28 April 2013

Ecstasy of Eva Braun

by Leigh Lundin

This review is not of a crime novel in the normal sense, but a sketch of perhaps the greatest crime in modern history.

Eva Braun An ARC arrived at a time I was traveling between continents, indeed between hemispheres, but I kept returning to the novel, snatching paragraphs in planes and airports and at odd moments otherwise. These readings were punctuated by looking up facts and figures to track the progress of the novel: i.e, was Gotz Rupp a real figure? Who was Gunnar Eilifsen? And then I needed time to digest the writings.

Paean of Pain

The Patient Ecstasy of Fraulein Braun is an unusual novel, a rarity in how it worms into the minds of Germans and especially Nazis of the era. A sly encomium, it creates a seemingly naïve but subversive panegyric to Adolf Hitler. Unlike genre novels, suspense is notably absent; virtually no tension arises even though we know the rough outlines of the ending. Albert Speer once said, "Eva Braun will prove a great disappointment to historians," but author Lavonne Mueller begs to differ.

We know Braun primarily from her films and photographs of Hitler, whose intimate relationship wasn't revealed to the public. Braun (through the hand of Lavonne Mueller) discusses 'Adi' in glowing tones of worship, her Juliet to his Romeo. To categorize Eva Braun as a groupie would be to trivialize her because her character exhibits startling whitecaps of profundity in a shallow sea of insipidness. The book offers a convincing peek into a personal side of Hitler, although it's more a dissertation describing those who loved and admired him.

Führerbunker Mentality

Mueller helps us comprehend the immoral, the insane amidst the then political landscape, how normal became horrific and horror passed as normal, a beastly beauty and rightness seen only by willingly indoctrinated Nazis. At one point Eva asks herself, "Why doesn't the world understand?"

From historical documents culled from the time, we know this isn't an aberration. Consider sources such as a letter Magda Goebbels sent her eldest son, Harald Quandt, shortly before she 'euthanized' her remaining six young children and committed suicide the day after Hitler's: "Our glorious idea is ruined and with it everything beautiful and marvelous that I have known in my life."

Now you begin to sense the underpinnings of the novel. Nazism encapsulated a peculiarly twisted view where those not of the Aryan ideal were exploited and then destroyed. Jews were dehumanized until they were less than livestock, where they'd become 'bacteria' to be eradicated. A good German might feel angst at the loss of a prized housekeeper or craftsman, not of the loss of human beings.

Guns and Roses

Intellectuals and protesters like the White Rose were 'patriotically executed' for the betterment of the German state, which had become synonymous with the Nazi Party. The concept of 'blood guilt' gave sanction to wipe out the families of those considered traitors.

The Party had become not only the government, but the religion. Thus developed a disconnect between good and perceived good, between evil and perceived evil, a topsy-turvy madness where wicked was wonderful. The killing aped John Ruskin to the extreme, that war is peace and death is artful.

In this story, Braun becomes emblematic of the German citizen, a token, an exemplar of Germanic thought condensed in one woman. She strives to humanize the inhuman, helping us understand what enamored the German nation. Whatever the country felt precipitated in her, distilled and refined. Hitler wasn't merely her hero, he was her god. In Him (her caps), all things were beautiful and perfect, a being who could do no wrong. Naziism exemplified beauty, all else was tainted.

Adolph and Eva

The book's blurb calls Patient Ecstasy 'a disturbing, erotic novel'. True, the author is at ease with kink and sexuality and is clearly skilled to sketch dark, erotic paintings inside the recesses of the human mind, and yet the story isn't erotic in any expected sense. Arguably it's not erotic at all, no more titillating than, say, a nightshirt Eva wore to her wedding bed confiscated from the body of a dead Russian.

Other than a brief 'banana drama' and a strong bent toward submission, the casual reader will find no lingering scenes that dawdle over exploration of sexual feelings and body parts. Braun's baring of her breasts comes off as clinical, a self-serving shadow of a gesture in the midst of war. Here Mueller merges Naziism and the horrors of battle with Hitler's prim and stunted sexuality, not that Braun has the least doubt her paramour is the most perfect male, the most virile potentate on the planet.

Perspective

The historical accuracy is impressive, if sometimes overly detailed down to minute observations such as street numbers. I compared a few of Mueller's events against the known timeline and variance, if any, appears so slight as to be negligible. The author's research gives us virtually a history with an overlay of imagined personalities and conversations, a way to make the reader comprehend the incomprehensible.

Therein lies the power of the book, indeed what fiction should do but rarely accomplishes. Most historians say events cannot be grasped without submersing oneself in the mood and period. This text helps us understand what cannot be understood, not Hitler himself, but his admirers and the mad sense of the day.

