his­tory

Joseph Goebbels’ sec­re­tary, talk­ing be­fore her death last year, was still proud of the trust he put in her, writes Max Hast­ings.

Sunday Star-Times - Sunday Magazine - - NEWS -

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.

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