When my daughter was in high school, their debate team had a disqualifier they called Godwin’s Rule: a debater’s use of Hitler and/or the Nazis as part of their argument constituted an automatic loss.
Over the years, the Internet Rule seemed to hold true. Trolls invoked Hitler and were shot down. Critics who compared presidents and other politicians to the Nazis were mocked as lacking any real ammunition. Photos of kittens with black fur “mustaches” were… okay, they were kind of cute. But for the internet as a whole, mentions of Hitler were a meme, the last resort of the intellectually and/or creatively bankrupt.Even today, more than seventy years after Hitler committed suicide, his name is a label that polarizes and incites as nothing else can.
The great thing about tropes and memes is that they serve as a shorthand, an instantly-recognizable statement that doesn’t need to be specified or elaborated or explained. That’s also the problem with tropes and memes.
My guest today, author Phyllis Edgerly Ring, is uniquely qualified to bring to life the people behind the symbol. Not only did she live in Germany as a child, but she’s also the owner of the portrait of Eva Braun, drawn by Adolf Hitler himself.
The Munich Girl
Anna Dahlberg grew up eating dinner under her father’s war-trophy portrait of Eva Braun. Fifty years after the war, she discovers what he never did—that her mother and Hitler’s mistress were friends. The secret surfaces with a mysterious monogrammed handkerchief, and a man, Hannes Ritter, whose Third Reich family history is entwined with Anna’s. Plunged into the world of the “ordinary” Munich girl who was her mother’s confidante—and a tyrant’s lover—Anna finds her every belief about right and wrong challenged. With Hannes’s help, she retraces the path of two women who met as teenagers, shared a friendship that spanned the years that Eva Braun was Hitler’s mistress, yet never knew that the men they loved had opposing ambitions. Eva’s story reveals that she never joined the Nazi party, had Jewish friends, and was credited at the Nuremberg Trials with saving 35,000 Allied lives. As Anna’s journey leads back through the treacherous years in wartime Germany, it uncovers long-buried secrets and unknown reaches of her heart to reveal the enduring power of love in the legacies that always outlast war.
With her new book, The Munich Girl, author Phyllis Edgerly Ring points out that an entire nation can’t be understood or explained with one label.
She does this by examining the life of one almost-invisible woman: Eva Braun, the “Munich Girl” who was Hitler’s mistress from the time the seventeen-year-old girl met the man over twenty years her senior until their wedding followed a day later by her suicide at his side when she was 33.
Although The Munich Girl has the feel of a memoir, it is a historical fiction that tells the story of three women. We first meet Anna, an American woman married to history professor Lowell. Anna has grown up in a house full of secrets, one of which is her father Rod’s war-spoils portrait that has hung in their dining room all her life. The second is her mother, Peggy, who has died just before the story begins. And of course, the third is Eva, and her doomed relationship with Adolf Hitler. As Anna is clearing out Peggy’s house, she comes across a manuscript that tells both Peggy’s story and that of her unlikely friend, Eva.
Anna’s story is told in alternating points of view. First we have her own experience as a child born in Germany at the end of the war, but raised in the United States. Having grown up feeling like an outsider and desperate to belong, she subverts her entire life into supporting her husband Lowell’s career and goals. When he orders her to work at an inherited family magazine that he thinks will help his career, she is at first reluctant but then captivated by her assignments, including Eva Braun’s story. But most of all she’s drawn to the magazine’s German-American editor, Hannes. But when Anna finds that her mother knew Eva Braun, and when she starts to suspect that Peggy’s secrets go beyond the portrait signed with Adolf Hitler’s initials, Anna’s interest becomes an obsession.
This is an amazing story full of layers and meaning. The settings are beautifully detailed and seem both timeless and perfectly anchored in their little bubbles of time. But within those stories, author Phyllis Edgerly Ring has created three fully-realized women who are very different, but who manage to have so many themes in common.
One theme is the deals women make with themselves to allow others to achieve happiness or satisfaction, often by denying themselves those very things.
[Quote:] This was the incomplete “bargain” she had accepted in return for the love she offered, when Lowell hadn’t been any more capable of real sharing than Rod had. Or Hitler. Hadn’t ever truly been available to her at all.
Another theme is the secrets we keep from others and from ourselves. The one question that history demands of Germany—how could you follow a monster like Hitler?—is brought down to the personal level. Why would Eva remain with Hitler? Why would Peggy leave her love behind to go to America with Rod, a man she doesn’t love? Why would Anna stay with Lowell when he doesn’t make any attempt to understand or support her? The obvious answer—for love—is actually incidental to the real answer, which is control. Hitler and the Nazis have control in Germany. The men in this book have overt control over the women. But the women carve back their own hard-won, often secretive methods of controlling at least parts of their destinies. As Peggy promises to the memory of Eva:
[Quote:] Why must I always choose one thing and deny or lose another, when both are a part of me? It’s no different than when the Nazis pressed so hard to control everything, and the only safety was in shuttering the voice of your own heart.
