Obituary: Brunhilde Pomsel
Secretary of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels
Brunhilde Pomsel – Born: January 11th, 1911 – Died: January 27th, 2017. Photograph: AFP
Brunhilde Pomsel, the personal stenographer of the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels during the last three years of World War II and one of the last surviving members of Hitler’s retinue in his final days in a Berlin bunker, died on Friday at her home in Munich. She was 106.
Her death was confirmed by Christian Krönes, a director of “A German Life,” a documentary film about Pomsel. Krönes said family members told him of the death.
A trusted Nazi Party loyalist, Pomsel was the private secretary of Goebbels from 1942 until the war’s end in 1945, taking his dictation and transcribing documents, letters, diary entries and other business of that virulently anti-Semitic propaganda chief, who rigidly controlled the news media, the arts, radio broadcasting and films in Nazi Germany.
In Berlin’s swastika-draped Sportpalast in 1943, when Goebbels gave his most famous speech, acknowledging publicly for the first time — after the Nazi defeat at Stalingrad — that the nation faced serious dangers, calling for “total war” and hinting at a vast extermination of Jews that was already under way, Pomsel sat near the front, just behind her boss’s wife, Magda Goebbels.
“No actor could have been any better at the transformation from a civilised serious person into a ranting, rowdy man,” Pomsel told the Guardian in an interview seven decades later. “In the office, he had a kind of noble elegance, and then to see him there like a raging midget — you just can’t imagine a greater contrast.”
Pomsel was hardly oblivious to the persecution of Jews and other political undesirables. She saw brutalities and round-ups in the streets, and she knew that her vivacious, red-haired Jewish friend, Eva Löwenthal, had disappeared and that a popular announcer on the state radio where she had formerly worked had been arrested for being gay.
“The whole country was as if under a kind of spell,” she recalled. “I could open myself up to the accusations that I wasn’t interested in politics, but the truth is that idealism of youth might easily have led you to having your neck broken.”
Among the thousands of documents that crossed her desk, she remembered the dossier of Sophie Scholl, a leader of the anti-Nazi White Rose resistance movement. Scholl was executed for high treason in 1943 after distributing antiwar leaflets at the University of Munich.
“I was told by one of Goebbels’s special assistants to put it in the safe and not to look at it,” she said of the dossier. “So I didn’t and was quite pleased with myself that he trusted me and that my keenness to honour that trust was stronger than my curiosity to open that file.”
In late April 1945, as Soviet forces closed in on the heart of Berlin and it was clear the war had been lost, Pomsel and other staffers joined Mrs Goebbels and her six children in the “Vorbunker” under the Reich Chancellery. Hitler was in a deeper “Führerbunker,” and most of his inner circle — Goebbels, Göring, Himmler, Ribbentrop, Bormann and Speer — joined him there for a bitter farewell.
“It felt as if something inside me had died,” Pomsel recalled. “We tried to make sure we didn’t run out of alcohol. That was urgently needed in order to retain the numbness.”
In succeeding days, most occupants of the führer’s bunker slipped away, singly and in small groups. Some escaped, and others were killed or captured by the Russians. Hitler and Goebbels, his designated heir, stayed behind. On April 30th, Pomsel recalled, Günther Schwägermann, a Goebbels aide, told the staff that Hitler and Eva Braun, after a marriage ceremony, had committed suicide.
A day later, Schwägermann reported that Goebbels had killed himself.
“We asked him: ‘And his wife as well?’
“And the children too?”
Pomsel had often seen the children at the office, excited to visit their father at work. She had let them play with her typewriter. The oldest was 12. They were polite, curtsying, shaking hands.
“We were dumbstruck,” she said.
Investigators later determined that Goebbels had arranged for a dentist to inject each of the children with morphine. When they were unconscious, Magda Goebbels, assisted by her husband’s doctor, had crushed ampuls of cyanide into their mouths.
