies.

Otherwise, the corpulent new arrival did not have many friends within the Berghof circle. Karl Brandt in particular was none too pleased about the appearance of a rival, whom he considered a loudmouth and a quack.99 But as long as Morell enjoyed Hitler’s favour, he could feel secure. As a gesture of his appreciation in December 1938, Hitler appointed him a professor, and he told members of his entourage to consult his personal physician at the first sign of any complaint. Braun was also a patient of Morell, even though, if we believe Speer’s memoirs, she once complained after an examination how “disgustingly dirty” he was.100 Morell’s body odour was no secret to Hitler either, but he answered jibes on that score from his entourage by saying that Morell was not there “to be smelled” but to keep him healthy.101

The only one of Hitler’s old pals from Munich to become a regular at the Berghof was Heinrich Hoffmann. He usually visited with his second wife, Erna Gröbke, the daughter of a classical singer from the northern German city of Schwerin, whom he had married in April 1934. Hoffmann was a welcome guest not only as the man who visually documented the Third Reich and as a kind of court prankster. He also advised Hitler on art and purchased paintings for him. In June 1937, Hitler charged him with selecting the pictures to appear in the Great German Art Exhibition in Munich’s House of German Art, after sacking the twelve-head-strong panel of judges whose work had displeased him. Assisted by Gerdy Troost and House of German Art Director Karl Kolb, he also curated exhibitions in the years that followed as the Führer’s personal agent. Hitler appointed him a professor in July 1938.102

Hoffmann particularly enjoyed playing jokes on Morell and exposing him wherever possible to ridicule. For Hitler’s personal physician, the photographer was “the evil spirit of the company at table.”103 Hitler had a soft spot for Hoffmann and ignored the fact that his old ally was a bit too fond of alcohol. The dictator’s enormous faith in him was reflected in the fact that he asked Hoffmann to handle the finances for renting the apartment for Eva Braun and later purchasing her house. Hoffmann set up a small darkroom at the Berghof for her, and the Führer’s mistress turned into a passionate amateur photographer and maker of home movies. Armed with a 16-millimetre Agfa-Movex camera, Braun made numerous films that, together with photos taken by cameraman Walter Frentz, provide an intimate look at everyday Berghof life. Occasionally Hoffmann bought photographs from his former employee, paying—no doubt on instructions from Hitler—relatively large sums of money for them.104

As a kind of compensation for not being allowed to appear at official functions, Hitler permitted Braun to invite guests of her own to the Obersalzberg, and rooms were set aside for that purpose. Among them were her constant companion and sister Gretl, who had begun working for Hoffmann as a clerk in 1932, her oldest and best friend, Herta Scheider (née Ostermeier), and Marianne (Marion) Schönmann (née Petzl), whose mother, the opera singer Maria Petzl, Hitler had heard perform during his days in Vienna. “With her lively manners and witty charm, she was typically Viennese,” wrote Karl Brandt of Marion Schönmann in his essay “The Women around Hitler” in August 1945, and that explains the attention the dictator paid to this friend of Braun in particular. Hitler and Braun were among the small number of guests when Schönmann married a Munich construction magnate in August 1937.105

Also visible on the wedding photo was Sofie Stork, who remained part of the Berghof society even after breaking off her engagement to Brückner in 1936. She and Braun had become friends soon after she visited Haus Wachenfeld for the first time, and Stork made the intertitles for Braun’s colour films. The ever-lively “Störklein” (Little Stork) or “Charly,” as she was nicknamed, was a fixture at the Berghof New Year’s Eve parties. She was very close to Hitler’s assistant Fritz Wiedemann, and Hitler, too, appreciated the gifted artisan, bailing her out with considerable sums of money when her father’s fishing tackle shop on Munich’s Residenzstrasse got into financial difficulties.106

