What kind of women could wed senior Nazis?

Joseph Goebells’ wife Magda 

As Hitler’s infamous propaganda minister from 1933 to 1945, the rabidly anti-Semitic Goebbels seized control of the media and the arts, including theatre and film. But his wife — chiefly remembered for the killing of their six children — led an extraordinary secret life at the heart of the Third Reich.

From the moment Magda met Joseph Goebbels, the erotic charge between them was intense. She’d started working at his Nazi propaganda department in 1930, and it wasn’t long before they became lovers.

Goebbels was enraptured by the stunning and sophisticated blonde: ‘It’s like I’m dreaming. So full of satisfied bliss,’ he wrote. What she saw in him was harder to imagine: short and born with a club foot, he was prone to making clumsy passes at good-looking women, who often reacted with revulsion.

Joseph Goebbels, pictured right, holding the hand of his son, Hellmut, along with German Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, centre, holding Helga, with Mr Goebbels’ wife Magda, and their daughter Hilda

Still, Magda had been electrified by his rhetoric at a Nazi rally, which doubtless fuelled her desire.

Magda, a rich divorcee, also had a much younger lover. She tried to end that relationship, but the besotted student turned up one day with a gun, threatening to kill her if she didn’t take him back.

There were further complications when Magda was introduced to Hitler in 1931. He confided to an aide that she’d made such a big impression that he wanted her to play ‘an important role in my life’.

But there was a problem: as leader of the Third Reich, he believed he must be single, dedicated only to the welfare of his people — hence any relationship with an unmarried woman would have to be clandestine. The solution was obvious: Magda needed to become Mrs Goebbels.

What Hitler wanted was a woman who could be like a wife — an intellectual, emotional and spiritual partner, though not a lover.

And Magda, already infatuated with him, was only too willing — even if that meant having to marry Goebbels, who was intensely jealous. ‘Magda loses herself a bit around the Boss . . . I am suffering greatly . . . I didn’t sleep a wink,’ he wrote in his diary.

However, after a series of meetings with Hitler and Magda, he agreed to get married. The benefits were huge: in return for Hitler seeing Magda whenever he wanted, the couple would be cemented into his inner circle.

Despite the outward appearance of a happy marriage, Goebbels was having an affair with dancer Lida Baarova, pictured

Despite the outward appearance of a happy marriage, Goebbels was having an affair with dancer Lida Baarova, pictured

They married in December 1931, with Hitler as best man. When Magda thanked him with a kiss, Hitler’s eyes were full of tears.

By the following year, the Goebbels apartment had become Hitler’s unofficial HQ. Magda fed him his favourite vegetarian food and delivered meals to his hotel. She may have hoped to seduce him. Hitler’s chauffeur certainly thought so. He once caustically remarked that when Magda was with his boss, you could ‘hear her ovaries rattle’.

Her marriage was already starting to founder.

Each of Magda’s successive pregnancies aggravated an existing heart condition and she was often ill, which left Goebbels free to chase women again.

Once the Nazis had seized power, Magda — as Hitler’s quasi wife — gave the first Mother’s Day radio address, proudly declaring that the German mother ‘instinctively’ understood Hitler’s ‘noble spiritual and moral goals’. Afterwards, she received so many letters from women that she had to hire two secretaries to deal with them all. Always impeccably groomed and made up, she was often photographed with her children for magazines as an example of the perfect Nazi family. And Hitler frequently dropped in to see her, celebrating birthdays, sharing trips to the coast and having discussions late into the night.

By 1937, Goebbels — now also in charge of the movie industry — was making liberal use of the casting couch and had plunged into a steamy affair with a 22-year-old actress, Lida Baarova. At first, Magda turned a blind eye and had the odd dalliance of her own.

It was her husband’s assistant Karl Hanke who told her that the infatuation with Lida was serious. Moreover, Hanke — who had a crush on Magda — produced a dossier detailing many of Goebbels’s other infidelities.

For her, these revelations coincided with a period of doubt. In conversations with a confidante, she expressed her concerns about the direction Nazism was taking.

She objected to the militarisation of German society, which was robbing it of its ‘culture’, its ‘mirth’ and its ‘joy’ and replacing them with ‘blind obedience, regulations and ‘commands’ — and she questioned Hitler’s judgment, especially the way he let the regime treat women as second-class citizens.

