Joseph Goebbels’ secretary, talking before her death last year, was still proud of the trust he put in her, writes Max Hastings.
At first sight, Brunhilde Pomsel’s memoir of a minor servant of Hitler is so banal that it might properly be subtitled Diary of a Nazi Nobody. Pomsel was a secretary in the Reich propaganda ministry. “For me,” she recalled in extreme old age, before her death last year, “Goebbels was a politician who tended to shout a bit loudly. I never listened to all that codswallop, his speeches.”
She was the daughter of a Berlin suburban decorator, born in 1911, strictly brought up, and overwhelmingly preoccupied with her own material wellbeing. Judging from the amount of verbiage she devotes to salaries, pay increases, shop prices, she knew the cost of everything, the value of nothing. She was boundlessly impressed by the carpets in ministry offices, “things we didn’t have at home. I always appreciated that kind of thing.”
“I wasn’t one of them,” she told an interviewer who recorded her recollections, when she was 102, of professional intimacy with the Nazis. “It was more or less out of thoughtlessness that I joined that stupid party that most people were in. Everything was nice so much of the time. I was very, very happy... But sometimes it was a bit boring.”
She liked the Goebbels children (all of whom were murdered at the end of the war by their parents, who killed themselves as well), some of whom occasionally wandered into the office and played with her typewriter. She warmly appreciated the perks of working for a warlord – above all, extra food – though one night, when she sat next to him at dinner, Goebbels scarcely addressed a word to her. Perhaps she was not pretty enough for him, she thought.
She had a Jewish friend whose progressive expulsion from society evoked only limited sympathy, because when she and others gave destitute Eva money, the silly girl spent it on cigarettes, rather than feed her family. Only long after the war did Pomsel discover that her chum wound up as ashes at Auschwitz. “We thought... if she was in a concentration camp she was safe... We didn’t want to know much.”
Pomsel felt a mild frisson of unease when the files on the guillotined Scholl siblings – members of the White Rose resistance group – passed through her hands in 1943, but when her boss said to her waggishly: “I’m relying on you not to peek!” she complied. She told her interviewer: “I was still very proud because of the trust he put in me. That was more important than satisfying my curiosity. I thought that was very noble of me....
When the war ended, Pomsel was arrested by the Russians. “The Russians who questioned me... were nice, I thought, ‘They’ll let me go home now.’” Instead, she was imprisoned for five years, initially in a former concentration camp: “I felt I was being treated very badly and very wrongly... because all I had done was type in Herr Goebbels’ office. No, so I can’t bring myself to feel a sense of guilt.”
Perhaps Pomsel would have offered more penetrating reflections had she been quizzed several decades ago. Today, however, her tale merely represents her thoughts (or rather, lack of them) on some of the most terrible events of the 20th century.
And yet, and yet. The book has been assembled by a German journalist, Thore Hansen, who contributes a long afterword. He draws on Pomsel’s account to warn of the frightful perils posed to the modern West by “a trend towards political apathy”. He notes that most young opinion poll respondents declare an unashamed lack of interest in politics, being instead concerned with their own life prospects.
Hansen writes: “Brunhilde Pomsel’s selfish and unreflecting efforts to secure her own advantage are currently taking place a million times over – in ourselves. If democracy bends so deeply to the economy that people think they no longer have any influence on institutions... then the populists and fascists will have an easy ride.”
He sees the spirit that is stifling democracy in Poland, Hungary, Turkey as sharing much with the mood that has produced Brexit, and above all elected the US president: “Donald Trump’s populist rhetoric... revives memories of the darkest times.” The Work I Did – A Memoir of the Secretary to Goebbels, by Brunhilde Pomsel and Thore D Hansen (Bloomsbury) is out in April.
German propaganda minister Dr Joseph Goebbels in 1938.
Brunhilde Pomsel, who died last year aged 106, photographed during World War II.