Eva in the Bunker [excerpts]
The next morning, April 30, Gretchen heard the bad news from a staff member. At 5 AM Willi Johannmeier, Bormann’s adjutant Wilhelm Sander, and Acting Press Chief Heinz Lorenz were ordered to leave the bunker, each with a copy of Hitler’s Last Will and Testament, which he had dictated the day before to his personal secretary. Willi’s copy was to go to General Schoener in the south, those of Zander and Lorenz to Admiral Donitz in the north and to the Nazi Party headquarters in Munich.
Hitler’s orders were that they were to leave well before dawn. His maniacal conviction held that the world could not survive without his final words, that future generations would be cheated if they were denied his death-bed harangue about purifying the world of Jews, restoring the Fatherland’s greatness after its unconscionable defeat in not one but now two world wars. Nor could he let them forget his self-fashioned image of the loving husband who gave his all to his wife Germany, willing his modest fortune and belongings to the Party, anticipating a Fourth Reich. Unwittingly, in his obsession with his legacy he denied Gretchen and Willi even a momentary exchange of goodbye as they passed in the hallway. Nor would Gretchen be able to hear about Willi’s meeting with the solider last night behind the Chancellery. If there was any plan to escape, it would have to wait until Willi’s return.
The messengers’ journey would be a perilous one. The three men made slow progress and had to spend the night of April 30 on an island in the Havel Lake, waiting in vain, as it turned out, for a plane from Donitz to rescue them. When the Russians bombed the island, the three seized a canoe and paddled out onto the lake to avoid the fire, at length taking refuge on a small yacht which, unfortunately, had no sails. Later they saw a three-engine Jukers 52 seaplane, sent by Donitz, alight on the water, and tried to reach it in a small boat. But just as they were about to board, the Russians began shelling the plane; the pilot panicked and took off. He would later tell Donitz he had failed to find the men. And the report that came back to the bunker early the next morning was that none of the messengers had reached their destination, that all three had died.
When Gretchen heard the tragic news from an officer who interrupted their late breakfast on the 30th, she burst into tears, though she managed to pass off the response to Willi’s death as the result of exhaustion and despair born of her concern for the Führer, especially after his talk about suicide. The deception seemed to work, although she was concerned that some might question the connection between her emotional reaction no more than two minutes after getting the report. She had tried to hold back her feelings, remaining composed as she walked slowly back to her room, but halfway down the hall had collapsed.
“Eva, let me help you to your feet. Can I get you something to drink?”
“No, no, Joseph,” she told the Minister of Propaganda, who was busier than ever these day sending out glowing reports of Nazi victories, daring rescues, quarreling among the Allies, and news of Hitler’s high spirits, fabrications which went beyond anything he had done even during better days.
“It’s just…everything! These three men dead. People dying all about us. And the Führer’s, my husband’s—talking about death.”
“Yes.” Goebbels replied, uncharacteristically confining himself to a single word.
“You heard what he said yesterday at the wedding breakfast.”
Another atypical “yes”.
“I don’t know if I can take any more of this!”
“Always at your service,” Goebbels replied, like a dutiful servant. But in this instance did that servant suspect the mistress? Gretchen could not be sure, but as she turned to go into her room, still playing the distraught bride to conceal her grieving inside, she remembered her mother’s standard response to any situation that could not be altered. “Nothing to be done.”
She did not join Hitler for lunch in the map room, as she usually did. Besides, she felt embarrassed appearing before the diners as “Hitler’s wife.” Rudi dead. Willi now dead. Was this to be her fate? To have the man, the men she loved die? And what use was she now to the Dove Society, with no way to get news out, and no way that Schmeling, still at the Berghof, could get news to her. Besides, what else could she do further to ruin Hitler, this physical and emotional wreck absurdly moving about his phantom armies and making preparations for what he was now hinting, indeed doing more than just hinting, would be their own double suicide? Die with him? The very thought sickened her. If she were to die, she would die alone, by her own hand. Alone.