The regulars were complemented by occasional visitors. Hoffmann sometimes brought along the “old fighter” and Hitler’s long-term friend Hermann Esser, who served as Bavarian economics minister from 1933 to 1935 and became president of the Reich Committee for Tourism in 1936. His wife was also friends with Braun. Speer was sometimes accompanied by his friend, the sculptor Arno Breker, and his wife Minima, a Greek woman with a sharp tongue with whom Hitler enjoyed joking. Also visiting every once in a while were NSDAP Reich Treasurer Franz Xaver Schwarz and his wife, and Daimler-Benz Director Jakob Werlin, who had known Hitler since the 1920s.107

Finally, to complete the picture, several members of Hitler’s staff were also members of the Berghof circle. They included Reich Press Spokesman Otto Dietrich, the commander of Hitler’s SS bodyguards, Sepp Dietrich, and Hitler’s personal assistants Wilhelm Brückner and Julius Schaub. His secretaries Johanna Wolf, Christa Schroeder and Gerda Daranowski also took part in the Berghof social life, but there was a fine dividing line between them and the actual guests.108 Among the military aides, 29-year-old Colonel Nicolaus von Below enjoyed Hitler’s particular affection. He and his attractive 19-year-old wife Maria were popular guests and were close to the Speers and the Brandts.109

In retrospect, Speer described the “never-changing daily routine” on the Obersalzberg and among the “never-changing circle around Hitler” as “tiresome” and “boring.” After a few days, Speer claimed, he felt “exhausted,” and his only memories were of a “strange emptiness.”110 The question is why Speer so doggedly tried to stay in Hitler’s presence if he found being at the Berghof such a waste of time. “How can you forget how excited we all were?” Maria von Below chastened Speer after reading the Obersalzberg chapter in his memoirs. “And how many moments there were when we were happy?111 Margarete Speer too told Gitta Sereny that she had found life in Hitler’s circle fascinating. Hitler was “always very gallant to women, very Austrian,” Frau Speer said.112 Her husband’s memoirs did not square with her own memories, and she angrily told him: “Life has not left me much! And now you’ve ruined what remained.”113 It is likely that after 1945 the women felt under less pressure to justify themselves and reinterpret their experience in the Berghof society.

As in the Chancellery, daily life at the Berghof followed a set pattern. In the morning, an almost ghostly silence lay upon the Alpine residence. With Hitler still sleeping, his guests tiptoed their way to breakfast. They were not allowed to take a bath since the pipes ran past the walls of his bedroom, and the dictator might have been disturbed by the sound of the running water. The only audible activity was in the utility rooms and the annexe, where Hitler’s assistants stayed.114

Hitler usually got up late, and before the start of the Second World War he dressed in civilian clothing. After a quick breakfast, meetings were held between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. in the Great Hall. During that time, guests would socialise on the terrace.115 In Spandau prison, Speer looked back:

We would stand around casually on the terrace, while the ladies lay on the plaited wicker deck chairs with the cushions patterned in dark red squares. Like at a spa hotel, they sunned themselves. Braun was a modern woman. Servants in uniform, SS men chosen from Sepp Dietrich’s bodyguards, offered drinks in practised, almost conspiratorial fashion: champagne, vermouth and soda, and fruit juices. At some point, Hitler’s manservant would come and announce that the Führer would appear in ten minutes after repairing upstairs for a short while to recover from a long discussion. Lunch was by that point usually more than an hour overdue…At the news of Hitler’s imminent arrival, conversation hushed and no one laughed any more. Eva Braun would take her film camera from her deck chair and, accompanied by Negus, a Scotch terrier named after the emperor of Abyssinia, prepare to film Hitler’s appearance.116

As soon as Hitler arrived, the atmosphere changed drastically. The guests suddenly tensed up and tried visibly to make a good impression. To protect his face from the sun, Hitler usually wore a velour hat, and his overall appearance had “something civilian, even sedate.”117 He kissed the hands of the ladies, including his secretaries, and shook hands with his other guests, asking everyone how they felt. After around half an hour, the servant announced that lunch was served, and Hitler would take the arm of one of the ladies whom he had selected to sit next to them. Eva Braun followed him. As of 1938, she was led to the table by Bormann, which underscored both her status as the lady of the house and Bormann’s newly acquired influence in Hitler’s court. The rest of the guests, men and women mixed, filed in behind them.118

