Discussion questions and information about the Nazi Wives

Discussion Questions for Black Roses

  1. Eighty years after Adolf Hitler came to power, we are still fascinated by the Nazis. Primarily this is because of the millions they murdered, but why do we study them more than other totalitarian regimes?
  2. Why do you think the author has chosen to make the lead character an actress? What imagery and themes does that evoke?
  3. The novel opens with the death of Helga Schmidt. Why do you think the author chooses to open the novel in this way?
  4. Clara makes a difficult personal choice with regard to Klaus Müller. What do you think of that and could you see yourself making the choice that she makes?
  5. Helga says she doesn’t care what the regime does to Jews as long as she gets ahead. ‘If you’re a baker and you don’t like the government you don’t stop baking bread. Why should actresses stop acting?’ Are you still able to empathise with her?
  6. Clara Vine has no mother. In his book, New Ways to Kill Your Mother, Colm Toibin has pointed out how often novelistic heroes and heroines have a dead mother. Why do you think this is? What does enable the author to do with the character?
  7. Hitler saw fashion as a way ‘that women can play their part in strengthening the nation’.  Does fashion always carry its own political subtext?
  8. There has been a growing interest in the lives of women associated with famous men – whether queens, wives or consorts. How useful is it to focus on a character whose perspective we have never considered before? Do you agree that women are the ‘hidden half of history’?



What is it like to be married to a monster? The world is full of books about the leading Nazis, but almost nothing is known about their wives. Yet in many cases these women were an important influence on their husbands. Some of them, like Annelies von Ribbentrop and Lina Heydrich, were considered more Nazi than their men. Others, like Emmy Goering, or Henny, the wife of Baldur von Schirach, actively interceded with their husbands on an occasional basis to save friends. Henny von Schirach actually remonstrated with Hitler over the treatment of Jews in Vienna and was banished from his presence thereafter.

I was always fascinated by the Nazi wives, and how it would feel to be married to a man who perpetrated atrocities.  These women were close up to the action and privy to all the feuds and gossip, of which there were plenty in the Third Reich. Beneath every history is another history, and I wanted to re-appropriate the stories of those women who have, until now, been largely hidden. To unearth the female half of history.

I tried to keep faithful, wherever possible, to established historical fact, and much of the dialogue in Black Roses is taken from letters, memoirs and diaries of the women involved. When I came across the story of how Victor Arlosoroff had returned to Berlin and discovered Magda’s marriage to Goebbels, I knew there was a novel in it. Like any other novel, period fiction requires story-telling and here, I realised, was an astonishing story.

Magda Goebbels

Magda Goebbels was born in 1901 in Berlin, Germany. She was a beautiful woman and in her youth met and became close to a prominent Zionist, Victor Arlosoroff, who was later assassinated in Palestine in 1933. At the age of 17, while returning to school on a train, Magda met Günther Quandt, a rich German industrialist twice her age. She and Quandt were married in 1921, and her first child, Harald, was born that same year. Magda was frustrated in the marriage and she and Quandt divorced in 1929.

Shortly after this, Magda attended a meeting of the Nazi Party, where she was impressed by one of the speakers,Joseph Goebbels, then the Gauleiter of Berlin. She joined the party on 1 September 1930 and for a brief period became secretary to Hans Meinshausen, Goebbels’ deputy, before being invited to take charge of Goebbels’ own private archives. Hitler encouraged the relationship between Magda and Goebbels, he was impressed by her and it was suggested that as the wife of a leading and highly visible Nazi official she might eventually act as “first lady of the Third Reich”.

Magda married Goebbels on 19 December 1931, at Günther Quandt’s farm in Mecklenburg, with Hitler as a witness and they went on to have six children whose names all began with the letter “H” in honour of the Führer. Both Magda and Goebbels derived personal benefits and social status from their close association with Hitler but their marriage was often fraught, due to Joseph’s wandering eye.  Goebbels became propaganda minister in 1933 and Magda remained loyal to Hitler and publicly supported him throughout the WWII. Towards the end of the war in April 1945, the family chose to stay in Berlin with Hitler and entered the Vorbunker with him when the Soviet Army invaded the city.

When all hope was lost for the regime, Hitler and Eva Braun committed suicide in the bunker on April 30. The following day Magda and Joseph Goebbels drugged their six children with morphine and killed them by breaking cyanide capsules in their mouths. After their children were dead, Magda and Joseph Goebbels went above ground, each took cyanide and then Joseph shot Magda and then himself.

