Review | Nazi Wives: The Women at the Top of Hitler’s Germany – James Wyllie

About the Book

Goering, Goebbels, Himmler, Heydrich, Hess, Bormann–names synonymous with power and influence in the Third Reich. Perhaps less familiar are Carin, Emmy, Magda, Margarete, Lina, Ilse and Gerda…

These are the women behind the infamous men–complex individuals with distinctive personalities who were captivated by Hitler and whose everyday lives were governed by Nazi ideology. Throughout the rise and fall of Nazism these women loved and lost, raised families and quarreled with their husbands and each other, all the while jostling for position with the Fuhrer himself. Until now, they have been treated as minor characters, their significance ignored, as if they were unaware of their husbands’ murderous acts, despite the evidence that was all around them: the stolen art on their walls, the slave labor in their homes, and the produce grown in concentration camps on their tables.

James Wyllie’s Nazi Wives explores these women in detail for the first time, skillfully interweaving their stories through years of struggle, power, decline and destruction into the post-war twilight of denial and delusion. 

288 pages (hardcover)
Published on November 3, 2020
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A while ago, I read a book about Ravensbruck, a female concentration camp a bit outside of Berlin. It is, hands down, one of the best books about concentration camps I’ve read yet, being more a biography of the camp itself, and its many changes, than any specific people inside it (though it does follow specific people). Anyway, as part of this book, the author was talking about this little tiny town, situated on a lake, outside of the camp.

Now, a whole lot of the people who worked in this camp lived in that town, but more than that, Himmler, the guy who orchestrated the “Final Solution” had a mistress in that town. They ended up having two kids together. Whenever he would go tour Ravensbruck, he’d stay at her house for a while and for some reason, that fact kind of blew my mind. I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me until that point that these people had families, and children, and wives, and friends, and people they loved, but that book really got my mind churning on that fact. The idea of Himmler going home and eating a nice dinner with his mistress and their son and daughter after seeing all those people in the concentration camp really boggled my mind.

What kind of woman would be married to someone like that? 

And yes, I know most of them claimed to not know much, but I really find that a bit hard to believe, especially after reading this book. Perhaps they didn’t know everything, but they knew enough. I mean, Lina Heydrich had people from concentration camps work in the gardens around her house, and when she couldn’t beat them hard enough, she’d have her SS guards do it for her. So yeah, they knew. They knew enough.

Margaret had seen press coverage about the death camps and knew her husband would be blamed; facing the prospect of having to account for his actions, she chose to plead ignorance, and told Stringer that she was ‘just a woman’ who ‘did not understand politics’

Anyway, so the whole idea of these women married to the men at the top of the Nazi food chain really burrowed under my skin and when I saw this book was coming out, I knew I had to read it. I wanted to sort of see into the minds of the people closest to those monsters at the top.

Nazi Wives covers the lives of a handful of women at the top of the government, starting with how they met their husbands, and the life from there. What surprised me, perhaps, is how little these women really had in common. Some of them were friends with each other, some of them really kept themselves on the periphery. Himmler’s wife was probably the most removed, her and her daughter living elsewhere, while her husband spent most of his time with his mistress, Hedwig. Their marriage, early on, didn’t work, but instead of getting a divorce, they decided to stay together for the sake of their kid, and their friendship seems to be quite firm, despite their failing romantic relationship.

Magda Goebbles was probably the wife I was most wanting to read about. I didn’t know, for example, that she was basically selected to be the Nazi Party’s “first woman” as it were, nor that her relationship with her womanizing husband was so miserable she was constantly threatening divorce, but Hitler refused to allow them to divorce and so they stayed together, always fighting, always circling the same issue. Goebbles had a long and evolved relationship with an actress at one point. He’d also bring his mistresses home, and Magda would change the locks on the house, or call them pretending to be someone else and tell them to meet her husband in some weird location, and the leave them waiting there, sometimes for hours, until she told her husband what she’d done. 

For me there is no alternative. Our beautiful idea is being destroyed, and with it goes everything in life I knew to be fine, worthy of admiration, noble and good. Life will not be worth living in the world that will come after Hitler and National Socialism. Therefore, I have brought the children with me. They are too precious for the life that will come after us.

(Magda’s letter to her son from her first marriage telling him she was planning on suicide)

Eva Braun gets touched on a few times, though not much. She, when compared to the rest of the book, is probably the least interesting figure and I think highlighting her life so infrequently, kept her from overshadowing everyone else in the book. Out of everyone detailed here, I think Eva Braun might have known the least about what was going on than anyone. Kept in her bubble, I think she rarely had contact with the wider world and was rather happy to keep it that way. Her days were full of swimming in lakes and tea time and the like. Hitler was seldom there, and when he spoke to her, I got the idea that they spoke of things that were very unrelated to WWII. Furthermore, when everyone else was having things rationed, Eva Braun never had an issue getting hold of things like makeup, and new clothes (she wore three dresses a day), so I wonder, honestly, if she even realized rationing was happening to the average person. When she finally went into the bunker in Berlin with Hitler, she was absolutely shocked by what she had seen. 