Magda Goebbels approached Adolf Hitler, pictured, in 1938 to tell him that he wanted to divorce the propaganda chief because of his philandering

Magda Goebbels approached Adolf Hitler, pictured, in 1938 to tell him that he wanted to divorce the propaganda chief because of his philandering 

She’d certainly had enough of Goebbels, telling Hitler in 1938 that she wanted a divorce. He was appalled and told his propaganda chief to dump Lida. In the end, the actress was sent back to Czechoslovakia and her films banned.

As for Magda, she’d started sleeping with her husband’s helpful assistant, and wasn’t at all sure she wanted Goebbels back.

During this period, she came close to a breakdown, and henceforth spent much of her time in clinics. There was at least enough of a reconciliation, however, to result in another pregnancy.

The truce didn’t last: after Magda gave birth to their sixth child, Goebbels cheated again. Unable to stop him, she played tricks on his girlfriends. One used a special key to enter a passageway, so Magda had the locks changed. She prank-called another, telling her that Goebbels would send a car to meet her at a crossroads in the Grunewald forest at 11pm. Magda let her wait there for an hour before telling her husband what she’d done.

She became even more depressed when Goebbels described what was going on in the death-camps — even though Hitler had instructed his lieutenants not to tell their wives.

‘It’s terrible, all the things he’s telling me now,’ Magda told her confidante. ‘I can’t bear it any more. You can’t imagine the awful things he’s tormenting me with.’

Shocked by what she’d learned, Magda was having doubts about Hitler: ‘He no longer listens to reason. It’s all going to end badly — it can’t possibly end otherwise.’

In February 1945, she asked one of Hitler’s doctors for poison for herself and her six children. Although according to the doctor, she ‘could not bear the thought of ending the lives of her children’; the idea drove her ‘crazy with grief and pain’. However blinded she may have been by her faith in Hitler, Magda was no fool. She knew that what had been done in Hitler’s name would never be forgiven, and the Soviets were unlikely to show her family any mercy.

Both she and Goebbels chose to join Hitler at his bunker in Berlin. Twenty-four hours after the Fuhrer’s suicide, their children were given cocoa laced with a powerful sedative.

Several accounts maintain that Magda poisoned her children herself. This seems unlikely: since moving into the bunker, she’d been trying to avoid them.

One of Hitler’s secretaries recalled that Magda ‘hardly had the strength to face her children with composure. Every meeting with them made her feel so terrible that she burst into tears’.

Hitler’s valet remembered seeing her waiting ‘nervously’ outside the room ‘until the door opened and the doctor came out. Their eyes met, Magda Goebbels stood up, silent and trembling. When the SS doctor nodded emotionally without speaking, she collapsed.’ Afterwards, Magda sat in her room, ashen-faced, playing solitaire and chain-smoking. At 8.40pm on May 1, 1945, she and Goebbels walked arm-in-arm into the garden.

Magda bit on her cyanide capsule. Her husband shot her in the head, swallowed his poison and turned the gun on himself. After their bodies were doused in petrol, the fire burned all night.

Martin Bormann’s wife Gerda

Known for his brutality, coarseness and virulent anti-Semitism, Bormann wielded enormous power as Hitler’s private secretary. He controlled access to the Fuhrer and was also in charge of Nazi party promotions and appointments.

Few women epitomised the Nazi ideal of womanhood better than Gerda Bormann. She wove her blonde hair into a plait, eschewed cosmetics and wore traditional Bavarian dress — as did all nine of her children. In the few images of them that survive, they look as if they’ve just stepped off the set of The Sound Of Music.

Martin Bormann, pictured, was Adolf Hitler's private secretary and an important figure in the Nazi regime

Martin Bormann, pictured, was Adolf Hitler’s private secretary and an important figure in the Nazi regime 

Yet Gerda was an unquestioning Nazi, programmed to obey her thuggish husband. So thoroughly had she been brainwashed by Nazi ideology that she never complained about his infidelities.

As far as Gerda was concerned, Bormann’s succession of brief affairs were merely the healthy expression of a man’s need to reproduce. She even reached out the hand of friendship to Hedwig Potthast, the secret mistress of SS chief Heinrich Himmler, who had also organised the extermination camps.