In her last letter to her surviving son Harald, Madga explained her motives, saying that ‘the world that comes after the Führer and national socialism is not any longer worth living in and therefore I took the children with me, for they are too good for the life that would follow.’ For more information, click here.

Emmy Goering

Emmy Goering, born Emma Sonnemann in Hamburg, Germany on 24 March 1893, was one of five children of a successful chocolate factory owner. From her youth she was always interested in show business and became an actress at the National Theatre in Weimar. She married actor Karl Köstlin in late 1916, but they later divorced.

Hitler and the early Nazis of the Weimar Republic frequented a café that Emmy Sonnemann also went to.  Through Hitler, Emmy met Hermann Goering in 1931. He was a widower who was still mourning his first wife who had died a year earlier. Emmy was his mistress for four years until they married in April 10, 1935. Their daughter Edda was born in 1938.

As wife of Hitler’s second in command and one of the richest and most powerful men in Europe, Emmy Goering received much public attention and enjoyed a lavish lifestyle. The Goering’s owned many ostentatious properties and Emmy was a larger than life character who was often seen at the opera decked out in furs and a tiara.  Emmy served as Hitler’s hostess at many official functions and her relationship with Hitler is said to have made both Magda Goebbels and Eva Braun jealous. Emmy publically snubbed Eva which eventually led to Hitler issuing angry instructions to Hermann Goering to demand that Emmy treat Eva with more respect. Often outspoken, and occasionally intervening in the persecution of Jews to save friends, Goering had to apologize to Hitler on several occasions because of Emmy’s political comments.

At the end of WWII, Hermann Goering was tried for war crimes and crimes against humanity at Nuremberg, where he was sentenced to death by hanging. Before this could take place, he killed himself, with smuggled cyanide two hours before his scheduled execution. Emmy was convicted of being a Nazi and she and Edda spent four years in an Allied prison camp. When she was released, 30 per cent of her property was confiscated and she was banned from the stage for five years. By the time of her husband’s death at Nuremberg she and her daughter had been reduced to living in a two-room cottage with no running water or electricity. She moved to Munich with Edda and remained there for the rest of her life. She died in 1973. For more information click here


Annelies von Ribbentrop

Anna Elisabeth Henkell, known as “Annelies” to her friends was the daughter of wealthy champagne producer Otto Henkell and his aristocratic wife Katharina. Annelies was intelligent but her health was not the best and she had health problems throughout her life. She had a temporary engagement to Herman Hommel in her early twenties, but when met Joachim von Ribbentrop in 1919 she fell for him. Von Ribbentrop was handsome and a gentlemen and was well travelled, especially in Europe. Despite her parent’s disapproval, they married in 1920, Annelies was 24 years old.

Between 1921 and 1940, Annelies gave birth to five children. From the beginning von Ribbentrop was under influence of Annelies who both loved and dominated him. She was a controlling woman and made all of the political decisions; it was she who urged her husband to join the National Socialist party. The Ribbentrops hosted the secret Nazi meetings that led to Hitler becoming Chancellor in 1933 and at one of these meetings, Hitler himself remarked on how Annelies wore the trousers in the relationship. Becoming a close confidant of the Führer, much to the disgust of long-serving party members, von Ribbentrop became Ambassador to Britain in 1936, and then Foreign Minister in February 1938 due to his strong contacts in Britain, although the war meant that his diplomatic record was mainly one of failure.

Joachim von Ribbentrop was arrested after the war ended and became the first of the Nazi defendants to be hanged in 1946. Annelies von Ribbentrop remained a strong national socialist and was imprisoned in the former Dachau concentration camp. Her vast fortune was impounded but later returned with restrictions. In her later years she wrote several books and articles defending her husband and her own actions. She died in 1973, aged 77.

Eva Braun

Eva Braun was born in Munich in 1912 to a school teacher father and a seamstress mother. At age 17, after she attended business school, she took a job as an assistant and model for Heinrich Hoffmann (father of Henny von Schirach) the official photographer for the Nazi Party. She met Hitler in 1929, he was 23 years her senior. Hitler began seeing Eva more often about two years later after his half-niece, Geli Raubal, who he lived with in Munich, committed suicide. Eva herself attempted suicide twice in the early years of the relationship, first in 1932 by shooting herself in the chest with her father’s pistol and again in 1935 when she overdosed on sleeping pills. It is widely believed that these attempts were not serious and more a bid to gain Hitler’s attention.

Hitler and Eva never appeared as a couple in public. The German people were largely unaware of Eva’s relationship with Hitler until after the war, although the Nazi Inner Circle knew that Eva was untouchable. Her close relationship with Hitler caused animosity with many of the Nazi wives. Eva’s friends were seen as rivals and not accepted into the inner circle.

