The Trinkets of Evil: Eva Braun’s Underwear and Dark Heritage
Few artifacts associated with dark historical moments are more perversely fascinating than a pair of panties for sale in an Ohio antiques shop. The lace underwear embossed with the monogram “EB” were reputedly recovered in 1945 from Berchtesgaden, where they were said to grace Eva Braun. The provenience for the $7500 knickers is not clearly established, but the interest in the skivvies of Hitler’s mistress is a telling reflection of our deep-seated curiosity in the human dimensions of evil. The fascination with such a prosaic thing illuminates our desire to comprehend (if not explain) the most evil people by focusing on their banal humanity.
Few collectibles provoke more anxiety than Nazi artifacts, whose exchange is strictly regulated throughout most of the world. Many of the codes regulating Nazi memorabilia attempt to keep them from falling into the hands of contemporary neo-Nazis, but many observers simply see the profiteering on Nazi symbols as ghoulish if not immoral. Harry Grenville, whose parents died at Auschwitz, called a 2015 auction of wartime memorabilia “hugely offensive,” lamenting that “this auction house is set to make a tidy sum of money from the sale of items that are hugely offensive to a lot of people. It raises again the question about freedom of speech – you can’t force people to stop selling Holocaust memorabilia and making money from it but you can deplore it.” Grenville is not alone in his uneasiness that Nazi material things have become “collectibles” traded like any other other good. Nevertheless, this aversion to the trade in Nazi collectibles stands somewhat at odds with the pervasive presence of Nazis in popular culture, where Nazism and Hitler are nearly universally recognized stand-ins for evil.
The Ohio panties perhaps stand apart from SS daggers and swastika-emblazoned things because they potentially humanize an otherwise evil person by displaying her banality. The challenge of fathoming Eva Braun is to comprehend a woman who embraced one of history’s most evil figures, and a trinket as commonplace as her underwear (or her blouse auctioned in February 2015) makes her less of a symbol than a person. Much of our fascination with the likes of Eva Braun revolves around our desire to explain evil, which is often immune to rational explanation; unable to rationalize the historical record of evil, we examine the prosaic relics of everyday life as though there may be something recognizable or even “human” that will explain Eva Braun’s path.
Beyond the desire to understand such evil, these trinkets also materialize people whose histories have come to us through popular culture. In their edited study Monsters in the Mirror: Representations of Nazism in Post-War Popular Culture, Sara Buttsworth and Maartje Abbenhuis emphasize that we have enormous familiarity with the historical Nazi narrative, yet it comes in the hyperbolic form of movies and documentaries. Such popular discourses inevitably forgo the narrative complications of scholarship on National Socialist leadership and Nazism, instead painting morally simplistic and often-shallow pictures of the Nazis. Fascinated by the Nazi narrative we have been presented with in popular culture, the party’s most significant figures may become more “real” through the modest things that can be found in scores of auctions.
Consequently, we are fascinated and in some cases repulsed by modest material things linked to dark historical figures. For instance, a 1909 hand-written change of address by Hitler sold for $33,650 in 2012 (though it failed to be sold again last March at an auction in which a signed copy of Mein Kampf was sold for $43,750; Hitler’s paintings have often appeared at auctions, with one removed from an auction last week). Most of the goods that seem to provide the most unsettling response are Nazis’ prosaic personal effects. In February, for instance, a pair of glasses attributed to Himmler went under the hammer at a Maryland auction house, and in 2011 buyers had the opportunity to purchase the 11-year-old Himmler’s communion certificate. Last year the black leather coat of Minister of Armaments and War Production Albert Speer sold for $10,000 to his third cousin. Speer’s relative is a Jewish businessman from Chicago who was captivated by Albert Speer’s admission of complicity with the Nazi cause following the war. In 2012 an enormous auction lot of personal papers from Joseph Goebbels included 1922-1924 love letters with Else Janke, whose mother was Jewish. This week a Norwegian auction house indicated it is selling the 1925-1930 passport of the Nazi collaborator Vidkun Quisling. Quisling seized power in Norway in a 1940 German-backed coup and served as Minister-President from 1942 to 1945 before his capture and execution at war’s end.
Just as with relics of faith, the highest order things are the body or the goods most closely associated with it (e.g., Napoleon’s hair, or a lock of hair from the man who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington). Consequently, Eva Braun’s underwear stakes a claim to intimacy on a variety of symbolic and corporeal counts. Underwear are perhaps distinctively leveling in the sense that the vast majority of us wear under-garments, so they are especially captivating. For instance, a 2012 auction offered a rich range of Elvis’ personal effects, but most attention focused on a pair of Elvis’ underwear that were variously described as “soiled” or “stained.” We might be understandably unsettled by the specter of the King’s skid marks, but many of us are simultaneously fascinated by the most intimate personal evidence of their famous wearer.