Nazi Wives isn’t just about their lives, though. There is a wider picture being painted regarding things that were happening in the broader world around them. When Heydrich is assassinated, for example, the author does a great job at painting just why he was where he was, and what was happening in the area at the time that led to his assassination, and how said death resulted in the horrible medical tests I read about in Ravensbruck (the book I cite at the start of this review).

I learned a lot about just what kind of iron control Hitler and his cronies had over the average person is surreal. Himmler had to research each person entering a marriage to make sure their genetic line was aryan enough. If divorce was requested, he had to approve it. If divorce was requested between people in the upper echelons of the government, Hitler had to directly approve it (which became the bane of the Goebbles’ relationship).

77 per cent of the SS leadership cadre were married, as opposed to around 44 per cent of fthe general population, and any SS man who wanted to leave his wife had to get Himmler’s permission; if they defied him, they were expelled from the SS.

Perhaps one small aside in this book that stuck to my bones was when Himmler took his wife and daughter to Dachau to see the garden, and both of them talked about how beautiful it is, and that really threw me through a loop. They went to a death camp, where people were literally dying all around them, but golly gee, wasn’t the garden beautiful. My cognitive dissonance when reading this aside was truly something to behold.

Gudrun wrote to her father after their visit and told him she’d seen ‘the large nursery, the mill, the bees’ and ‘how all the herbs were processed’, gushing about how ‘magnificent’ and ‘lovely’ it all was. For Margaret, the plantation was the end result of the plans she and her husband had nurtured in the early days of their relationship, the homeopathic nurse and the agriculture student who wanted their own small herb garden. To see their dream realised on such a grand scale must have been deeply gratifying. Not once did she stop to consider what it cost in human suffering: the back-breaking work, long hours, poor food rations, severe cold and outbreaks of deadly diseases.

Furthermore, the author discusses how each woman deals with the war a bit differently. Goering and his wife, for example, lived in a sort of fantasy world, which helped them escape from the realities of the war happening around them. A few of them tried to get Jewish friends out of the country, to safer locations. There were even instances were Himmler was called to make sure some of their Jewish friends went to “good camps” rather than the death camps (Himmler lied, but I’m sure none of us are shocked about that).

For Emmy, all the roleplaying in which she indulged served to conceal the ugly truth of what Goering actually did for a living: his turbocharged Luftwaffe saw its first action in the Spanish Civil War fighting alongside Franco’s right-wing armies and was responsible for the flattening of the small town of Guernica. Henriette Hoffmann – who married Baldur von Schirach, the Hitler Youth leader, in 1932 – made a psychologically acute observation about Emmy’s flight into a fantasy world: ‘She would have been content if … the uniforms had been stage costumes, her palace the scenery, the noise of war the sound effects behind the scenes and her magnificent presents only props. She never wanted reality.’ 

I highlighted a ton of this book. A lot of information that I just didn’t know before. Small details that help paint a portrait of these women and the times they lived in. I don’t know what I went into this expecting, but none of them were innocent, and I think (again, this is just my personal opinion) the claims of ignorance after it was all over were lies. Himmler’s wife and daughter Gudrun, for example, remained loyal to his memory for the rest of their lives and when she saw the media reports after the war, she knew what would fall on her husband. Magda Goebbles murder of her children and subsequent suicide was detailed, as was Hitler’s and Eva’s. Then the Nuremburg trials after, and life after that was touched on, too.

There are two things to note that keep this book from getting five stars.

First, occasionally this book felt a bit scattered, and while I don’t think there was really any other way to go about it, I would have enjoyed a bit more depth in places and perhaps a bit more of a coherent narrative. I do think the book would have had to have been longer to accomplish that, but I also feel like it needed it to get the depth I was really looking for.

Secondly, there was a story in the book about how someone went to visit Hedwig (Himmler’s mistress outside of Ravensbruck) and she brought them inside to see a copy of Mein Kampf bound with human skin taken from the back of a Jew in Dachau, and a chair made out of human bones. 

After tea, Hedwig invited them all to the attic to see something special: furniture made from human body parts. Gerda’s eldest son, Martin Adolf Bormann – who was home from school for the holidays – remembered how Hedwig ‘clinically and medically’ explained the process behind the construction of a chair ‘whose seat was a human pelvis and the legs were human legs – on human feet’. Hedwig also had copies of Mein Kampf bound with human skin that had been peeled off the backs of Dachau inmates. ‘Shocked and petrified’, Martin Adolf and his siblings went outside with their mother, who was ‘equally stricken’. Gerda told them that when Himmler tried to give Bormann a similarly unique edition of Mein Kampf he refused to take it; Gerda said it was ‘too much for him’.

Now, I read this and thought, “That’s something I’d like to research and read more about” and so I did, and I found absolutely no corroborating evidence anywhere that any of these things actually existed. It was one story, told by one person (and widely told, at that. The story is known.), and while his story never changed, arguments were presented in the things I read that if something like that had actually existed, more than one person would have known about it. So perhaps it did exist, and perhaps it didn’t. I found it rather questionable that something without firm evidence being portrayed as truth was rather… well, it should be noted. Perhaps that actually happened, and that chair and book actually existed, but if so, I found no evidence of it in my various searches, and it makes me wonder what other hearsay tidbits are in this book, presented as fact.

All in all, this was a very illuminating, disturbing read.

Recommended, especially if this sort of thing interests you.

4/5 stars

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