By 1944, unknown to his wife, he’d established his lover and their two children in a cottage. Gerda was only too pleased to accept an invitation to bring her own brood to the cottage for tea. After some pleasant conversation, Hedwig invited them all to the attic to see something special: furniture made from human body parts.

Gerda’s eldest son, Martin Adolf Bormann, later remembered how she ‘clinically and medically’ explained the process behind the making of a chair ‘whose seat was a human pelvis and the legs were human legs — on human feet’.

Hedwig also showed them copies of Hitler’s Mein Kampf, bound with human skin that had been peeled off the backs of inmates at Dachau concentration camp.

The children were ‘shocked and petrified,’ and Martin Adolf claimed his mother was ‘equally stricken’. Perhaps she was — but Gerda already knew all about these loathsome books because, she told the children, Himmler had offered their father one.

Bormann had refused to take it; Gerda said it was ‘too much for him’. Yet it’s doubtful the Bormanns cared about the fate of the Jews. In one of her letters, Gerda urged her husband to ensure that every German child realised ‘that the Jew is the Absolute Evil in this world’.

She’d been living in a Nazi bubble since she was a teenager, because her father was a friend of Hitler. ‘Uncle Adolf’ had taken great interest in the pretty young child, adopting a quasi-guardian role.

Hitler, pictured here in the Berghof, along with Eva Braun with Martin Borman, pictured in the back row with his wife Gerda

Hitler, pictured here in the Berghof, along with Eva Braun with Martin Borman, pictured in the back row with his wife Gerda 

Then at 20, she’d been seduced by Bormann, who was already poised to climb the Nazi career ladder. Hitler was a witness at their wedding; Gerda then produced children at a heroic rate.

Bormann delighted in making her organise parties, to which glamorous actresses were invited, and then banned her from attending.

According to a prominent Nazi, her husband was ‘the kind of man who takes delight in humiliating his wife in front of friends as if she was some lower form of being’. In moments of uncontrolled rage, he’d resort to violence against his wife and children. Two of the children were whipped because they were frightened by a dog.

Gerda didn’t fight back. Her duty, she believed, was simply to obey her husband.

In 1936, Bormann bought a three-storey cottage in the Bavarian Alps, close to Hitler’s Berghof hideaway. Locked in the high-security compound, Gerda was sealed from reality.

Seven years later, Bormann fell ‘madly in love’ with the actress Manja Behrens, pestering her until she succumbed. Manja, however, was concerned about his wife’s feelings. She needn’t have worried: Gerda was excited at the prospect of establishing a polygamous household.

What she proposed was that ‘one year M has a child, and the next year I do, so that you will always have a wife that is mobile. Then we’ll put all the children together in a house on a lake, and live together, and the wife who is not having a child will always be able to come and stay with you.’

She suggested they draw up a new marriage contract that would give Manja the same rights as her own. She even suggested such contracts should become Nazi policy in order to boost the birth-rate. Keen to put her ideas into practice, Gerda invited Manja to move in. But the actress struggled to adjust and eventually walked out.

In 1945, as the Allies closed in on Berlin, Martin Bormann was killed — probably by a shell from a Soviet tank. Gerda, who’d stayed behind at their cottage, painted a Red Cross on the roof of a school bus, and set off with her children, her sister-in-law and seven other infants for the South Tyrol.

There, they were met by the Nazis’ regional boss, who found them a home in a small village.

Though safe for the time being, Gerda was assailed by terrible pains. A local doctor recognised that she was in the advanced stages of ovarian cancer.

One day, a British Army major turned up on her doorstep. She panicked, thinking he was going to take her to a concentration camp. Instead, the major took her straight to an Italian hospital, where she had an operation.

It was too late. Gerda died on March 23, 1946, a few months shy of her 37th birthday, with all her fanatical beliefs intact.

Hermann Goering’s wife Emmy

Goering, an early recruit to fascism, was put in charge of the feared Nazi stormtroopers in 1923. He later supervised the rearmament of Germany and became head of the Luftwaffe. Hitler thought so highly of him that, in 1941, he decreed that Goering would be his successor.

As courtships go, Hermann Goering’s was lacking in romance. The first present he gave 38-year-old actress Emmy Sonnemann was a photo of his dead wife Carin.

Then, when Emmy visited his flat, he showed her the room he kept as a shrine. A Swedish countess to whom Goering had been married for nine years, Carin had died of tuberculosis the year before, in 1931. Her ‘beautiful eyes looked down from innumerable frames on every wall,’ Emmy recalled.

