THE sight of a blonde, athletic girl, strolling arm-in-arm with her

mother in the spring sunshine, stopped him in his tracks. ''You must know. I'm in love with her,'' Aldolf Hitler confided to a friend that day.

It was 1906 and the future leader of Nazi Germany and instigator of the Second World War became obsessed with Stefanie Jansten.

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His fantasy surrounding this daughter of a government official was to last many years. Aged 16, he decided he would marry her, he composed romantic poems, and even sent her a letter detailing their impending marriage.

Yet the love verses remained unread and the letter was posted but unsigned. Furious on hearing she had danced with other young men at a ball he threatened to drown himself in the River Danube.

Jansten was oblivious to this unhealthy interest in her which led Hitler six years later to send an anonymous greeting to a local newspaper for the ''girlfriend'' he had been missing. Even during the Second World War at his Wolf's Lair headquarters in East Prussia he would talk fondly of his ''first love''. Of Stefanie he said that between such ''exceptional human beings'' there was no need for the usual form of spoken communication.

This bizarre, obsessive trait was to stay with Hitler, but although he was to court women's support both personally and politically, he was adamant there was no place of power for females in the Nazi party.

Cate Haste, an acclaimed television director and writer, is involved in a forthcoming documentary series and book which highlight the female perspective of the Nazi empire. She studies the flip side of the ultra-masculine

period of the Third Reich and discovers how ordinary women were wooed by the Nazis.

She also examines Hitler's rather distant, prudish persona, his manipulation of the opposite sex, his suppressed rage, and fixation with his dead mother. After years of celibacy as a young man he developed an interest in the admiration and patronage of older, wealthy women, the Munich ''Muttis'' (mothers) who had useful money and contacts . This phase was followed by destructive affairs with much younger women, including an entanglement with his niece, Geli. Raubal.

Haste, the 56-year-old wife of Melvyn Bragg, seems on appearance alone an unlikely candidate to be embroiled in such sordid matters. She laughs and shakes her head when asked if she wants to be referred to as Lady Bragg.

''Just my own name will do.''

Speaking at the family's country home in Henley, Sussex, she says her latest work, an exploration of the lives of women in Nazi Germany, was one of the most startling projects she has worked on thus far. Following the completion of Nazi Women, and a three-part

Channel 4 series of which she directed the middle programme, Hitler's Brides, she also wrote a book on the topic. Haste and her high-profile husband have been married since 1973 and have two children, Alice, 24, and Tom, 21. She is someone who guards her personal life and has built a prestigious career behind, rather than in front of the camera, preferring it that way, she says.

''This project was a chance to study a period in history perceived as being overtly male. By looking at the relationships Hitler had, especially in his formative years,

we can see how his distorted views on women developed.''

For someone who has worked on historical television projects from the Cold War to Churchill, she says her experience of the way Nazi-ism treated women and the realm of motherhood affected her personally.

''Interviews with women both living and dead who had lived through this incredible time were deeply touching and often harrowing to read and hear,'' she says. ''Behind the propaganda there was a terrible brutality which ripped the tenderness and heart from a society led by a so-called family-orientated leadership. My work has in the past dealt mainly with historical facts, so it was incredible to hear accounts coming from people who were still clearly scarred by what had happened to them decades ago.''

Haste described Hitler's political power growing stronger while all the time women were presented with a reassuringly female identity. They were to be the bearers of culture for the next generation. Embodied by the wife of Hitler's propaganda minister and mother of six children, Magda Goebbels, bearing children was held up as the ultimate goal.

The role of the housewife was elevated

to a respected and paid profession, while motherhood and the family were given an air of power and importance.

Girls were encouraged to play sports and keep fit, as well as being taught household chores at the Reich's Bridal Schools. Women were also enthralled by Hitler as a great

orator and sent their children to Hitler Youth groups where party indoctrination would begin at the earliest stage.