The seating order was predetermined. Hitler took his place in the middle of the rectangular table across from the row of windows, with the lady of his choice to his right, Braun to his left and Bormann next to her. Seated across from Hitler was the guest of honour or, in the absence of one, another of the ladies. Hitler placed great emphasis on flower arrangements. The china was by Rosenthal, and the cutlery bore Hitler’s monogram. Meals were served by SS men in white waistcoats and black trousers.119 Speer’s mother, who was invited to the Berghof a number of times in 1939, scoffed: “How nouveau riche it all is. Even how the meals are served is impossible, and the table decorations are coarse. Hitler was terribly nice, but it’s a world for parvenus.”120 The food served was as simple as in the Chancellery. Even during official state visits, there was never more than a starter, a main course and dessert, although the guests did get to enjoy the fresh vegetables delivered every day from Bormann’s greenhouse.

Unlike lunches in the Chancellery, the conversation tended to avoid politics. Hitler was an attentive listener to his female guests. “He was very warm, very personal,” recalled Maria von Below. “With me, or Margarete Speer or Anni Brandt, he would ask about the children, be quite interested, I thought, in little stories about them, respond with laughter or understanding nods.”121 He enjoyed playing the Viennese charmer, showering the women with compliments and telling them about practical jokes he had played in school or amusing incidents from the “years of struggle.” He also lectured about the health benefits of vegetarianism and his favourite dishes, such as the bread dumplings with sorrel sauce his mother had made for him. Rarely could he suppress his tendency to make fun of underlings who were not present, imitating their gestures and speech. Occasionally he would tease people at the table, putting them in a difficult position since they did not dare respond in kind. In the early years, Braun took little part in the conversation. Later, when she was more self-confident and comfortable in her role, she sometimes interrupted her lover’s monologues and drew his attention to how late it was getting.122

Lunch usually lasted one hour. After Hitler rose from the table and kissed the ladies’ hands in farewell, there were further meetings. Following that, hosts and guests took a ritual walk to the tearoom down on the Mooslahnerkopf. It was the only time that the Führer took in some fresh air.123 Even at a casual pace, it took a mere twenty minutes to get there. Hitler would don a gigantic peaked cap, put on his badly fitting khaki windbreaker, take his walking stick and leash and lead the group, with his German shepherd at his side. He would summon one of the guests to walk beside him, which was considered a special honour, for a private chat about political matters. The entourage, including his assistants and secretaries, walked behind them in single file. Security men brought up the rear. Once at the tearoom, Hitler would pause on the viewing plateau, always using the same words to praise the view, which stretched all the way down to Salzburg.

The tearoom was a round stone building and consisted, aside from the kitchen and staff rooms, of a single, large room with comfortable armchairs, grouped around a round table: six large windows gave out in all directions. Hitler took his place in an armchair in front of the fireplace, with Braun to his left. Servants poured coffee and offered various cakes. Hitler preferred tea or hot chocolate and enjoyed freshly baked apple cake.124 Conversation was usually laboured. Hoffmann would try to amuse the company by telling jokes, at Hitler’s prompting. Occasionally Hitler himself would nod off in the middle of one of his monologues. Everyone else present would act as if they did not notice and continue to converse in hushed tones. At around 6 p.m., the group would set off back to the Berghof. Hitler usually had himself driven in an open-top Volkswagen convertible: everyone else went on foot. Hitler would then retreat to his private quarters before dinner, while his guests used their free time to attend to personal matters.125

