Typing for Goebbels

Read the original article in the London Review of Books.

Brunhilde Pomsel​ , one of Josef Goebbels’s secretaries, died on 27 January. I interviewed her in 1991 for a BBC TV series on Nazi film propaganda. In 2011, Bild ran an ‘exclusive’ interview with her, claiming it was the first time she had spoken since the war, but they got very little from her. By then she was a hundred years old. She said she had been obliged to take the job because she had been one of the fastest typists at the Berliner Rundfunk, and that she had earned 500 Reichsmarks per month. She recalled that every day someone came to give Goebbels a manicure. She knew nothing of the worst aspects of the Nazi regime, she said: ‘I was a silly, politically uninterested sausage with simple relationships. The first I heard of it was after I was released from prison.’ She spent the last ten days of the war in the bunker at the Propaganda Ministry, where business continued. She heard about her boss’s suicide on 1 May 1945, and spent the next five years in a Russian prison camp. On her release, she returned to work in broadcasting, for Südwestrundfunk in Baden-Baden.

I went to see her at her flat in Munich. She had grey hair, a brisk manner and sharp eyes behind her glasses. The windowsills of her flat were filled with geraniums. She had baked some delicious biscuits. I thought how strange it was for the daughter of a Holocaust survivor to be drinking coffee with Goebbels’s typist.

She worked for the Propaganda Ministry from 1942 to 1945, sitting in the front room with three or four other secretaries doing the typing. Goebbels had a private secretary who managed his diaries. When he arrived at work, he would slip quietly past the typists; when he left, they would acknowledge him formally. He was polite, though reserved. He never chased the secretaries, though several were very pretty, as he reserved his attentions for actresses. Pomsel thought he had an inferiority complex because of his club foot. Hitler was a ‘very ugly little man’ with a horrid voice, but Goebbels ‘had a handsome face, he was always very beautifully well-dressed. Of course, he was a bit short, but had he been 20 cm taller I could really have fancied him.’ (Twenty years later she told Bild he was a cold and distant monster.) When Pomsel was bombed out, Magda Goebbels sent her ‘a really nice dress’. She went to dinner a few times at Goebbels’s villa on Schwanenwerder Island. When Goebbels gave his ‘Total War’ speech in February 1943, after the Battle of Stalingrad, he ordered his staff to attend, and Pomsel sat directly behind Magda.

The atmosphere in the office changed markedly after Stalingrad. Pomsel thought that Goebbels realised Germany would lose the war, but there was no possibility of surrender for him. People who got their information from the Wochenschau film news bulletins still believed they could win; Pomsel couldn’t believe the leadership would continue without a secret weapon up their sleeves. There was a screening of Kolberg at the office on 17 April 1945, in the very last days of the Reich. The film tells of the defence of the town during the Napoleonic Wars. The message was plain: ‘We must stay strong and we’ll win.’ Goebbels saw himself playing a role in a similar film in the future. ‘Hold out now,’ he wrote, ‘so that a hundred years hence the audience does not hoot and whistle when you appear on the screen.’

Pomsel told me, with some relish, that she thought Jud Süß was a good film. I asked her if she thought it was anti-Jewish. Maybe, ‘but it was really well made.’ Pomsel herself wasn’t anti-Semitic, she said: ‘I had a Jewish friend called Ewa Löwenthal. I didn’t see her for a while, then I met her on the bus. I told her I was working at the Propaganda Ministry. Ewa joked that she should come by and visit me there. I said: “Well, really! Better not.” I never saw her again. It was very sad.’ At this I had to say that Ewa had probably been killed. Pomsel looked a little surprised and uncomfortable. I thought she had perhaps never before considered that the Jews who were gassed were real people she might actually know, that one of them might even have been a friend. At any rate, Ewa’s death was nothing to do with Pomsel. I found it easy to imagine her checking the spelling of Zyklon B without further thought. When the Holocaust Memorial opened in Berlin 14 years later, she went to check her friend’s fate. Ewa had been deported to Auschwitz in November 1943 and was never seen alive again.

Pomsel used to meet the Goebbels children when she worked on Saturdays. They were ‘delightful with no trace of arrogance. Very nice, pleasant, well-brought-up children.’ When I interviewed Wilfred von Oven, Goebbels’s press attaché, he described them at the country house in Lanke, ‘in a row, like organ pipes. I’ll never forget them, all in little white frocks. The eldest two were dark, the next three very blonde. My favourite was Helmut; he was not as bright as the girls.’ Of all the things Goebbels did, Pomsel couldn’t forgive him for ordering the murder of his children as the Russians advanced. An SS doctor sedated them, aged between 4 and 12, and Magda then crushed cyanide capsules between their teeth. Unequal to the task, she called on Hitler’s personal doctor to help her finish the job. Magda and Goebbels then killed themselves. Maybe, Pomsel said in a faint effort to explain his actions, he was a victim of his own propaganda about Russian atrocities.

Pomsel enjoyed her work. When I asked whether she regretted anything she did, she said: ‘Why should I? I was just typing.’ Later she added that perhaps she should have been more thoughtful. But the five years she spent in a Russian labour camp were ‘very unfair’. If anything, she regretted having stayed at her post, sorting and filing memos, to the bitter end.

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