Eva was not a member of the Nazi party and was never allowed to stay in the room when business or political conversations took place but her relationship afforded her a sheltered and privileged life. She indulged in high fashion, makeup and cigarettes which Hitler highly disapproved of for Nazi women. By 1936, Braun was at Hitler’s household at the Berghof near Berchtesgaden whenever he was in residence there, but she lived mostly in Munich. Braun also had her own apartment at the new Reich Chancellery in Berlin where she could come and go under the guise of Hitler’s photographer working for the Hoffmann’s company.

By all accounts, Hitler was very fond of Eva and she him. In a letter she wrote to him, “From our first meeting I swore to follow you anywhere even unto death. I live only for your love.” She refused to leave him as the Soviet Army moved into Berlin and joined him in the Führerbunker beneath the Reich Chancellery gardens in April 1945. After midnight on the night of 29 April, Hitler and Braun were married in a small civil ceremony within the Führerbunker. Less than 40 hours later, they committed suicide. Eva had taken a cyanide capsule and Hitler had shot himself in the head. The corpses were carried outside and burned. For more information, click here.

Lina Heydrich

Lina was the daughter of a minor German aristocrat who worked as a schoolteacher. Lina’s brother, Jurgen had joined the Nazi Party and was a member of the SA. At his encouragement, Lina attended a Party rally in 1929 where Adolf Hitler spoke and she joined the party shortly afterwards.

She met Reinhard Heydrich in December 1930 when she was nineteen and was married by in December 1931. Lina was a fervent Nazi and persuaded Heydrich to look into the recently formed SS as a career option after his “dismissal for impropriety” from the navy. Heydrich became the founder of the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), an intelligence organisation charged with seeking out and neutralising resistance to the Nazi Party via arrests, deportations, and killings. Heydrich is often regarded as the darkest figure within the Nazi elite; Adolf Hitler himself christened him “the man with the iron heart”. He was also one of the main architects of the Holocaust during the early war years.

Lina Heydrich gave birth to two sons, Klaus and Heider but by the late 1930s, there was major strain on the marriage due to the hours Reinhard Heydrich was away working. However, they worked through it and had another child, a daughter named Silke in 1939 and another named Marte was born in 1942, shortly after her husband was assassinated by the Czech government-in-exile in Prague. The year after this, Lina’s oldest son, Klaus, was killed when he left the courtyard of their house on his bike was struck by a small truck coming down the road.

Lina and her remaining children survived the war. In 1965 she met Finnish theatre director Mauno Manninen while she was on a holiday trip to Finland. Eventually they married for the purpose of changing her last name. She defended her late husband, Reinhard Heydrich, until her death in 1985, denying any knowledge on his part about the Holocaust.For more information, click here.


Henny von Schirach

Henny von Schirach  was born Henriette Hoffman in 1913. She was the eldest child of the photographer Heinrich Hoffmann. Her house was an early National Socialist stronghold, and in 1920 her father, a nationalist and anti-Semitic DAP member, joined the National Socialist Party. When she was nine years of age she first met Adolf Hitler, who frequently came to the Hoffman house for dinner. From 1923 onwards her father became the personal photographer of Hitler and by 1930 Henriette Hoffman worked as Hitler’s secretary. Soon after in 1931 Henriette met Baldur von Schirach, the former leader of the Nazi Student League and the youngest of Hitler’s entourage. They married in 1932 with Adolf Hitler as best man. Between 1933 and 1942, Henriette gave birth to four children.

Henny identified with the goals of her husband, who held sole control over the educational system of the German Reich but in in 1943 on a trip to the Netherlands, she witnessed the brutal treatment of Jews and on returning to Germany, at the Nazi mountain retreat, she spoke to Hitler, pleading for more lenient treatment. Hitler was furious with her sentimentality, screaming, “You have to learn to hate! What have Jewish women in Holland got to do with you?” Henny von Schirach and her husband were never invited to the Obersalzberg again.

Baldur von Schirach surrendered to the Americans in June 1945, and was later sentenced on crimes against humanity for his deportation of the Viennese Jews to German death camps. He was sentenced and served 20 years as a prisoner in Spandau Prison. In 1949 Henny filed for divorce, as she had fallen in love with Peter Jacob, former husband to German film director Leni Riefenstahl. The divorce was granted a year later in July 1950. In 1956, Henny travelled to London in an attempt to have her ex-husband’s sentence reduced but was unsuccessful. She died in 1992. For more information click here.