History

What Kind of Women Courted Hitler and His Cronies? The Details Might Surprise You

Nazi wives and lovers tended to be mediocre women. They were not especially gifted or brilliant. They were content to be used as tools for their partners’ purposes—and to make the most of their proximity to power. That might surprise you. You might have expected Nazi-advertised attributes like “blonde,” “athletic,” “Nordic,” or “motherhood” to have had something to do with why certain women ended up in relationships with Adolf Hitler and his inner circle.

While it’s true that several top Nazis tended to be partial to blondes, they chose female partners for reasons of exploitation rather than personal admiration. Hitler, for example, scorned marriage and children, instead preying on naive teenage girls he could dominate; one such relationship was with his half-niece Geli Raubal

In most cases, the exploitation was mutual. While the Third Reich touted the ideal of “noble” and “simple” housewives, reality shows the women who stood at the prow of the Third Reich were anything but. They were willing to court monstrosity for money and privilege. Some became sadistic: like Brigitte Frank, who wore furs stolen from displaced Jewish women, or Unity Mitford, who toured a Jewish family’s apartment she wanted to confiscate while the owners wept in front of her. 

Nazi propaganda made people forget that attributes like blondeness, athleticism and motherhood are ordinary. In a world where mediocrity became an ideal, women who otherwise stood no chance of success were able to transform themselves into goddesses, thriving in an atmosphere of cruelty, materialism and superficial glamor.

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British socialite Unity Mitford was an obsessed fan of Hitler who formed a close relationship with him. Appreciating that her middle name was Valkyrie, Hitler used Unity, a zealous Nazi convert, to take public swipes at her native England. Unity shot herself when England declared war on Germany. She died in 1948 from the bullet lodged in her brain.
(Hulton Deutsch/Getty Images)
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Angela “Geli” Raubal, daughter of Hitler’s half-sister, became Hitler’s muse as a teen and eventually moved in with him in Munich. Hitler was extremely possessive, policing her actions and isolating her from the outside world. Geli was found dead of a gunshot wound in 1931; her death was allegedly a suicide.
(Hermann Historica Auctions, Munich)
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Hitler descends the steps of his private Berghof residence with his mistress and eventual wife, Eva Braun (top). Hitler met 17-year-old Eva in 1930 and took her as a lover shortly after the death of his half-niece Geli. Eva’s diary suggests Hitler was emotionally abusive, often withholding affection. “I guess it really is my fault,” wrote Eva in her diary in 1935 before attempting suicide. Eva then got the attention she wanted; Hitler moved her into the Berghof. He refused to marry her and allegedly referred to Eva as his “pet” in Austrian slang. Nevertheless Eva enjoyed basking in Hitler’s power. Eva poses in a bathing suit (bottom). Platinum blonde in the mid-1930s, Eva later changed her appearance to become plainer and adopted traditional Bavarian clothes. Hidden from the public, she entertained herself with frivolous activities during Hitler’s absences. Hitler and Eva finally married just before committing suicide together in Berlin in 1945. Eva lived off of Hitler’s wealth, leading a luxurious life. This diamond and beryl pendant (right) was one of her many expensive trinkets.
(Top: Prisma/Dukas Presseagentur GmbH/Alamy Stock Photo; Bottom: Eva Braun Photo Album/Alamy; Right: Interfoto/Alamy)
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Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering and actress Emmy Sonnemann married in 1935. Goering had been a widower; his first wife, a Swedish noblewoman named Carin, had died in 1931. Goering’s wives reflected his ambitions: his first was rich and well-connected, and his second was an influential society hostess. Emmy courted media attention and actively competed with other Nazi wives to be known as the “First Lady” of the Reich.
(Brandstaetter Images/Getty Images)
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The Nazi eagle and swastika insignia appears in this elaborate pendant that belonged to Emmy Goering.
(Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo, INTERFOTO/Alamy Stock Photo)
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Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and his wife Magda are shown here seated next to Hitler. Born to an unwed mother, Magda advanced socially after marrying and divorcing an older industrialist. Then she worked her way into the Nazi political machine, first sleeping with Goebbels and then setting her sights on Hitler. Hitler however did not return Magda’s interest; the fact that she was an adult probably didn’t appeal to him. Magda settled for Goebbels. The two married in 1931 and had six children.
(PA Images/Getty)
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For all his bluster about family values, Goebbels was a sex pest who chased every skirt he saw. His most famous mistress was Czech actress Lida Baarova (right). Her sex appeal made Goebbels forget his own rules about the “superiority” of German women. Magda took revenge by having a very public affair with his secretary Karl Hanke (left). “I am sometimes totally tormented,” Goebbels wrote of the crisis in his diary in 1938. He decided to propose a plural marriage and got Lida and Magda to form a shaky truce, which ended after Goebbels and Lida cavorted in front of Magda and family guests. Hitler ultimately threatened to fire Goebbels if he and Magda did not patch things up, which they did. Goebbels dumped Lida, who was then blacklisted. Magda killed her six children before committing suicide with Goebbels in 1945.
(From left: Ullstein Bild Dtl. (2); Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo )
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Leni Riefenstahl was another Third Reich luminary who enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame thanks to powerful men. Starting off as a dancer, Leni maneuvered into acting and had an affair with actor and director Luis Trencker, a pioneer of the German Bergfilm (mountain film) genre. After learning the stark cinematic arts of Bergfilme, she arranged to meet Hitler, wrote him adoring letters and became an eminent director of Nazi propaganda films. Sly and sexually voracious, Leni had many affairs; the exact nature of her relationships with Hitler and Goebbels remains debated.
(Ullstein Bild Dtl., Pictures from History/Getty Images)
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Brigitte Frank declared herself “Queen of Poland” after her husband Hans was appointed Nazi governor there.
She frequented the Krakow ghetto to collect expensive furs from her husband’s victims, which she wore in public.
(Universal History Archive/Getty; National Digital Archives, Warsaw)
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Infamous SS leader Heinrich Himmler was a brooding introvert when he married older divorcee Marga (right) in 1928. Sharing his hateful ideals, Marga was also a domestic shrew; together the angry couple failed at chicken farming and had a daughter. As Reichsführer-SS, Himmler got new glamor and a new girlfriend–his secretary Hedwig Potthast (left). They shared two secret children plus a love nest–allegedly decorated with furniture made from human bodies. Signing his letters as “Heini” to his wife and as the SS “Hagal” rune to his mistress, the duplicitous Himmler advocated for polygamy.
(Left and Right: Bundesarchiv; Center: National Digital Archives, Warsaw)
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Winifred Wagner, daughter-in-law of composer Richard Wagner, befriended Hitler in 1923. Hitler, a Wagner fan, spent nights at the widowed Winifred’s home in Bayreuth. Winifred sent him care packages when he was incarcerated after the Beer Hall Putsch. Hitler showered favors on the Wagner family and Bayreuth.
(Keystone, Ullstein Bild/Getty Images)
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Lina von Osten joined the Nazi Party in 1929 and married Final Solution architect Reinhard Heydrich in 1931. They lived in ill-gotten luxury in Czechoslovakia, where Heydrich was known as the “Butcher of Prague” and assassinated in 1942. Afterwards Lina had forced laborers from concentration camps work at her Jungfern Breschan Manor. She allegedly spat on prisoners and had them beaten, and had Jewish laborers deported to their deaths. She denied she or her husband did anything wrong.
(Keystone, Ullstein Bild/Getty Images)

this article first appeared in military history quarterly

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