Book Review: The Patient Ecstasy of Fraulein Braun

This was a sneak peek at The Patient Ecstasy of Fraulein Braun, a novel by Lavonne Mueller, (Opus Books, 304 pages) originally posted in December 2012. It is now in print, having been released on April 30. The April 30 date is important, as it was on April 30, 1944 that Eva Braun and Adolf Hitler were married in the bunker beneath the streets of Berlin. The next day, they would both be dead.


But said Virgilius ‘What dost thou still gaze at?
…I made answer thereupon….’In that cavern where
I held mine eyes with such attention fixed,
I think a spirit of my blood laments
The sin which down below there costs so much.’

Dante, The Inferno, Canto XXIX, Longfellow translation

Was there anyone in history worse than Hitler? Probably. Our ally against him, Josef Stalin is one of the best candidates. But my generation, though once removed, still finds Hitler difficult to approach from any objective point of view. This may be because by seeking objectivity  we somehow neutralize the unspeakable horror that the man unleashed on the world. That horror still haunts from grainy photographs of young men and women that adorn bookcases and fireplace mantels; spectral images of human beings who died fighting him or who succumbed in the showers at Dachau to then have their ashes blacken the sky with the thick, choking reality of death.

What can we say, therefore, about someone who loved Adolf Hitler? Does loving a monster make of you a monster?

Playwright Lavonne Mueller has written a novel that would seem to answer the question, but which actually raises as many questions as it answers. Eva Braun, a young woman who fell for Hitler–whom she calls “Adi”–when he was a rising star, and then spent 12 years as his mistress hidden away from the public eye. After all, the Führer’s image was as one married to Germany, and it wouldn’t be fitting for people–women especially–to see the man on whom the nation was fixated to be romantically linked. So Eva spent many lonely years tucked away in the Berghoff, Hitler’s posh estate in the mountains, or sitting the back row at main attractions while Magda Goebbels, wife of propaganda chief Josef Goebbels, appeared publicly with the Führer as Germany’s informal “first lady.” Why would she subject herself to such a life?

The simplest answer, and the one that comes through int his novel, is that Eva Braun loved, idolized, adored Adolf Hitler. With apologies to Jerry Maguire, Hitler “had her at hello” the first time he met her at Heinrich Hoffman’s photography studio in Munich, where she worked as a young model. After that, there were no more men in her life. Even though she would have to share him with Germany, she was content to do so.

Well, there were times when it got to her. She attempted suicide twice, once with a pistol (she was a bad shot), once with pills. Were these pitiful cries for attention? Perhaps. If so, they worked to some extent. Hitler was moved, and soon began to be more attentive to her needs.

But Hitler had experience with suicidal women. The woman whom many–even Eva–thought was the real love of his life was his niece, Geli Raubel. Though she was 25 years his junior, Hitler was obsessed with the young woman, eventually controlling her movements and possibly subjecting her to deviant sexual acts. Her only escape from him was suicide, which she committed in 1931.

So, when Eva took the pills, the Führer came to comfort her with flowers.

The novel’s time frame is the last two weeks of Eva’s life in the Bunker, that Danteesque cavern where HItler finished out his career as Germany’s chancellor. She narrates, and it becomes apparent that this time beneath the streets of a devastated Berlin is the happiest time of her life. She now has “Adi” close. Oh, yes, the meetings with generals and advisors continue on late at night, but “Adi” is only separated by a wall and will come to her eventually. One quickly surmises that Hitler is living in a state of denial, hoping for a miracle that will never come, unable to accept the fact that it is over.

The narrative is not kind to Magda, the wife of Josef Goebbels. In fact, if we are to believe Eva, Magda spents a great deal of time rutting with this or that visiting officer, perhaps in retaliation for her husband’s much publicized affairs with German actresses. Magda’s shamelessness even extends to allowing herself to be mounted by a staff officer in a shelter while her oldest daughter is in the room. Eva covers the daughter’s eyes and tries to distract her from the grunts and moans.

