Eva Braun (1912–1945) died in Berlin, Germany, in a tomb-like bunker located 25 feet underneath the epicenter of Nazi Germany. The longtime mistress and companion of German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, Braun bit a fast-acting cyanide capsule less than 40 hours after marrying Hitler. Tragically, their wedding occurred in the last days of World War II, as Soviet troops laid siege to Nazi headquarters.
Eva Braun was 33 years old when she committed suicide, having spent the entirety of her adult life as the personal companion to one of the most singularly destructive figures in modern history. Few Germans knew of Braun's existence during the tumultuous years of World War II, but there were references to her in U.S. media sources as early as 1942. The Berghof, Hitler's Bavarian Alpine aerie not far from her birthplace in Munich, was Braun's primary residence, and it was there that the keen amateur photographer captured remarkable behind-the-scenes images of Herr Führer's private life.
Eva Anna Paula Braun was born on February 6, 1912, in Munich, the Bavarian city that was a regional capital as well as a center of art and commerce. Raised in a small apartment on Isabellastrasse, she was the second of three daughters of Franziska Kronburger Braun, a seamstress, and Friedrich “Fritz” Braun, a vocational-arts teacher. Franziska—known as Fanny—came from a close-knit Roman Catholic family in the town of Beilngries in Upper Bavaria, where her father was a veterinarian. Eva's dual middle names were bestowed in honor of two of Fanny's sisters, one who was a Roman Catholic nun. Fritz Braun, by contrast, had been raised in the Lutheran faith and had a somewhat strained relationship with his parents, who owned a successful furniture business in Stuttgart.
While growing up, Braun and her older sister Ilse and younger sister Gretl (short for “Margrethe”) spent summers with their Kronburger grandparents and moved there for a longer stint beginning in 1919, when their parents separated. Fritz Braun had served in the armed forces during imperial Germany's disastrous series of blunders during World War I, and long-simmering religious and temperamental differences eventually prompted him and Fanny to divorce. The break was a closely kept secret inside the family and the Brauns eventually reunited and were quietly remarried in a civil ceremony in November of 1922.
In the summer of 1929, Braun returned to Munich, having spent several months boarding at a Roman Catholic convent school near the Bavaria/Austria border. Chafing at her parents' attempts to impose a curfew and curb her spending on clothes and cinema outings, she followed older sister Ilse and pursued financial independence through full-time work. In October, Braun was hired at Photo Hoffmann, a photography portrait studio that also sold cameras and offered film-processing services. Its proprietor, Heinrich Hoffmann, had a business relationship with the National Socialist German Workers' Party, a controversial Munich-based organization. The group's leader, an Austrian-born art-school dropout named Adolf Hitler, had made an improbable rise to prominence in the five years since he was released from prison in late 1924. Convicted on a count of treason for attempting to foment unrest in a November 1923 incident known as the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler now relied on Hoffmann to help polish his image as well as that of his tight-knit circle of fellow National Socialists, or Nazis.
Braun and Hitler were believed to have first met shortly after she started work, when Hitler arrived at Photo Hoffmann shortly after the close of its business day. As Braun later told her sister Ilse, she was on a ladder at the time, stowing boxes on high shelves. Her boss approached and introduced her to “a man of a certain age with a funny moustache, a light-coloured English-style overcoat, and a big felt hat in his hand,” as biographer Angela Lambert quoted her saying in The Lost Life of Eva Braun: A Biography. Hoffmann introduced Hitler as Herr Wolf, but the young shopgirl quickly discovered that the photographer's privileged customer was the ringleader of an influential paramilitary squadron that was gaining adherents in several major German cities.
Braun's family was not thrilled about her new acquaintance. The Nazi Party's pledge to end the twin plagues of double-digit unemployment and inflation while dampening the threat posed by the Communist left and anti-religionist moderates appealed to some Germans. Braun's parents were not among them, however; they viewed Hitler as a threat to the democratically elected, Weimar German republic established in the wake of World War I. Ilse, who worked for several years for a successful Jewish otolaryngologist, was unambiguous in her opposition to the anti-Semitic propaganda promulgated by the Nazis.
Notoriety caused Hitler to maintain a cloak of secrecy around his private life. Multiple sources cite one lurid incident in late 1931 and its cover-up as both justification for the obfuscation as well as the first verification that Braun quickly entered a romantic relationship with the party leader: 23-year-old Angela “Geli” Raubal, Hitler's half-niece, killed herself with a Walther pistol on September 17, 1931, at the Munich apartment she had shared with him for six years, ostensibly as his live-in housekeeper. Raubal was the daughter of Hitler's half-sister and had been enamored with the charismatic figure despite the incestuous taint; she allegedly killed herself after discovering a letter written to Hitler by the similarly love-struck Braun.
Roughly a year later, Braun also attempted suicide, using a pistol of her father's that she acquired while her parents were out of town. She was reportedly distraught that Hitler, to whom she had grown close in the months following Raubal's death, failed to maintain steady contact with her while campaigning across Germany ahead of the November federal election. Her gunshot wound was not fatal but it reportedly left her unconscious and bleeding until Ilse found her. Once revived, Braun panicked and telephoned a physician she knew to be part of the Hitler entourage.
