Three days before the end of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Emmy Göring and her husband Hermann – who would become Hitler’s second in command – held a spectacular event for hundreds of guests that featured a moonlit ballet, a fairground with roundabouts, a café and beer tents, and a procession of white horses, donkeys, and actors dressed as peasants.
This was not the first or last extravaganza hosted by Emmy and her husband during their years as one of the Reich’s most prominent couples, parading around Berlin like an Emperor and Empress from ancient times. Emmy was suited to life in the spotlight: she’d been a professional actress for more than a decade by the time she met Göring in 1932, while he was still mourning the death of his first wife Carin, a devoted Nazi.
After Hitler seized power, Göring took control of the prestigious Berlin State Theatre and Emmy became lead actress, starring in several long-running comedies. Emmy finally quit the stage after she and Göring married in 1935 at a ceremony of royal proportions. According to the British Ambassador “the streets were decorated; all traffic was suspended. Whilst two hundred military aircraft circled in the sky”.
Emmy’s luxury lifestyle was bankrolled by her husband – besides Hitler, he was the wealthiest Nazi – who exploited his positions as both head of the air force and much of the rearmament programme to siphon cash from their budgets, which he topped up with illicit bribes from manufacturers keen to win contracts. Disinterested in her husband’s day job, Emmy never questioned where all the money was coming from. She simply revelled in her role as one of the Reich’s leading ladies.
Keeping up appearances
Three days after the Görings lorded it over their extravagant Olympic party, Magda and Joseph Goebbels (the latter being Hitler’s propaganda maestro) presided over their own event to mark the climax of the Olympics. The setting was Peacock Island, a magical, wooded nature reserve with lanterns decorating tree-lined pathways. There was a barbecue, fireworks and a dance band.
These lavish events are just one example of the ongoing contest between the Goebbels and the Görings to win the hearts of the German people. Though the Goebbels could never quite match their rivals’ grandeur, they had one distinct advantage: their close relationship with Hitler himself. Göring may have been one of the Führer’s most faithful lieutenants, but Emmy was not an enthusiastic Nazi; nor was she particularly smitten by Hitler. Magda, on the other hand, was infatuated with Hitler, and he was fascinated by her.
This intimacy meant the threesome spent a lot of downtime together – whether sharing summer breaks or seasonal holidays – but this cosy arrangement had its drawbacks. The slow emergence of Eva Braun as Hitler’s steady, if secret, girlfriend caused tension, as she and Magda were extremely jealous of each other. And then, when Magda and her husband’s marriage hit the rocks due to his affair with a Czech actress, Hitler had no qualms about personally intervening and ordering them to stay together no matter what.
Who was Eva Braun?
In 1929, Hitler met a pure-blonde, athletic looking teenager called Eva Braun. Though Hitler was already in a relationship with Geli Raubel – his half-niece – he befriended Eva. Their casual flirtation became much more serious after Geli’s death in 1931; soon after, Eva became Hitler’s secret lover.
Up until 1935, Hitler had rarely had time for Eva. Feeling rejected and abandoned, Eva’s isolated situation only changed after her second suicide attempt. Hitler finally took notice; he brought Eva out of hiding and gave her the room adjoining his at the Berghof, his palatial residence in the Bavarian mountains.
Eva slowly established herself as the lady of the house. However, she wasn’t allowed to meet visiting VIPs or anybody outside of the inner circle. As Hitler was always surrounded by people, they were hardly ever alone together. In the last years of the war, Eva filled her days shooting home movies, swimming and hosting tea parties. But in April 1945, she decided to join Hitler in his Berlin bunker and stay with him to the end. The day before they took their lives, Hitler and Eva married; the unknown mistress had guaranteed her place in history. She was 33 years old.
Another less public rivalry than the one between Magda and Emmy was also being played out during the Olympics. By 1936, Margaret Himmler and Lina Heydrich’s husbands ran the SS, the Gestapo and the civilian police, and together they made a formidable team, unlike their wives who were locked in a bitter struggle to be recognised as top SS wife.
Thanks to her husband, Margaret was the more senior wife and she was determined to make sure everybody in the SS clan respected that. Lina, however, resented playing second fiddle to a woman she considered to be her inferior, and called Margaret a “narrow minded humourless blonde”. At one point, Margaret allegedly tried to force her husband to persuade Heydrich to dump Lina, but Himmler avoided the issue, unwilling to jeopardise his working relationship with Lina’s husband.
At the Olympics, Lina entered first; she and Heydrich got much better seats and much better treatment throughout the games than Margaret and her husband. Their VIP status was due to the fact that Heydrich was on the German Olympic Committee; as an accomplished fencer and athlete, he was chosen to represent the regime. For two weeks – and at the earlier Winter Olympics – Lina enjoyed the private aircraft and fleets of cars that whisked her around, and relished the stunning banquet thrown by the International Olympic Committee to celebrate the opening of the games.