Pomsel and other staff members made a large white flag from food sacks in the bunker and surrendered to the Russians. Under interrogation, she acknowledged her role in the Propaganda Ministry and served five years in Russian prison camps around Berlin.
Like Hitler’s last private secretary, Traudl Junge, Pomsel insisted that she had been ignorant of Nazi atrocities during the war. She said it was not until after her return home from imprisonment that she learned of the Holocaust, which she called “the matter of the Jews.”
She found work at a new state radio station in Berlin, became secretary to the programme director and followed him to Munich when he was transferred there. She was paid well, travelled and retired in 1971 at age 60. She never married, had no children and lived the rest of her life in Munich.
She gave interviews to the German newspaper Bild in 2011, and to the Guardian last year to coincide with the release of “A German Life,” a 113-minute documentary, based on 30 hours of interviews, that had its premiere at the Munich Film Festival.
In the interviews and film, she sometimes contradicted herself. She told the newspapers that she had joined the Nazi Party when Hitler took power in 1933, but in the film she said that she had joined in 1942 to get the job with Goebbels. In the film she carefully minimised her Nazi associations, but with the newspapers she was far less guarded.
Still, she was consistently unrepentant, saying she had nothing to apologise for. “No,” she told the filmmakers, “I wouldn’t see myself as being guilty. Unless you end up blaming the entire German population for ultimately enabling that government to take control. That was all of us, including me.”
Born in Berlin
Brunhilde Pomsel was born in Berlin on January 11th, 1911, the only daughter among four children of strict Prussian parents. She attended public schools and became a stenographer for a Jewish lawyer and a typist for a right-wing nationalist.
In 1933, a Nazi friend got her a job in the news department of the state radio station in Berlin. Nine years later she joined the Propaganda Ministry, working in an anteroom outside Goebbels’s office at the Ordenspalais, opposite Hitler’s Reich Chancellery.
Small, manicured and a notorious womaniser, Goebbels limped on a deformed right foot. He had adored Hitler since the mid-1920s and had organised torchlight parades, the Nuremberg party rallies, and the brownshirts and Nazi agitators who smashed Jewish businesses and attacked Jews in the streets. He was a fanatic diarist, dictating up to 85 pages a day, to be transcribed by his secretary and senior confidants like Werner Naumann, who handled sensitive materials.
Pomsel was once invited to dinner at the Goebbels villa and seated next to her boss, a raconteur who regaled the table. “If I had been a movie star, he probably would have dazzled me with charm,” she said. “He didn’t even ask me whether I liked it there or whether I had relatives fighting in the war.” (Two of her three brothers had died in battle.) “He did not speak to me at all, not even one word.”
At the office he was formal and distant. She said her duties, besides dictation and typescripts, included writing reports that understated Nazi casualties and exaggerated rapes of German women by Red Army soldiers. But she said she never had access to information about Nazi war crimes.
“We knew that Buchenwald existed,” she said in the documentary. “We knew it as a camp. We knew Jews went there. I witnessed the deportation of Jews from Berlin.” But she said the staff was told that deported Jews would repopulate lands to the east that were being abandoned by refugees.
As for gas chambers and crematories, she told The Guardian: “I know no one ever believes us nowadays — everyone thinks we knew everything. We knew nothing. It was all a well-kept secret. We believed it. We swallowed it. It seemed entirely plausible.”
In retirement, Pomsel lived in a Munich suburb. In 2005, she went to Berlin to see the new Holocaust Memorial to six million Jews killed in the war, and she inquired about her long-lost friend.
“I went to the information centre and told them I myself was missing someone — an Eva Löwenthal,” she said. A man checked records and found that she had been deported to Auschwitz in November 1943 and declared dead in 1945.
After her eyesight began to fail in 2013, Pomsel entered a nursing home.
She told the Guardian: “In the little time that’s left to me — and I hope it will be months rather than years — I just cling to the hope that the world doesn’t turn upside down again as it did then, though there have been some ghastly developments, haven’t there? I’m relieved I never had any children that I have to worry about.”
– New York Times service