The evening meal, which customarily began at 8:30 p.m., followed the same procedure as lunch, but the ladies appeared in formal wear and tastefully made-up. Hitler, who hated make-up,126 would occasionally make a critical remark about the “war paint,” but Braun did not let herself be deterred. The fashion-conscious young woman from Munich changed her clothes several times a day and made an impression with her evening elegance. After dinner, Hitler held further conferences in the Great Hall. From one minute to the next, his demeanour would change. His posture would stiffen, and the charismatic Führer would take the place of the congenial master of the house. His guests amused themselves playing ninepins in the basement or waited around the green-tiled stove in the living room for Hitler’s monologue to come to an end. Braun, who shared Hitler’s passion for cinema, always knew which new films had been sent down to the Berghof by the Propaganda Ministry and would choose one or two for the evening. If nothing new was available, she could always have recourse to the Berghof’s film library, which contained thirty classic movies and eighteen Mickey Mouse cartoons Goebbels gave Hitler for Christmas in 1937. As was the case in the Chancellery, the staff and bodyguards were allowed to attend the screenings. The two Gobelin tapestries were rolled up, Hitler and Braun would take their places in the front row, and everyone else would sit down behind them. Only after the outbreak of the Second World War did Hitler depart from this ritual, saying that it was impossible for him to watch films at a time “when the German people were making so many sacrifices.”127

“Shall we sit by the fireplace for a bit?” Hitler would ask when the screenings were over. Not infrequently, what was conceived as a short chat turned into a meeting that lasted well beyond midnight, with Hitler himself monopolising the conversation. Sometimes, however, Hitler fell into a brooding silence, fiddling around in the coals with his poker. The guests almost gave a sigh of relief when someone suggested music. Hitler had a large collection of records in a chest in the front part of the Great Hall, and Bormann would operate the phonograph. The repertoire was nearly always the same: works by Wagner, particularly the “Liebestod” from Tristan and Isolde, which Hitler said he wanted to be played in his “final hour,” the symphonies of Bruckner and Beethoven, Franz Léhar operettas and songs by Richard Strauss and Hugo Wolf. Many an hour passed in this way, and Otto Dietrich could not remember Hitler ever asking if any of his guests felt tired and wished to retire for the night. “Listening to him and keeping him company until he thought he could fall asleep was the tribute he adamantly demanded of his guests,” Dietrich recalled.128 At some point, Hitler and Braun would whisper a few words to one another, she would withdraw to her private quarters on the first floor, and he would follow a short time later. No sooner had the two of them disappeared, than the atmosphere became more relaxed. For a little while things became lively, until everyone went to bed, and stillness descended upon the Berghof until the following morning.

Parties were rare. Hitler usually spent Christmas alone in Munich. On Christmas Eve in 1937, much to the surprise of his manservant Karl Krause, he ordered a taxi and had himself chauffeured aimlessly around the city for three hours.129 On Boxing Day he usually travelled to the Obersalzberg, where he customarily spent the New Year season and “did not want to be disturbed.”130 But the manor was always a hive of activity on New Year’s Eve. “The house is full beyond capacity,” Gretl Braun wrote from the Berghof on 31 December 1938 to Fritz Wiedemann, who—much to her regret and that of Sofie Stork—could not be present. “More than thirty people are here, and I wonder how things will turn out. The hairdressers are under siege by the women, and the gentlemen are looking forward to their tuxedos.”131 After dinner there were fireworks ordered by Hitler and prepared by Kannenberg. Following that the dictator decamped to the Great Hall to receive New Year’s congratulations from his guests and the staff. It was one of the few occasions when he relaxed his self-imposed prohibition on alcohol. With a sour expression on his face, he sipped at his champagne glass and toasted the New Year with his entourage. He took part in the traditional German custom of melting lead and auguring the future from the abstract figures that resulted. He begrudgingly posed for the obligatory group photo and autographed his guests’ place cards. “Usually it was quite a lot of fun, but only after Hitler had left,” Hoffmann recalled. “He almost always withdrew shortly after midnight.”132 Eva Braun was usually very reserved whenever Hitler was at the Berghof, but her behaviour changed immediately as soon as he left. “You could still see his limousine making its way down the serpentine roads, when the first preparations for amusements were made,” recalled one of the bodyguards. “Although she had been as strict as a governess only moments before, she suddenly turned everything on its head. She became cheerful, cheerful and relaxed, almost childish.”133