She realized there was no escape. The one chance had been lost when Willi was forced to go on that absurd, self-aggrandizing mission for Hitler. At least her mother was alive, at the Dove Society’s safe house, though it was disturbing she had no news of her for months. She could only assume Stefanie was alive. Had to assume. Again, her mother’s saying came to mind—“Nothing to be done.”
As long as she could cling to this hope, she would live. Hitler, obviously, planned to take his life very soon. Early in the day Erich Kempka, the transport officer and his chauffeur, had been ordered to find 200 liters of petrol and store them in the Chancellery garden, the fuel for what Hitler planned as their Wagnerian funeral pyre. But as long as her mother was alive, she would not join him. Maybe, she laughed silently, she’d kill him herself, saving the wretched little man the effort. After all, his hand shook so badly he’d probably botch the job. What was more ludicrous than a botched suicide?
Alone in her room, Gretchen imagined Willi lying dead somewhere west of he city, the Russians gloating over the body, finding Hitler’s Will on his person, and dismissing the messenger as just another “stooge” of the German leader. She knew differently, of course, knew Willi’s feelings about the war, knew him as the man who wanted to make things grow, who tended roses in the little greenhouse in the clearing.
Her reverie was rudely interrupted as Hitler entered the room, and hobbled to her side with the simple, “It’s time, Eva. We will first say goodbyes.”
Accompanied by Gretchen, he bid silent farewells to the company assembled for the occasion: Bormann, Goebbels, Rattenhuber, Hoegl, Linz, Guncsche, and the four women, Christian, Junge, Krueger, and Manzially. Magda Goebbels, unnerved by the approaching death of her children, the couple’s final martial act, stayed in her room. Earlier, she had barged into Hitler’s suite to bid a private farewell.
It was now three in the afternoon. Gretchen knew what he had in store. Fashioning her as a tragic heroine, he wanted her to play an Isolde to his Tristan. But she was determined not to assume that role. It didn’t fit, was too much of a “stretch,” to use the actor’s term for going beyond the limits of one’s talent or desire. She would have to improvise for the occasion, but she would not take her life. He would die. Not her. With Willi dead, she had decided to stay there in the bunker until the Russians came. The worst they could do was rape or kill her, but without Willi, she placed little value on her own life, or happiness. And her mother was safe. Himmler’s police may have crippled but surely could not entirely eliminate the Dove Society. Stefanie was safe, secure, waiting for her! Not a particularly religious person, for Gretchen this was a matter of what others would call faith. No, she would be an audience to Hitler’s death, but she herself would not follow him, not this husband who was no husband.
His once potent voice reduced to a croak, he whispered hoarsely, “There is a small pistol for you.” Then, like the solicitous husband, he added, “And a cyanide capsule—just in case you should need it.”
It was all Gretchen could do to feign a grateful, “Thank you, dear.”
What would the real Eva Braun have done, that simple woman so lacking in self-confidence, so enamored of the Führer, still the shop girl he had rescued from obscurity for a life of…what? Snide remarks from his associates, the jealousy of their wives. Eva Braun, the sad young woman who tried to carve out a passable existence through exercise and photography and watching movies and shallow talk. She suspected the real Eva Braun would have been the model German hausfrau, like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra as she follows her Antony in taking her life, embracing death willingly, even joyfully, “as a lover’s pinch which hurts and is desired.”
But not Gretchen Kuntz, not the daughter of the patriot Stefanie Jantzen.
As they entered the small sitting room leading to Hitler’s bedroom, Gretchen saw that he had arranged the tools of the wished-for suicides like a surgeon’s assistant laying out the instruments for an operation. In the center of the twoseater sofa was Hitler’s favorite Walther pistol. This was the very gun that Goebbels in his press releases had claimed Hitler held aloft as he encouraged the remnants of his troops in the defense of Berlin. To its side was the small pistol he had mentioned, and the glass vial of cyanide.