Nevertheless, perhaps we should be uneasy that prosaic things such as glasses, jackets, and underwear risk making history’s most unsavory figures seem banal people. Nazi banality is most closely associated with Hannah Arendt, who coined the term the “banality of evil” in her analysis of Adolf Eichmann’s 1961 trial. Struck by Eichmann’s courtroom demeanor and his apparent lack of remorse or responsibility, Arendt characterized Eichmann as a cold, mediocre bureaucrat who was “unable to think.” Arendt’s most unsettling conclusion may have been that Eichmann was not a sociopath at all; instead, he was banal like many more unexceptional people. Arendt’s characterization of Eichmann has been significantly complicated by scholarship underscoring Eichmann’s willing construction of Nazi genocide (though Arendt never denied that reality); for instance, Bettina Stangneth’s 2014 study of Eichmann concludes he was vain, manipulative, and a wholly committed Nazi. Eichmann would probably be pleased that his own effects have themselves become collectible: Eichmann’s notes penned after his 1960 capture appeared in a February 2015 auction.
Increasingly more Nazi effects are now appearing in auction houses as a generation of soldiers and wartime participants pass away. Many of those most fascinating documents and material things are secured by private collectors, since few archives can afford many of the most unique documents and material things. Some documents get purchased by sympathetic collectors or organizations who ensure these things become publicly accessible. For instance, a four-page 1919 letter by Hitler outlining his anti-Semitism was purchased by the Simon Wiesenthal Center and now appears in the Museum of Tolerance. Yet other documents remain inaccessible, and objects like Himmler’s glasses are challenging to incorporate into museum exhibits.
These apparent trinkets are linked to perpetrators of evil rather than victims, so we tend to look at them in somewhat distinctive ways than the sympathetic sentiments we have for the things linked to victims and victors. Increasingly more scholars and museums are squarely confronting the heritage of perpetrators, piecing together a rich documentary record and slowly beginning to examine the mute everyday things that document the stories of perpetrators. Some observers are reasonably reluctant to allow unchecked trade in Nazi artifacts and documents, but few people debate the significance of the primary documents associated with Nazis. The reception for these most mundane everyday material things is somewhat more complicated: these objects concede our curiosity in Nazism, but that curiosity risks devolving into shallow voyeurism. Nevertheless, the most personal effects of even the most evil people can promote a complicated and productive discussion about the nature of evil itself and confront the enigma of how seemingly typical people accepted and actively participated in many of the history’s darkest moments.
Above: Eva Braun at Hitler’s residence Berghof near Berchtesgaden in 1942 (Getty Images)
Maartje Abbenhuis and Sara Buttsworth
2010 Introduction, The Mundanity of Evil: Everyday Nazism in Post-War Popular Culture. In Monsters in the Mirror: Representations of Nazism in Post-War Popular Culture, Sara Buttsworth and Maartje Abbenhuis, editors, pp. xiiixl. Praeger, Santa Barbara, California.
1963 Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Penguin, New York.
Christopher R. Browning
1992 Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. HarperCollins, New York.
Sara Buttsworth and Maartje Abbenhuis, editors
2010 Monsters in the Mirror: Representations of Nazism in Post-War Popular Culture. Praeger, Santa Barbara, California.
2010 Hitler as Our Devil?: Nazi Germany in Mainstream Media. In Monsters in the Mirror: Representations of Nazism in Post-War Popular Culture, Sara Buttsworth and Maartje Abbenhuis, editors, pp. 29-52. Praeger, Santa Barbara, California.
2000 Were the Perpetrators of Genocide “Ordinary Men” or “Real Nazis”? Results from Fifteen Hundred Biographies. Holocaust and Genocide Studies 14(3):331-366.
1996 What About the “Ordinary Men”?: The German Order Police and the Holocaust in the Occupied Soviet Union. Holocaust and Genocide Studies 10(2):134-150. (subscription access)
2014 Eichmann before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer. Alfred Knopf, New York.
Eichmann Papers image from Alexander Historical Auctions
Eva Braun underwear image from Daily Mail
Eva Braun Berchtesgaden image from Getty Images
Himmler eyeglasses image from Live Auctioneers/Alexander Historical Auctions.
Hitler 1909 change of address image from Nate D. Sanders Auction
Speer’s Coat image from Daily Mail