Who won the battle to be crowned ‘First Lady of the Third Reich’… and why it mattered to the Nazis

Adolf Hitler with Emmy Goering, second wife of the Luftwaffe chief, in 1939
Adolf Hitler with Emmy Goering, second wife of the Luftwaffe chief, in 1939 Credit: AFP via Getty Images

In 1931, Carin Goering, the Swedish wife of leading Nazi Hermann Goering, died after years of ill-health, having suffered from epilepsy, tuberculosis and a weak heart. Ever since she and Goering settled in Munich a decade earlier, Carin had devoted herself to Nazism. She treated Adolf Hitler as some sort of demi-God. If anything, she was even more fanatical than her husband.

Yet Carin’s ideological zeal was combined with the grace, charm and sophistication of a society hostess, which made her an invaluable asset when it came to convincing key members of the German elite to support Nazism.

After her death, she quickly gained the status of a martyr: a glowing biography of Carin, written by her sister, became an instant bestseller.

Had Carin lived to see the Nazis attain power in 1933, she would have been prime contender for the title of First Lady of the Reich. Given that Hitler had publicly and repeatedly declared his intention to remain a bachelor – while keeping his private affairs secret – there was a space open for a female representative of the regime who could embody what the Nazis expected of German women.

The difficulty for any of the potential candidates was the regime’s own confusion about how women should behave and what part they should play in the new order.

The Nazis overriding priority was to raise the birth-rate; motherhood became the ultimate goal, the more children, the better. This dove-tailed neatly with their promotion of marriage and desire to see women at home rather than work.

Carin Goering, the Swedish first wife of Hermann Goering, whose death in 1931 created a race to be 'First Lady of the Nazis' Credit: Heinrich Hoffmann/ullstein bild via Getty Images

However, the demands of rapid re-armament and the need to mobilise the whole of society for total war ran contrary to these goals. The birth-rate barely increased. The number of divorces rose and by the beginning of the war there were more women in the labour force than during the Weimar period.

At the same time, though the Nazis were hostile to the “modern woman” that had emerged during the 1920s, they were also keen to exploit the celebrity consumer culture – fuelled by radio, cinema and the press – that had popularised this new archetype and given it mass appeal.

The death of Carin Goering created a vaccuum – and a vacancy for the title of “First Lady of the Reich”. But the tensions between the ideal and the reality made the role very difficult to fill.

A case in point is Gerda Bormann. On paper, she was the perfect Nazi wife. She had nine children, confined herself to domestic matters, and was totally subservient to her husband, Martin Bormann, Hitler’s right-hand man, whom she married when she was just 19.

Yet the First Lady of the Reich had to be more than a housewife and Nazi drone; she had to be capable of holding her own in front of the media and entertain VIPs and foreign dignitaries at an endless succession of official functions and private dinners. But Gerda was not a social animal and preferred to stay in the Nazi bubble she inhabited.

Adolf Hitler with Eva Braun, whom he kept out of public eye and married days before their joint suicides in 1945 Credit: Keystone/Getty Images/HULTON ARCHIVE

Ilse Hess, another leading wife who might have fitted the mould, loathed the kind of schmoozing, networking and smiling for the camera that the role demanded. Ilse, who’d been part of Hitler’s inner-circle since 1920, while her husband was his most faithful disciple, considered herself an intellectual, concerned with preserving the moral and spiritual purity of the Nazi movement. Ilse wholeheartedly disapproved of the decadent glamour of Berlin high-society, which disqualified her for any First Lady of the Reich duties.

Then there was Margaret Himmler and Lina Heydrich; unfortunately for them – despite their craving for status and influence – their husbands’ position in the Nazi hierarchy relied on them keeping out of sight: Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich ran the SS and the Gestapo. With their black uniforms and death’s head insignia, their image was designed to intimidate, spread fear and command respect, an effect that would have been ruined if their domestic lives had been given extensive press coverage.

The wife who seemed to most fit the bill was Magda Goebbels – whose husband, Joseph, was Hitler’s propaganda maestro. Well-educated, multilingual, at ease in elevated company, Magda was also infatuated with Hitler, who – at least in the early years of their relationship – was equally fascinated by her; Magda was the only wife who frequently spent time alone with him.

Magda performed her primary duty and had six children, even though each pregnancy was ruinous for her health, and her opening statement as First Lady of the Reich came on May 14 1933 – Mother’s Day – when she gave a radio address reminding German women of their special bond with the Führer.

The most photographed of all the top wives, Magda was always stylishly dressed and impeccably groomed: her face graced the covers of dozens of publications, while glossy centre-folds of her and her children relaxing at home appeared in the Nazi equivalents of Hello magazine.

Magda Goebbels, who poisoned her six children with cyanide ampoules as they lay in their beds Credit: Ernst Sandau / ullstein bild via Getty Images

Even so, Magda still managed to upset the Nazi ideologues who wanted German women to abandon foreign fashions and contemporary trends, ditch their make-up and cosmetics, and adopt a more “natural” look. But Magda wore outfits from Paris and Milan, used the most expensive toiletries, and urged women to cultivate a more refined and elegant image. Fearing a backlash, Goebbels had Magda removed from her position as head of the newly created German Fashion Institute.

Nevertheless, Magda continued to feature heavily in the media, but she increasingly had to share the limelight with Emmy Goering, Hermann’s second wife. Emmy was a professional actress who started dating Goering in 1932. A year later, after the Nazi’s seizure of power, Goering gained control of the Berlin State Theatre and Emmy became its female star – appearing in several hit comedies – before quitting the stage to marry him in 1935 at a wedding of royal proportions.

Emmy’s performance as First Lady of the Reich – a part that came naturally too her – involved her and her husband parading round like an Emperor and Empress from Ancient times. Their outlandish behaviour – they kept pet lions – was bankrolled by Goering’s immense wealth, and their antics provided the public with a welcome distraction from everyday life. However, during the war, as people’s suffering mounted, Emmy’s lavish lifestyle rapidly became less appealing. What had once been light entertainment was now deeply offensive.

It was Magda who, in the last months of the war, reclaimed her place as First Lady of the Reich. Unlike the others, she chose to remain in Hitler’s Berlin bunker until the bitter end. Her decision to commit suicide and take her children with her – they were poisoned in their sleep – showed the extent to which Magda had embraced the apocalyptic fatalism that gripped many Germans, not just the Nazi elite, as the Soviet army approached.

Like Magda, Eva Braun, Hitler’s long-term mistress and the actual First Lady of the Reich, also chose to end her own life. Eva was buried in a makeshift unmarked grave next to her husband, whom she had married in a bizarre ceremony the day before they killed themselves. But the majority of Germans had no idea that Eva existed. When the dust settled, they were shocked to discover that, during Hitler’s murderous reign of terror, there really had been a First Lady of the Reich who they’d never even heard of.

James Wyllie is author of Nazi Wives (The History Press, £20). Buy yours for £16.99 at books.telegraph.co.uk or call 0844 871 1514