Eva herself, though ardently devoted and faithful to Adi, suffers from a deep frustration that stems from Adi’s–shall we say–unusual style of lovemaking which leaves her totally unsatisfied. She sometimes finds ways to compensate in the fashion of a good Catholic schoolgirl (which, incidentally, she had been) who knows how to push then envelope just far enough with men so as to maintain “technical” fidelity.

These portions of Eva’s narrative strain credulity, as I am unable to recall any such allegations regarding Magda Goebbels other than an affair she had with one of Hitler’s henchmen, and “rumors” of others. It is doubtful that Magda was the kind of woman who would engage in table top sex in one room while her husband met with staff in an adjoining room.

Eva and “Adi” in happier times. Source: Wikipedia

Yet, there is a sense that I get from this story, and such orgiastic inclusions, that the women in the bunker were perhaps not as much in denial as were Hitler and some of his henchmen. Perhaps the point is that they knew all too well that the end was but days away so the irrepressible life force expressed in a few moments of sexual pleasure was hungrily sought as a means of dealing with the threat of extinction. There is a scene in the streets of Berlin later wherein Eva and an officer come upon two naked SS men engaged in sex with one another on a discarded mattress. They are desperately seeking a few minutes respite from what is certain–Russian tanks but two block away–to be their last few minutes on earth.

The best thing that this novel does is to point up the moral ambivalence, or perhaps the amorality or even moral perversity, of Eva, Magda, and many of the followers of Hitler. Magda and her husband would sooner die than live in a world without their Führer, and so they commit suicide after Hitler and Eva do–only they take the lives of their six beautiful children before doing so. Eva herself achieves her dream to be united with her beloved Adi on the night before they will die, in spite of the fact that her brother-in-law was executed two days before by henchmen of her beloved.  Her chief concern in the last hours is what she will wear for their wedding, while humans are being burned, shot, exploded and ground into asphalt in the streets above them.

Throughout, Eva blames anyone she feels isn’t loyal to the Führer, even his niece and former lover Geli, for letting the man down. People who did not serve him well or rightly simply didn’t understand what or who he was.

This book takes you into a cavernous hell that summons the ghost of Dante, one which attempts answers to some difficult psychological questions, but still leaves you wondering how a man like Hitler could inspire such devotion, even when that devotion clashed with conscience. As a general rule, people aren’t attracted to monsters.

Hitler’s secretary, Traudi Junge, a Braun lookalike who was with the Führer until the end, expressed this conundrum best in a journal written several years following the last night in the bunker:

“I was 22 and I didn’t know anything about politics, it didn’t interest me…. I…was fascinated by Adolf Hitler. He was a pleasant boss and a fatherly friend. I deliberately ignored all the warning voices inside me and enjoyed the time by his side almost until the bitter end. It wasn’t what he said, but the way he said things and how he did things.”

Six million or more human beings would undoubtedly have a very different take on “how he did things.”

Copyright Isaac Morris 2013

Looking ahead: Lisa Gardner’s new novel about a family in crisis

I will be reviewing Touch & Go, by Lisa Gardner, on Wednesday, January 23rd.

Description

#1 New York Times bestseller Lisa Gardner, author of Catch Me and Love You More, returns with a heart-thumping thriller about what lurks behind the facade of a perfect family.
This is my family:  Vanished without a trace…
Justin and Libby Denbe have the kind of life that looks good in the pages of a glossy magazine. A beautiful fifteen-year old daughter, Ashlyn. A gorgeous brownstone on a tree-lined street in Boston’s elite Back Bay neighborhood. A great marriage, admired by friends and family.  A perfect life.This is what I know:  Pain has a flavor…When investigator Tessa Leoni arrives at the crime scene in the Denbes’ home, she finds scuff marks on the floor and Taser confetti in the foyer.  The family appears to have been abducted, with only a pile of their most personal possessions remaining behind.  No witnesses, no ransom demands, no motive.  Just an entire family, vanished without a trace.This is what I fear:  The worst is yet to come…

Tessa knows better than anyone that even the most perfect facades can hide the darkest secrets.  Now she must race against the clock to uncover the Denbes’ innermost dealings, a complex tangle of friendships and betrayal, big business and small sacrifices.  Who would want to kidnap such a perfect little family?  And how far would such a person be willing to go?