They sat down, the various tool of the trade separating them. For a few minutes Hitler was silent. Then, staring straight ahead and in a voice barely audible, he broke into his deathbed speech. It was like that rambling after-dinner talk the night at the Berghof, where he had moved illogically from topic to topic, concluding with a diatribe against women spies, then suddenly bolting from the table. But this time phrases, a few words strung together replaced sentences.
“The sweet roles. Bavaria.”
“She did … tricks. Good dog. And now …”
“The cold, frozen, statues. Wanted to retreat, but …”
“Not the Paris Opera. If only we Germans could build like that!”
“Buddies. In the forest. Exploring.”
“Wendt will come. And the weapons.”
His mind had snapped, and Gretchen hoped maliciously that he would remember enough to go through with his promise. She could sometimes complete the scattered subjects, flesh them out, but there was no way she could make sense of the order. It was as if happy memories, regrets, confessions, picture were emptying out of his mind, that palsied stricken body before her exposing its inwards to the stale light of the bedroom. Outside she could her the groan of the generator, and an occasional muffled conversation in the hall.
Then, with a groan he lifted his left hand, touching her on the knee. “My Eva. Tshapperl. Three. Three. Loved. All dead. Geli, the pistol. And you.”
He had said three and Gretchen now prodded what memory he had left with a simple “Three?”
“Never would love me. Years ago. When young. Passed me by. There on the corner. Never. Linz. Me, the Führer. Never noticed me. Never loved me. Never.”
At first Gretchen regretted asking about this third woman. Perhaps she was just another Führer hostess. Some anonymous woman from the past, who probably with good cause had rejected this ugly little man, this would-be lover, ugly in his youth, uglier still in what he planned would be his final minutes, here in this squalid room, an ugly old man delivering an incoherent death-bed speech.
With great difficulty, he lifted the Walther pistol his right hand, steadying himself by pressing his left hand against the arm of his chair. Gretchen hoped he would end it, not just his wretched life, a “life unworthy to be lived,” she thought, parodying the obscene justification for his euthanasia policies, but also end this mad babbling—and soon. If he did what she hoped he’d do, then, always the good actress, she would cry out for help, explain while sobbing to anyone rushing into the room that she had tried to stop him, perhaps even add a nice touch: she had agreed to his idea of a double suicide—hence the small pistol and capsule beside her—but, seeing him dead, was now too distraught to follow through. Then, later, she would flee the bunker with the few who remained, somehow making her way to the Allies, and—her fond hope—after the war reuniting with her mother.
Was he waiting for her to go first, to make sure she had obeyed his final wish? Suddenly, reverting back to his last words and pulling a name from deep inside his brain, he cried out, “Stefanie. Rejected.”
Once again, a single word, a single question from Gretchen, “Stefanie?”
This man, who used to regale the military with his meticulous, detailed knowledge of guns, firing capacities, the otherwise humdrum statistics of weaponry, now supplied the name that cut Gretchen to the heart.
“Stefanie. Jantzen.” Before she could react, he went on, the words jagged. “Rejected. Married. Soldier. Left me. But I. Ravensbrück. Dead! I got her. All dead. Only you now, Eva. Two gone. Now you. Only–”
Gretchen grabbed the murderer’s right hand and shoved the Walther into his mouth. Immobilized with the shock of what she was doing, his face, already pale, became a death mask, his left hand still twitching wildly. She would not tell him that Stefanie was her mother. She would not dignify the occasion with that dear martyr’s name. She placed her middle finger on the trigger.
“My Eva!” he cried, incredulous at what was happening. He repeated her name. “Eva. Why?”
“I’m not Eva.” And with that she pressed the trigger and smiled.
As he slumped to the side of the sofa, bright red streamed from his temple, Gretchen Kuntz put the cyanide capsule in her mouth and bit down, releasing into the air the poison’s sweet almond scent.