If I cannot speak of you, I’ll carry you with me in shrouded silence, like the church bells in Lübeck they’re going to leave where they fell to earth the night that city was bombed. So as to never forget. I’ll set Nadelkissen’s watch to the time you died—almost 3:30 on a beautiful spring day—and never wind it again.
I refuse to choose between two things this time. I’ll bring them both with me.
This book has so many layers that I couldn’t possibly name all the other themes. But there are a few which stood out for me:
- Like the portrait of Eva Braun and the manuscript Anna finds at her mother’s house, there are so many realities hidden in plain sight, but there for those who commit to searching out their truths. For example, Anna’s husband Lowell is frustrated with her fascination with Eva Braun.
[Quote:] When Anna didn’t reply, Lowell said, “She was a nobody, Anna. In the scheme of things, she just doesn’t matter.”
“To you, you mean? Or to ‘historians’?” Anna spoke the word derisively.
“Yes. That’s a point you and others have made plain enough.
“But believe it or not,” her voice grew quieter now, “she matters to some people. We look at her life. Then maybe we look at our own, and begin to see things.”
Lowell all but snorted, “What? More ways men have wronged women?”
“No, Lowell. We see the truth. About what it is we don’t do, when we could make different choices. And we begin to see what it is we do instead.”
- History labels Hitler a monster, and quite rightly so. But the problem with giving someone a larger-than-life reality is that it masks the fact that they are human beings who made choices, as did the human beings around them. By re-humanizing Hitler through his affair with Eva Braun, the author doesn’t attempt to rehabilitate him but rather to explain Eva’s choices. These choices are reflected against those made by Peggy and by Anna as well. Lowell is Anna’s “Hitler” in the sense that he robs her of her own identity as surely as Hitler does when he consigns Eva and their relationship to complete anonymity. Rod does it when his hatred of Germans leads Peggy to deny her own family. Anna’s husband Lowell not only denies her right to her own identity, but he literally steps on her when their plane is on fire so that he can escape himself. So Anna’s vision of his death (set in the Berlin bunker where Hitler and Braun committed suicide) is both a connection to the past and a premonition of the future. The difference is that where it eventually frees Anna to grow into her own person, it kills Eva.
[Quote:] The “triumph” of life with Hitler also brought an enforced invisibility that weighed on her as the years dragged by. From that point, Anna knew, it required a great deal of fantasy, and of medicating herself with alcohol and pills, for Eva to keep her illusions alive. She had to focus entirely on the prize, rather than the price it exacted.
Life with Hitler also required that she relinquish the opportunity to make any decisions about her own future. Even when he left doors open to her about her life, she, almost reflexively, stepped forward to close them, to close off any possibility of self-determination, and the possible loss of her dream.
This is already an overly-long review, so I probably shouldn’t go into the beautiful metaphors that sweep through, such as the juxtaposition of the “whole sky” image that Eva longs for with the “fog” that is artificially created by machines designed to hide the existence of the Nazi’s bunker. [**I did love that the name the author chose for her self-publishing is “Whole Sky”!]
There are also a few things that I disliked intensely on the first read through (although much less the second time once I had the whole story). While the women’s characters are well-developed, the men—even the perfect Hannes—come across as somewhat flat, almost caricatures. Even more difficult is that there are no good fathers. Eva, Peggy, and Anna’s fathers sexually and physically abuse their daughters. And even Hannes, while mouthing all the correct feminist-supporting statements, painfully extends the tension between himself and Anna WAY longer than seems even remotely reasonable to “protect” her but actually because of his own fears.
Also troubling is that the relationship between Peggy and Eva—apparently life-shaking to Peggy—was based on just a handful of meetings between the two. Nevertheless, in Peggy’s manuscript she seems privy to all of Eva’s most secret thoughts and wishes, despite the fact that the two never reveal details to each other of their private lives or lovers.
So—did author Phyllis Edgerly Ring do it? Did she convince me that Eva was a compelling person with good reasons for her actions? Were the shared pieces of her life, the revelation that Eva might have been at least partially responsible for preventing the deaths of over thirty-five thousand prisoners at the end of the war, the meticulous research and descriptions of life in wartime Germany enough? Do I like the woman while agreeing with Peggy that I hate the monster she loved?
No. I believe that with the length of time Eva spent as Hitler’s mistress, she did nothing to influence events or show any signs that she didn’t agree with him. The fact that there was probably very little she could do doesn’t help here. But I do believe that within the bounds of historical fiction, The Munich Girl presents a fascinating, well-researched, and thought-provoking look at women, their choices, and their compromises. For that it deserves every one of five stars.
*I received this book for free from the publisher or author in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.*
Book Titles: The Munich Girl
Author: Phyllis Edgerly Ring
Genre: Women’s Historical Fiction / Romance
Publisher: Whole Sky
Length: 356 pgs [note: Kindle version coming soon]
Release Date: November 14, 2015
For more info about Phyllis Edgerly Ring and her books:
Excerpt from The Munich Girl
For my extra day of freedom, I planned to linger over breakfast at a table with a sunny view of the mountains. But the dining room was a frenetic symphony of clinking and clattering when I arrived and the maitre d’ stuck me in a dark corner.