As the athletics got under way in the Olympic stadium, Ilse Hess and her husband Rudolf – the Nazi Party deputy leader – watched a number of events from their front row seats. Yet despite Ilse and her husband’s longevity in the movement (they had fallen under Hitler’s spell in 1920 when they were just students) and absolute faith in his ideology, they did not bother to stage any official functions or glittering parties during the competition; that just wasn’t their style.
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Ilse and Hess were obsessed with maintaining what they believed were the moral and spiritual values at the core of Nazism and to remain untainted by the corruption that flourished within the leadership cadre. They stuck to a modestly comfortable middle-class lifestyle; Ilse told her husband that they’d “never sell” their “birthright as idealists for the sake of external things”.
And so Ilse kept her public appearances to the minimum required, whether it be the party rally in Nuremberg, the annual Wagner jamboree at the Bayreuth Festival, or performing civic duties. Nevertheless, Ilse remained active behind the scenes and her often patronising and judgemental attitude grated on many, including Hitler, who couldn’t bear women expressing opinions of any kind.
Ironically, the wife who most closely resembled the Nazis’ ideal woman – Gerda Bormann – wasn’t even at the 1936 Olympics. Gerda had ten children, confined herself to domestic matters, and was totally subservient to her husband Martin Bormann – Hitler’s right-hand man and problem solver.
Gerda first met Hitler when she was only 12 years old. Her father, a career soldier, was a committed Nazi and Hitler was a frequent visitor to their home. Aged 19, after a brief courtship, she married Bormann: Gerda’s whole life had taken place in a Nazi bubble, and it was precisely because she was such a model housewife and mother that she stayed away from the Olympics.
The games end
Overall, the 1936 Olympics was a significant success for the Nazis. Four years later, the games were cancelled: Europe was at war. But as the conflict progressed and the Allies began closing in on victory, the wives may well have been wondering what price they would have to pay for the regime’s annihilation of the Jews.
By spring 1942, all the key figures in the regime knew that the Final Solution had been set in motion; by the following summer the death camps had accounted for the vast majority of the victims of the Holocaust. Hitler had forbidden his cohorts from mentioning the subject to their wives. Whether they did or not is impossible to know for sure; even if this ghastly topic did not feature in their diaries or letters, it still could have cropped up in private conversation.
Both Ilse Hess and Lina Heydrich later claimed their husbands couldn’t have known about the Final Solution because they were no longer on the scene when it began. In May 1941, Ilse’s husband flew on a doomed solo mission to Scotland to make peace between Germany and the UK. He was immediately apprehended and spent the rest of the war in captivity.
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Because Hess was absent during the Holocaust, he was spared the hangman’s noose at the post-war Nuremberg Trials. Instead, Hess was given life imprisonment, a sentence Ilse fought to overturn for the next 40 years until her husband’s suicide in 1987.
On 27 May 1942, Heydrich was attacked on the outskirts of Prague by Czech agents – trained and parachuted in by the British – and subsequently died of his wounds. On that basis, Lina denied that Heydrich had any responsibility for the Holocaust, even though he’d ordered the slaughter of hundreds and thousands of Jews and other civilians before the gas chambers had came into operation – and had given his seal of approval to the Final Solution. Yet Lina insisted that her husband was not fully aware of what was being planned and declared that he’d died with his honour intact.
Margaret Himmler chose to put all the blame on Hitler’s shoulders. Whatever her husband may or may not have done, he was just following the Führer’s orders, she said. She also claimed total ignorance when questioned about what she knew. Yet Margaret was the only leading wife to have seen inside the concentration camp system; she visited Dachau several times to inspect its huge herb garden and also toured Ravensbrück, the women’s camp. Rather than comment on the experience, Margaret chose to stay silent.
Despite the overwhelming evidence against Göring, Emmy refused to believe her husband had had anything to do with Nazi war crimes. From early on, Emmy had gone out of her way to protect Jewish friends and showbiz colleagues, using Göring’s power as leverage. But as his authority ebbed away (Göring had been blamed for the Luftwaffe’s failure to subdue Britain and prevent Allied air raids) Emmy was no longer capable of helping anybody. Of all the top wives, she was the only one to express any guilt or regret about what had been done in Hitler’s name, and acknowledged that when she and her husband “saw injustices being done” they should “have put up stronger resistance, especially … over the Jewish question”.
Magda Goebbels was under no illusions about the scale of the genocide being perpetrated; her husband couldn’t keep the secret to himself. Shocked and dismayed, Magda confided in her closest female friend without revealing anything too specific. She kept her counsel right to the end, though she found the burden almost unbearable. By spring 1945, Magda had given in to the apocalyptic fatalism that overwhelmed many Germans, not just the Nazi elite, as the Soviet army bore down on them.
On 1 May 1945, rather than face what was to come, Magda and her husband took their own lives, having arranged the murder of their six children – they were poisoned in their sleep – a few hours earlier. In her last surviving letter, Magda wrote that it was better for them to die than live in a world without Hitler. But behind the rhetoric was a deeper fear; that if they survived, her children would be forever associated with the most horrific crime in human history.
James Wyllie is the author of Nazi Wives: The Women at the Top of Hitler’s Germany (The History Press, 2019)