This is the truth:  Love, safety, family…it is all touch and go.

About the Author (from Amazon.com)

New York Times #1 bestselling crime novelist Lisa Gardner began her career in food service, but after catching her hair on fire numerous times, she took the hint and focused on writing instead. A self-described research junkie, she has parlayed her interest in police procedure, cutting edge forensics and twisted plots into a streak of thirteen bestselling suspense novels, including her most recent release, Catch Me.Readers are invited to get in on the fun by entering the annual “Kill a Friend, Maim a Mate” Sweepstakes, where they can nominate the person of their choice to die in Lisa’s latest novel. Every year, one Lucky Stiff is selected for Literary Immortality. It’s cheaper than therapy, and you get a great book besides. For more details, simply visit Lisa’s website.Lisa lives in New England with her family, as well as two highly spoiled dogs and one extremely neurotic three-legged cat.

Sneak Preview: “Nobody joins a cult”

Stories from Jonestown, by Leigh Fondakowski, University of Minnesota Press, 2013, 334 pages)

Some of the children of Jonestown– “…the good intentions ended in such a horrific way.” Image: California Digital Library (cdlib.org)

The deaths of more than 900 people in Jonestown, Guyana in 1978 have been addressed before in this venue (See “November 18, 1978: The Horror of Jonestown,” posted November 15, 2012). Shortly thereafter, I received from the University of Minnesota Press an advanced reading copy (ARC)  of Stories from Jonestown, a book which–after reading it–I believe will become the capstone for the literature on this topic.

Why? This book is a collection of interviews with the actual survivors and other participants. This is important because most people, when they hear of Jonestown, or the Branch-Davidians, or any of the various headline-grabbing “cults” adopt a myopic view. These people are all “wackos,” “religious nuts,” people who are so far from the mainstream of humanity so as not to deserve consideration. Stories from Jonestown reveals the true picture of this tragedy, one for which those who entered into the bargain with the devil have to claim some responsibility but one in which most of the members were decent, intelligent human beings who just wanted to create a better world.

“Nobody joins a cult; nobody joins something they think is going to hurt them” intoned Debbie Layton (who escaped Jonestown 7 months before the end) in the opening scenes of Jonestown: Life and Death of the Peoples Temple (2006), and this book by playwright Leigh Fondakowski drives home that point quite clearly.

Yes, I said “playwright.” Fondakowski’s claim to fame is as one of a dozen or so members of the Tectonic Theater Project that produced “The Laramie Project,” a play about the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepherd in Wyoming. The play drew on hundreds of interviews with residents of Laramie, Wyoming and the surrounding area, news reports, and other sources. The play was also produced as a movie for HBO.

Stories from Jonestown is a compilation of interviews conducted for a similar project involving Jonestown, a play called “The People’s Temple, which was eventually performed at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, American Theatre Company, and the Guthrie Theater.

Whether you are interested in a play about this topic or not, if you want to understand the horror that was Jonestown with all of its human dimensions, you will want to read this book. Here you encounter first-person accounts of survivors, escapees, and members of Congressman Leo Ryan’s entourage whose visit to the jungle precipitated the violence that led to 918 deaths. Here you will meet men and women whose lives were initially made better by their participation in the temple, at least in the early days. Men and women of intelligence, vigor, and dedication. Most of them were decent human beings who just happened to think they had finally found a way for all people, black, white, or whatever, to live together in peace. They just had the misfortune to hitch their star to a man who eventually became unhinged.

To accuse them of having been “brainwashed” is too easy, according to one survivor:

“Brainwashing lets them off the hook morally. But it also takes away their humanity. They they are just robots, as if it was just a matter of mind control. To me, it is much more meaningful and humanizing to say: they made choices and they made bad choices.”