The Nazi leader was calculating in his

engineering of hero worship and even

treated adoring crowds as a feminine entity, ''whose psychic feeling is controlled less by abstract logic than indefinable, sentimental yearning for strength''.

He was, however, determined to keep women powerless. They were regarded as mothers only, breeding machines, to be kept healthy and available to produce a generation of soldiers for the good of Germany. According to Haste's findings, gleaned from historical documents and academic works, Hitler was ironically devoted to his own mother, showing a tenderness which was never again to be evident in his later life.

In his rise to power his barbaric policies were turning daughter against parent and woman against woman. Children rebelled, putting their loyalty to the Nazi party first. There was mistrust everywhere.

Haste recalls a remorseful account given by Liselotte Katcher who worked as a nurse in 1934. The woman, who struggled with her conscience at the time, describes aiding in the forced sterilisation of healthy young girls and women, some individuals aged just 15, because they were not regarded as

''pure enough'' to bear the soldiers of the new master race.

Victims were given no choice or explanation, and hundreds died during the surgery.

''Motherhood was prized, but not just anyone could reproduce,'' Haste adds.

''Those with Jewish or other foreign ''low'' blood could not. There are accounts of women who had suffered depression or breakdowns being forcibly sterilised. If you were denied a certificate of ''fitness to marry'' you were unworthy.

''You would be sterilised if diagnosed as being ''feeble-minded'', which was a broad category taking in any situation the doctors wanted including women being ill, called workshy, having an untidy home, or being a prostitute. Up to 1939 around 320,000

people, or one in 200 of the German population were forcibly sterilised.''

Hitler's preference for control may explain why most of his lovers were teenage girls. He likened their minds to malleable wax which could be shaped and moulded to his wishes.

Although the increasingly successful politician found his power attractive to many beautiful women, most were just useful to him on his higher mission; for those who did get close to the man himself there was a price to pay.

At 37 he relentlessly pursued a pretty blonde girl of 16 called Maria Reiter, calling her his wood-nymph. She became infatuated, but when it suited him he left for Munich and the Berchtesgaden. Her misery increased with his sudden silence towards her and she tried hang herself. She was saved by a relative.

In 1927 he became involved with Geli Raubal, his half-sister's daughter who had just left school. Hitler enjoyed Geli's company. She was nearly 20 years younger than he and he became increasingly obsessed. Colleagues had never seen him so interested in a woman, and he was determined she would never belong to anyone else. His grip on her life became all-consuming. Her every move was known to him. Then, on September 19, 1931, she was found dead in Hitler's flat. She had his gun.

Even before Geli's death Hitler had met Eva Braun, the most famous of his women.

She was 17, blonde, pretty and apparently pliable. She was with him for 13 years, until death.

The perceived romantic connotations of their joint suicide in the last days of the war are questionable, as the young woman had tried to take her life on two other occasions. Copies of her desperate letters to an increasingly cold and distant Hitler survive.

Other victims of his attention included the actress Renate Muller who threw herself from a window to escape his SS officers, and Unity Mitford, left brain-damaged after shooting herself in a suicide attempt. She eventually died of the injury.

Few members of the opposite sex were respected by Hitler, or managed to carve a position outside his narrow view of women as wives and mothers. The pilot Hannah Reitsch was one, and film director Leni Riefenstahl another.

Haste says: ''It is not clear how many women were left emotionally damaged by Adolf Hitler or why. There have been claims some were forced into sexual perversions but this has never been substantiated. It seems that Hitler would lavish attention and time on them only to withdraw it cruelly and quite suddenly. Eva Braun was treated apallingly, told he loved her in one breath then forbidden to contact him.''

The director adds that there is no doubt many women played an active part in the

brutality of Nazi policies and stood by while crimes were committed to the people all around them.

''It was a time of fear, intimidation and cruelty but it seems the women who were closest to the Nazi leader ultimately fared

little better than his enemies.''

l The three part series, Hitler's Women, begins on Channel 4 on Monday. Cate Haste's book, Nazi Women, is published by Channel 4 Books at Macmillan.