Read at Your Own Risk

And that makes the book frightening, because we begin to realize the possibility history could repeat itself. Therein lies the suspense I considered missing from the novel. Suspense hides the horror that writhes barely buried beneath the skin waiting to erupt again upon an unsuspecting world.

13 comments:

Janice Law said...

You make the novel sound really interesting!

Louis A. Willis said...

Your “whitecaps of profundity in a shallow sea of insipidness” description of Eva Braun made me want to read the novel. I’ve always wonder how those around Hitler could be so enthralled with him. Sounds like the novel would give me some insight into their thinking.

David Edgerley Gates said...

It's interesting that when DOWNFALL, the movie about Hitler's last days in the bunker, was released, it caught a lot of grief for supposedly "humanizing" Hitler and his acolytes, but in fact I found it had the opposite effect: monsters though they were, the picture made them out to be enormously shallow people, which in turn made the evils and cruelty they loosed all the more terrifying, not because they were larger than life, but smaller.

Anonymous said...

I never understood how ordinary Germans rallied 'round the nastiness they elected. I am terrified of those kooks on the radio, so reasonable in their hate.

Anonymous said...

I had always heard Hitler was very straightlaced and easily offended.

Leigh Lundin said...

Janice, if the author knew you are working on your second historical after the success of the first, I'm sure she would be pleased by your interest.

Louis, the amazing part is the believable atmosphere, or at least the atmosphere that makes it possible to see how the Nazis held their nation in thrall.

David, that's wonderfully put. Hitler was a small man in many ways, literally making his specter larger than life.

Anon, as we've learned, wickedness isn't confined to Germany. And yes, I sometimes rant about wing-nut radio!

Leigh Lundin said...

David, following up about your incisive comment, Goebbels said, "Such a sparkling mind can be my leader. I bow to the greater one, the political genius". And, "Adolf Hitler, I love you because you are both great and simple at the same time, what one calls a genius."

Hmm, I hadn't thought about it until now, but I wonder if the author is related to the chancellor in the 1920s, Hermann Müller?

Anon #2, I've read the same thing, although I saw a History Channel documentary that suggested Hitler was gay or at least bisexual, evidenced in his Army associates. After obtaining power, he ordered the assassinations of those same men he'd been friends with.

The real Braun seems to have suggested Hitler had an active but hidden sex life. I seem to recall she commented about a sofa in Hitler's office, saying something like "If the great men who sat upon it only knew what went on after hours…!"

Goebbels and his wife Magda were rumored to engage in extensive affairs. Hitler is supposed to have reined in Joseph, telling him to cut short his more public extramarital shenanigans. Perhaps the surprising thing is that people who'd attained absolute power over others weren't more notorious in their dalliances… except that Goebbels himself was the minister of propaganda and controlled portrayals of the most powerful men in that nation.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic review! You have put the book on my must-read list and, more importantly, stimulated my thoughts. I was fascinated by the way Anne Morrow Lindberg wrote about Hitler and the Nazis as they rose to power, when she and "Lindy" visited and Lindberg was given a state medal. I kept thinking that there had to be a deep and powerful -- if terrifying -- story underneath the rise of Hitler and Nazism that we don't often see. I am sure historians know it, and I have heard a bit of it when the talk about (as one example) the way the Christian church in Germany wound up going along with things. But it seems to me that something Big happened, and that we must understand what that was if we are to guard against it in our common future. You have laid this out well, and pointed to this novel as providing an important piece of the puzzle. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

i echo the others here. the book sounds amazing and i plan to track it down. it seems release is a couple of days off?

Leigh Lundin said...

Thank you. I strove to understand the author, her intent, and to be fair to her and readers. After reading the book, let me know if I succeeded.

Anon 4, I received the review copy some months ago and I timed the article near the article's release, which I believe is Tuesday.

Herschel Cozine said...

The absolute evil of the Nazi regime and the German population's apparent acceptance of it continues to amaze (and appal). How could an apparently civilized country, steeped in science, music, the arts, be so barbarian? Eva Braun, I suspect, was not political or dedicated to any particular cause. Yet she idolized a monster who was. I will never understand it.

the book sounds fascinating. thanks for letting us know about it.

mamie vance said...

The nazis (old and neo) make me shudder with anger and disgust. I hope the author did the subject justice, which it sounds like she did.

Leigh Lundin said...

Herschel, as you say, Eva Braun appeared uninterested in politics, although most of the photographic history comes from her. And that disinterest in the horror around her makes her monstrous, too.

Mamie, the only thing I can think of is that neo-nazis are so steeped in mindless hate, they either can't see the truth or they embrace it.