In early 1933, Hitler became chancellor of Germany, and he secured near-dictatorial powers in the months that followed. Punitive statutes were enacted against Jews, Communists, and political foes who dared to speak openly against his plans for a new Third Reich, or empire, to mark the restoration of Germany's rightful place as a major European power. By 1934, Hitler was referred to as Führer, or leader.
Braun's parents, already fearful for their middle daughter, became more concerned when Gretl began working for Heinrich Hoffmann's photography business. In one incident, reported by some eyewitnesses as occuring during the late summer of 1935, Fritz and Fanny visited one of Hitler's favorite cafés at a popular lakeside resort south of Munich, intending to confront the Führer about his relationship with Eva. Three months previous, Braun had taken an overdose of sleeping pills. The worried parents now stationed themselves at the Lambacher Hof inn and restaurant in the scenic Chiemsee area when they knew Hitler was likely to stop. In an alternate version of events, they were there by chance and saw Braun exit a car in a Nazi motorcade and enter the Lambacher Hof, followed a few minutes later by the German chancellor.
Following the Lambacher Hof incident, Eva and Gretl Braun moved to a pretty house in Bogenhausen, an upscale residential district in Munich, likely with Hoffmann's help. However, Braun's true home base was now with Hitler at a chalet in the Bavarian Alps. Located in Obersalzberg, near the Austrian border region favored by skiers and hikers, the palatial Berghoff was newly renovated and expanded and was well protected from curiosity-seekers and saboteurs alike. The Berghof would be the couple's primary residence during World War II.
Fritz and Fanny Braun were guests at the Berghof, and Fritz eventually became a member of the Nazi Party. Gretl visited for extended periods to keep her sister company, as did several friends from Braun's Munich school days. Braun also spent time with Hitler in Berlin, the capital city. Things changed after the successful Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France on June 6, 1944, however. Travel became increasingly perilous as the German military was forced to fight a two-pronged attack on the U.S. and British forces sweeping through France and the Benelux countries and the Soviet troops moving toward Berlin from the Eastern front.
Three days before the Allies made their amphibious landing in France, Gretl Braun married Hans Otto Georg Hermann Fegelein, a high-ranking officer in the military police unit known as the Schutzstaffel or SS. Six weeks later, Hitler narrowly escaped a masterful assassination attempt at Wolf's Lair, his East Prussian headquarters. He never returned to the Berghof, and for the next few months Braun shuttled between Obsersalzberg and Berlin to visit him. She moved permanently to Berlin in mid-April of 1945, roughly a week before Hitler's 56th birthday on April 20.
This new home was a far cry from the scenic Berghof. Called the Führerbunker, it was a series of concrete-encased rooms located underneath Berlin's ostentatious Reich Chancellery that were accessed via a series of staircases and poison-gas-proof tunnels. Braun joined a coterie of insiders assembling there, including architect Albert Speer, who also served as Hitler's minister for armaments and war production, and Joseph Goebbels, the Nazis' propaganda minister, who brought with him his wife and six children. As the days passed and the walls of the Führer-bunker shook from enormous blasts of artillery fire and aerial bombardment, Hitler encouraged selected support staff to pack and leave. Fegelein, Braun's brother-in-law, was not among this group; aprehended after abandoning his guard post, he was shot as a deserter.
On April 29, 1945, Hitler became apoplectic after learning that a top-ranking field general was attempting to broker a surrender via a Swedish emissary. He and Braun also learned of the terrible fate of Nazi Germany's erstwhile ally, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, who was captured the day before, together with his mistress, Clara Petacci. They were executed without trial and their bodies suspended from lampposts in Milan. “I don't want my enemies to disgrace my body,” Hitler told Speer, the Nazi Party architect who would later recall events in his memoir Inside the Third Reich. “I've given orders that I be cremated. Fräulein Braun wants to depart this life with me, and I'll shoot Blondi beforehand.”
Blondi, Hitler's beloved German shepherd, was not shot; instead, it was used as a test subject to check the efficacy of the cyanide capsules stockpiled in the Führer-bunker. After locating a civil servant to officiate, Hitler and Braun were married shortly after midnight on April 29, 1945. Braun's signature on her marriage certificate showed that she began to write “B” by habit before crossing it out and signing her name as Eva Hitler.
At 3:30 in the afternoon of April 30, 1945, a single gunshot was heard and the couple was found dead in Hitler's private suite. Braun had ingested a cyanide capsule and was slumped over on a sofa. Beside her was her spouse, who had taken the dual precaution of biting down on a cyanide capsule and shooting himself in the temple. Hitler's security officers followed orders and brought the two bodies to a ground-level back entrance of the Führer-bunker, where the corpses were doused with gasoline and partially cremated. Soviet troops discovered the remains of Hitler and Braun on May 2, 1945, along with the bodies of all eight members of the Goebbels family.
Three days later, Braun's newly widowed sister gave birth to a daughter, whom she named Eva Fegelein. The Braun family did not learn about the last-minute marriage until June, roughly a month after the war in Europe concluded. “Little Eva,” as Braun's niece was known, committed suicide in the 1970s.
Görtemaker, Heike B., Eva Braun: Life with Hitler, Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.
Lambert, Angela, The Lost Life of Eva Braun: A Biography, St. Martin's Griffin, 2007.
Speer, Albert, Inside the Third Reich: Memoirs, translated from the German by Richard and Clara Winston, Simon Schuster, 1970.□