Among the most quoted in this book is Stephan Jones, the only full-blooded son of Jim and Marceline Jones. I tended to vacillate in my opinion of Stephan, who was feared by many in Jonestown as being one of his father’s ‘enforcers’ (although this is downplayed in his interviews). Jones was in Georgetown with the basketball team the night the lights went out in Jonestown, having refused to follow his father’s order to return. His mother begged him to, but he still refused. He has been conflicted ever since, wondering if he might have been able to prevent disaster. Later, he recounts how his father’s voice can be heard saying, “Mother, don’t do this.” I had always been of the impression that Jones was talking to some mother who objected to killing her child. Stephan reveals that Jones was talking to Marceline, the only person he called “mother,” who was trying to stop the killing but was restrained by Jones’ thugs. Somehow, that made me feel a little better about this woman who married a lunatic. Unfortunately, her protestations were useless.

The road that let to Jonestown was paved by the culture of the sixties, a culture in which people were questioning our fundamental attitudes–especially racism. The dream of a world in which black and white could live together in love was very real, and the social gospel preached by this Indiana-born preacher struck a chord in the hearts of many who had lost their way in life. There were many good things about the People’s Temple in the beginning, and this comes out in many of these interviews. These people were bonded, were very close, and were–at least at first–very happy. What, exactly, led it to go so wrong?

“We were going to convert the world to brotherhood. And that was it,” says one survivor. “That was the dream. That’s why it’s been so hard for me to talk or speak about People’s Temple, because the good intentions ended in such a horrific way. That’s why I don’t like to talk. I don’t like to talk, and I never could. How could I tell a fantasyland story with that ending?”

If anything is to be learned from Jonestown, it is that ideologies matter. I cite this horrific occurrence to educate my students in World Religions not to take seriously the attacks made on religion because of James Warren Jones. Jones did not preach religion, he hijacked it in order to preach his gospel of socialism. The Peoples Temple was perhaps the last bastion of the ‘social gospel’ movement that began in the early 20th century, but by the time Jones died he was a self-proclaimed Marxist-Communist who worshipped Chairman Mao and who sought his last refuge in Russia (they wouldn’t touch him).  He had long ago abandoned faith in God, if in fact he ever really had it.

In the end, Jones was cremated and his ashes scattered over the ocean from an airplane. No one will ever be able to create a shrine out of the last resting place of a man who sold hope but delivered insanity.

Stories from Jonestown is scheduled for release February 1, 2013.

Copyright 2013 Isaac Morris

What’s coming on The Morris Chair?

Here are the books you can expect to see discussed on The Morris Chair in the coming weeks:

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The Patient Ecstasy of Fraulein Braun, a novel by Lavonne Mueller, (Opus Books, 304 pages)

I will carry a “sneak peek” at this book about the woman who loved Hitler. The book won’t be published until April 30, 2013–the anniversary of Eva Braun’s marriage to Adolf Hitler. Their honeymoon lasted until the next day, when they both committed suicide.

A Christmas Carol – A Ghost Story of Christmas, by Charles Dickens (many publishers through the years)

I will examine how this little book by Dickens cemented the secular nature of the holiday and how it became perhaps the most loved Christmas story of all time.

Books I am reading which may appear in coming weeks include —

The Dervish, by Frances Kazan (Opus Books, Publication Date 2/13)

This will provide a “sneak peek” at a book about the first “Arab Spring” Here is the promo language from Barnes & Noble:

“The first Arab Spring: revolution and passion seethe and erupt in this action-packed romance during the dying days of the Ottoman Empire. Kazan’s novel takes us intimately behind the veil, to see and experience the Ottoman world, to let us view, from the “other” side, how the cultural and political antagonisms between the Occident and the Orient of the past century look. There are no easy villains or heroes in this story. Only ardent, unforgettable characters. An American war widow seeks emotional asylum with her sister at the American Consulate in Constantinople during the Allied occupation in 1919. Through a crossstitched pattern of synchronicity Kazan’s heroine becomes a vital thread in the fate of Mustafa Kemal (later Ataturk) and his battle for his country’s freedom.”

Manchester Bluff: A Civil War Novel, by J. D. Proffitt (Create Space, 2011, 426 pages)

I recently discovered this book written by a professor at Illinois College, Jacksonville, Illinois. Jim Proffitt grew up in Alexander, Illinois, a place far richer in history than I ever knew–even though my family came from there. This is a very fast read and one marked by detailed scholarship. I am sorry to just now be finding out about this one, but I will probably be reviewing it soon.