I had just poured my coffee when a young male voice shrilled, “Fräulein Peggy Adler?” from the entrance.
I turned as he reached my table in a handful of long strides. He wore the stiff uniform of Hitler’s Leibstandarte: dark tunic, breeches, tall boots, and rounded helmet. All that was missing was the rifle customarily slung over the shoulder.
“Come with me, please.”
Terror struck so hard, I couldn’t speak—not even to ask where. Especially not that. It seemed incriminating. At last, I stammered, “I-I—”
“You have been requested for an interview,” he said.
What kind of interview? I still couldn’t find words to ask. Should I get my stenographer’s pad? Or was this about questioning me?
“We have a car waiting outside.” His tone was threaded with impatience, as though I were already taking too long, being too slow to understand. I’m surprised he didn’t check his watch, tap his foot. His face had a youthful softness. He was perhaps 19 or 20. I thought of my brother, Peter.
I noticed a waiter at the neighboring table and glanced at my unfinished cup of coffee, as though it might offer some possibility of reprieve—he would insist I stay, since I hadn’t finished.
He also seemed uneasy around the guard as he said, “No trouble, Madam. We will keep your table for you.”
But would I return to it?
Then I remembered my co-workers, and Erich, and blanched with fear as cold as the sweat that rose instantly on my neck. Hadn’t I been careful enough, yesterday? Had I said too much? Had someone besides Eva been listening, or had my cohorts from the Foreign Office somehow been found out?
My mind raced to the worst of all possibilities—they’d been apprehended. I refused to let that thought take root, claimed my mind back from it the way I try to rescue my breath from panic each night in the air-raid shelter back in Berlin.
Appear unfazed and cooperative. I’d heard this tactic from Erich and others in the Resistance. If stopped by the Gestapo, or called in for any reason, seem slightly surprised, untroubled, and entirely willing to comply.
I reached to gather my things. I had only my purse, and the book I’d brought along. “Will we be going far?” I found courage to ask.
“It is right nearby.”
When we reached the car, his brisk movements included a snap of his heels as he opened the door for me. Clearly, he wasn’t going to manhandle me like a suspected criminal. Not yet.
I clambered into the back, toward the middle, and closer, of the two bench-like seats. The mammoth Mercedes had as many huge tires as a delivery truck. Its convertible top was down, and bright sun blinded my eyes.
The young uniform joined the driver in front. The car exited the Platterhof parking lot, made a hard left, and rolled down a sharp incline, though only a short distance.
Goering’s house was somewhere off to the right, hidden by trees. I’d learned recently that beneath us was a burgeoning network of tunnels and bunkers under construction, a subterranean complex that those who dwelt above ground might not even know was there. Perhaps it would open up suddenly and swallow us all.
The car blocked the narrow road when it stopped at a guardhouse barely big enough for one person to stand inside. Behind it was the Hotel Türkenhof where Aunt Paula and I had once stayed. It looked to be in use as barracks of some kind. Is that where they were taking me?
The uniform turned and said, “Your papers, please.”
I had them ready in anticipation of this, though I’d already gone through all the rigmarole of admission to the Führer Zone two days ago.
He took them, got out, and strode to the guard shack.
I’d been taken in for questioning once before, after I’d accompanied Jewish children to England as an escort with the Kindertransport. A petty Nazi bureaucrat summoned me because of my dual citizenship. I’d dressed conservatively in a simple cotton print skirt that hinted at a dirndl’s lines, and a borrowed white blouse tied loosely at the throat so the top half of my décolletage was visible, while the rest remained virtuously concealed.
During my inquisitor’s first burst of questions, I’d offered simple answers with a demeanor of complicit meekness. Finally, I’d evoked tears by imagining the inevitable fate of that Jewish child I’d seen pulled back through the train window into her father’s arms. “Can’t you imagine how thankful I am that Germany is my birthplace?” I nearly shouted at him. “That my mother is so faithful?”
More advice from those in the Resistance: act indignant, insulted even, at the very dishonor of being suspected of disloyalty.
“There are many spies,” he said. “Dual citizenship makes an excellent cover.”
It does, indeed, my thoughts concurred.
“How can you even suggest such disgrace?” I tried to sound hurt. “When my British blood is disgrace enough, for me?”
Then I’d covered my face in the refuge—and strategy—of sobs. It had been over-dramatic, but I wanted to leave no doubt in his mind. I used my best high German for these impassioned declarations. Once I saw he was softening, I lapsed into the Schwäbisch dialect I’d detected in his own speech, thanking God for my ear for nuance and language.
The inquisitor turned almost paternal, even invited me for coffee. I’d had to pretend disappointment, say I was expected home to help Mutti.
“You are the kind of maid who will assure the Fatherland’s triumph!” he’d avowed, like the final line of some Wagnerian drama.
“Whatever you do, use the language of the current view, and mold it to your needs,” Erich had advised me before I’d accompanied those Jewish children to safety.
It was the only way to deal with these fools. These very dangerous fools.
Find more about The Munich Girl: A Novel of the Legacies That Outlast War at;