As courtships go, Hermann Goering¿s was lacking in romance. The first present he gave 38-year-old actress Emmy Sonnemann was a photo of his dead wife Carin

As courtships go, Hermann Goering’s was lacking in romance. The first present he gave 38-year-old actress Emmy Sonnemann was a photo of his dead wife Carin

Nevertheless, convinced that Goering was the right man for her, she was soon regularly staying the night. And she clearly had some knowledge of what was taking place in the concentration camps.

At the time, many German actors were Jewish, so her friends and colleagues were often targeted. To her credit, she begged Goering to save them from deportation, and he complied.

She also pleaded for the life of a bi-sexual, Left-wing theatre director — and urged her lover to promote him instead. It was a clever move: when Goering made him director of the Prussian State Theatre, Emmy became its new leading lady — quite a jump up from her previous provincial career.

By 1934, her profile was rising, but her lover was still obsessed with his late wife. He had Carin’s remains transported across Germany for reburial, her zinc-lined coffin travelling by special train under armed guard. In every town it passed through, the church bells rang and the stations were draped in black.

The site for Carin’s new resting place was in the grounds of Goering’s country mansion, Carinhall, which had a 150ft-long swimming pool, a movie theatre, a gymnasium, a map room, and a vast banqueting hall serviced by uniformed footmen.

Any awkwardness Emmy may have felt about occupying a home named after Goering’s first wife was trivial compared with the thrill of living in such splendour.

Adolf Hitler attended Herman Goering's wedding in 1935 and was greeted by 200 military aircraft circling the sky above Berlin

Adolf Hitler attended Herman Goering’s wedding in 1935 and was greeted by 200 military aircraft circling the sky above Berlin

In 1935, Goering proposed. On the day of the wedding, attended by Hitler, every street in Berlin was decorated, all traffic was suspended and 200 military aircraft circled in the sky.

Firmly established as the Nazis’ first couple, the Goerings swaggered through Berlin’s social scene. Goering often greeted visitors in a toga and Turkish slippers or one of his ever more elaborate uniforms.

A typical example of their ostentatious behaviour was the party they held to mark Goering’s 43rd birthday in 1936. Two thousand guests enjoyed a full orchestra, champagne on tap and a tombola whose prizes included miniature tanks and machine guns made of marzipan. Hitler, who had no wish to be upstaged, stayed at home.

Certainly, Emmy delighted in upstaging Goebbels and his wife Magda with glittering social events. No matter how hard the Goebbelses tried to shine, they could never match Goering’s vast income, which came from bribes, kickbacks and outright theft from major German companies.

The couple had no children and jokes spread across Germany that Goering was unable to rise to the occasion. Then, at 42, Emmy gave birth to a girl, Edda, giving rise to jokes about the child’s paternity.

A typical one went: A senior air force official asks Goering what they should do to celebrate if the baby is a girl. Goering replies, ‘A 100-plane fly-past.’ And if it’s a boy? ‘A 1,000-plane fly-past.’ And if there’s no child? ‘Court-martial my adjutant.’

Goering’s power began to wane in 1941, when it became evident that his Luftwaffe planes had failed to bring Britain to her knees. By 1944, his loss of influence was having a dire effect on Emmy’s efforts to help Jewish friends. When she implored Heinrich Himmler, the chief architect of the Holocaust, to save an actress friend and her husband, he agreed — then sent them to the gas chambers.

As the regime crumbled in 1945, Goering was picked up by the Americans to await trial at Nuremberg. On the evening before he was due to be hanged, he killed himself with cyanide. His wife could not comprehend how such a man who was ‘devotion and goodness incarnate’ could have been treated so harshly. Before Emmy died in 1973, aged 80, she wrote a book about her life. ‘A woman in love thinks only of her partner’s success, and it is of little importance to her how he obtains it,’ she said.

Her wilful blindness was typical of many Germans who benefited from Hitler’s regime, preferring to ignore its brutal excesses and look the other way. But Emmy, of course, had benefited far more than anyone else. 

  • Nazi Wives by James Wyllie is published by The History Press, £20. © James Wyllie 2019. To order a copy for £16, call 01603 648155 or go to mailshop.co.uk. FREE delivery on all orders. Offer valid until December 6, 2019.


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