'I don't feel guilty - why would I?'
Memoir: The Work I Did, Brunhilde Pomsel and Thore D Hansen, Bloomsbury, hardback, 240 pages, €21.10
Interviews with Goebbels' secretary reveal chilling contradictions in her attitude.
Two authors are listed on the cover of this disturbing book. They have very different agendas. The bulk of the words belong to Brunhilde Pomsel, once one of several secretaries in a typing pool at the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda under Joseph Goebbels. These come from transcripts of interviews she gave for a 2016 television documentary, A German Life, which was preoccupied with questions of knowledge and guilt. (Unfortunately the questions have become detached.)
As such, the book's subtitle, A Memoir of the Secretary to Goebbels, is rather misleading. Pomsel was far from his sole or even leading secretary, and this is not her memoir as she might have written it unprompted. Still, her "memories and contradictions" are a valuable and chilling addition to the histories of Nazi Germany. German journalist Thore D Hansen, listed as the book's second author, goes further, framing Pomsel's testimony as a warning about threats to freedom and democracy today; his essay takes up the last third of the book. It is an uneasy harnessing, but not an uninteresting journey.
Pomsel's story is at once ordinary and extraordinary. Brought up in a strict family, she left school with few qualifications save excellent shorthand and a strong sense of duty. For a while she maximised her income by working simultaneously for a Jewish family friend and an aspiring Nazi journalist. She joined the Party to improve her job prospects; enjoyed going to the 1936 Olympics; was "shocked" by Kristallnacht; but chose not to linger on the rounding up of Jewish friends and neighbours and gay colleagues.
Having worked as a secretary for some years, she was transferred to the Ministry of Propaganda in 1942. Here she stayed until the end of the war, among other work rounding down German casualty figures and exaggerating reports of enemy atrocities. In April 1945, she helped stitch together empty sacks to make the white flag used in the Nazi surrender of Berlin. The next five years were spent in Russian captivity.
It is only in a postscript to her words that we learn Pomsel had became pregnant by her Jewish lover, Gottfried Kirchbach, in 1936. He fled to Amsterdam, but the outbreak of war prevented her from joining him. She terminated the pregnancy. He died in 1942. Pomsel lived alone in Munich until last year, when she died at the age of 106, among the last of those who had worked in close contact with the most senior Nazis.
The crucial insight Pomsel's testimony provides is in her attitude towards her complicity with the Nazi regime. "I don't feel guilty," she repeatedly states. "Why would I...? Unless you're going to accuse the whole German people of helping that government come to power." Like much of her testimony, this seems both heartfelt and disingenuous.
Pomsel denies any wartime knowledge of Nazi atrocities and is unlikely to have typed up any memos touching on the Holocaust. But she witnessed the devastating impact of Nazi racial policies on Jewish friends, and knew others were rounded up to spend the rest of the war, she chose to believe, safely in a concentration camp. "We didn't want to know," she admits. Struggling to live under the perverting conditions of war and dictatorship, "we didn't want to burden ourselves even more unnecessarily."
Pomsel's primary motivation appears to have been self-preservation. Her job gave her income and status, and she repeatedly mentions that even minor offenders against the regime were liable to be "executed straight away". Yet even 70 years later, her focus remains largely with her own self-justification, rather than any meaningful expression of horror or grief at the crimes of the regime that employed her, "those crazy Nazis" as she calls them, "that stupid Party". To some extent she was both a victim of, and complicit with, the Third Reich.
Whatever Pomsel's degree of guilt, her choice of words and actions raise important questions about coercion and complicity. Hansen's take is that "rather than provoking a condemnation of Pomsel's life", her memories "give us the opportunity to understand why right-wing populists, authoritarian systems and dictatorships are reappearing in the 21st century".
Much of Pomsel's testimony resonates today. But such echoes must also be treated with caution. Hansen's passionate essay tackles recession, perceived poverty, political fatigue, globalisation, the internet and radicalisation - not all of which correspond with Pomsel's experience. As his search for parallels puts argument before evidence, it starts to feel as though Pomsel's story has been appropriated rather than analysed.
Recording history requires the selection and interpretation of facts, impressions, attitudes and emotions. Sometimes, as with Pomsel's testimony, it is the absences from the record or the contradictions within it that are the most telling. Reading this book, we must hope that we can learn from history in a way that she could not.
Yet the framing of Pomsel's interviews and Hansen's polemic as a "memoir", and of her as a more significant secretary than she almost certainly was, weakens Hansen's authority. Pomsel is an unreliable narrator. When historians touch on the Holocaust, it becomes all the more important for their voices to be trustworthy.
Clare Mulley's The Women Who Flew for Hitler is published by Macmillan