After the war, almost all of the members of the Berghof circle swore that politics had played no role whatsoever on the Obersalzberg and that no one ever talked about it. In August 1945, Karl Brandt wrote that Hitler “had wanted to be a private citizen there and maintain his private, personal relationships and inclinations.”134 Otto Dietrich, on the other hand, contradicted that claim, arguing that Hitler was incapable of distinguishing between public and private life: “He carried out business in the middle of his private life, and he lived out his private life in the middle of his business and the exercise of his leadership.”135 Dietrich correctly highlighted one of Hitler’s fundamental qualities. Life on the Obersalzberg was characterised by the mingling of the two spheres, something expressed in the fact that there was no division between public and private areas at the Berghof.

Hitler’s Alpine residence was not just a place of rest and relaxation or a private refuge from the stage of major politics. It was there that he withdrew to collect himself and plan his next steps when faced with crucial decisions. “When I go to the mountains, it’s not just because of the beauty of the landscape,” he explained in January 1942. “My imagination is much livelier there. I’m removed from all the trivia and am able to see: this or that is better, this or that is right, this or that will lead to success.”136 Not only did Hitler’s decisions ripen at the Berghof; his mountain manor was also where he wrote his speeches for the Nuremberg rallies every year in late August and early September and where he received his most important foreign visitors, such as former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George in early September 1936. “They [the Germans] should thank God they have such a great leader,” Lloyd George is alleged to have said after his three-hour meeting with Hitler.137 The Duke and Duchess of Windsor were likewise impressed after visiting the German dictator at the Berghof in late October 1937, and Hitler was apparently flattered that the former British monarch had paid him his respects. He had “rarely seen the Führer so relaxed and animated as during that visit,” Fritz Wiedemann later recalled.138 But the Obersalzberg was also the site of dramatic political confrontations in advance of Hitler’s foreign-policy coups. It was there that Austrian Chancellor Kurt von Schuschnigg was subjected to extortionate pressure on 12 February 1938, a few weeks before the amalgamation of Austria into the Third Reich, and it was there that Hitler invited British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain for a first visit on 15 September 1938, at the height of the Sudentenland crisis. The idea, as Below put it, was to “receive him in an environment that played to the English love of country life.”139

The Berghof was therefore both Hitler’s personal retreat and a second power centre alongside the Chancellery in the Third Reich. This double function was the reason that in early 1936 Hitler ordered the construction of a field office of the Chancellery north-west of Berchtesgaden, only six kilometres away from the Obersalzberg. The topping-out ceremony took place in January 1937. Once it was completed the business of government ran smoothly. Thanks to modern communications and the governmental airport in Reichenhall-Berchtesgaden, Hitler was fully connected with the outside world and reachable at any time in his seemingly remote Alpine retreat. Nonetheless, even Hans Heinrich Lammers, the head of the Chancellery, could be refused permission to speak to Hitler for days at a time when the Führer was at the Berghof.140

Precisely because the personal and the political were intermingled, the impression that the Berghof circle was apolitical cannot be accurate. In mid-July 1937, for instance, Goebbels noted that those visiting the Obersalzberg had “passionately discussed” Britain’s role in the world over lunch.141 It is also known that Marion Schönmann, Eva Braun’s friend, was a frank woman who openly criticised many of the political measures taken after the Anschluss in Austria.142 The image of Braun as the apolitical, naive mistress of the Führer has also been revealed as a deliberate distortion by Speer and other members of the Berghof society in order to claim ignorance after the war about the criminal nature of Hitler’s dictatorship.143 Braun was by no means the dumb blonde observers long mistook her for. She was a modern young woman who knew quite well what she was getting into with Hitler and who herself helped bolster the mythic aura of the Führer with the photos she gave to Hoffmann and her home movies, which she made for posterity. Like the others who were part of the Berghof circle, she shared Hitler’s racist political beliefs and knew all too well about the exclusion and persecution of the Jews. The fact that few, if any, words were wasted on anti-Semitism does not mean that the Berghof society objected to it in any way. The same is true of the regime’s campaign against the Churches, which was initiated by none other than Hitler himself.