Reading Impressions: Two biographies

Although I’ve only read three books this year, my early effort at spontaneity over planning in my reading selections means two of those books were biographies of two women at about the same time. They resulted in impressions as different as the subjects.

On the disappointing end of the spectrum was Eva Braun: Life with Hitler by German historian Heike B. Görtemaker. There is little available by which to evaluate Braun. Any correspondence she had with Hitler has been destroyed or disappeared. The only extant diary consists of 10 entries in the first half of 1935. There are few contemporary descriptions of her. As a result, Görtemaker tries to piece together a picture of Braun through others.

Although Görtemaker relies on and cites a wealth of sources, some of her “primary” ones come from acquaintances such as Albert Speer or Herman Göring’s wife, Emmy. Their comments come from statements given Allied forces after the war or post-war memoirs. In many cases, though, she discounts these sources as being influenced by efforts to distance the individuals from Hitler and his regime. This leads Görtemaker to explore the story of Hitler and to look at the lives of a variety of people near or around him during the same periods Braun was.

While that is an ingenious approach, it doesn’t really produce the intended result. The reader spends as much or more time reading about others and what they thought than about Braun. Ultimately, whatever conclusions the reader or Görtemaker might draw as to Braun’s views, ideas and the like can’t rise above the level of speculation. Although it may be predicated on decent analysis, it is still speculation. In the end, we don’t really learn much about Braun and her life with Hitler.

Where Görtemaker was forced to rely on a dearth of direct information, the opposite may be true for Robert K. Massie and Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman. There’s not only plenty of documentation about and contemporary accounts of the Russian empress, she penned her own memoirs.

Having read a biography of Catherine in 2008, I wasn’t necessarily interested in reading another lengthy book about her. The good reviews the book received and the fact Massie also wrote well-received and award-winning biographies of Peter the Great and Tsar Nicholas II, the last of the Romanovs, led me to pick it up.

Given the length of Catherine’s rule, the nature of her accomplishments, the changes in Europe and Russia during her tenure and the wealth of available information, Massie does an excellent job presenting the information. One of the knocks on biographies is that they can be dry. Massie, however, makes the book, some 575 pages, quite easy to read. In fact, if anything it may seem almost too casual at times. Still, to the extent this type of readability spurs on readers who might not otherwise tackle longer biographies, the payoff is worth it.

Massie provides an excellent and well-rounded picture of Catherine from her youth until her death. It is an accomplished and notable introduction to a woman who truly deserved the appellation, “the Great.”

Biography is a very definite region bounded on the north by history, on the south by fiction, on the east by obituary, and on the west by tedium.

Philip Guedall

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