Freelance journalist for Modern Times based in Berlin.

HISTORY: Goebbels’ selfproclaimed apolitical secretary tells her version of the historical events. The result is an important document for posterity, but is this all we need?

A German Life

Christian Krönes/ Olaf S. Müller/ Roland Schrotthofer/ Florian Weigensamer

Austria, 2016

The Austrian documentary A German Life mainly consists of interviews with the at the time 104-year-old Berlin-born Brunhilde Pomsel. Pomsel was one of the few who was present in Hitler’s bunker during the last fateful days in Berlin. The intimate interview is divided into chapters of partly shocking recordings, including footage from the ghetto in Warsaw.

The recordings, filmed by Germans, show shattered skeletons, naked Jewish bodies, women, children and men sliding down into a mass grave on a wooden sled. At the bottom of the huge ditch, they are stacked like logs of wood to make the most out of the space. A woman who is sliding down has a terribly painful facial expression that is terrifying and at the same time lifelike – even though she is clearly dead. Tortured to death by the hermetically sealed ghetto in Poland’s capital.

Pomsel was employed as a secretary for Josef Goebbels in the propaganda department in Berlin, during the last three years of the war, after having worked a period
of time for the National Socialist parliamentary broadcasting. Previously, she worked for a Jewish lawyer (Dr. Hugo Goldberg) who received less and less clients during the aggressive growth of Anti-Semitism during the 30s. Pomsel sighs heavily when she tells about life in Nazi Germany. She begins the interview by asking a question to the camera: “Is it bad if people try to do something for themselves that is good for them, in the position they have been given – but at the same time realize that they harm other people? But one does not think that far, we were thinking short-term and indifferently.”

World War I. Brunhilde Pomsel was born in 1911 and grew up in Berlin during the 1920s, where she graduated as a stenographer. She remembers her father’s mobilization as a soldier during the World War I and his return after four years. “The world was different at that time – we were not particularly open to each other, but we lived closely together with a particular proximity between the family members. If we were naughty, we got punished – you didn’t get far with love and understanding. The strict, Prussian, dutiful obedience was imprinted in us from childhood,” says Brunhilde. It is impossible to understand the world at that time, today, she claims, and asks: “Should I blame myself for not having been politically conscious? No, rather the contrary. If I had been a politically conscious person, that would quickly have become my end.” She admits that she was a young coward back then, naive and stupid, and not interested in politics but rather concerned with superficial matters, such as nice clothes and a good salary. She portrays her boss Goebbels as elegant, distinguished, well-dressed, short and limpy. A brilliant actor.

«The strict, Prussian, dutiful obedience was imprinted in us from childhood. You didn’t get far with love and understanding.»

A furious “dwarf” who acted as a political demagogue, although he was polite in the office. And so it continues. We learn about everyday life in Nazi Germany, where most people were concerned with family and friends, safe surroundings and a well-paid job that gave them the opportunity to enjoy daily life. A close Jewish girlfriend of Brunhilde Pomsel even accompanied her to the German National Socialist Labor Party South of Berlin, which she was paid ten Reichsmark to do.

The party enrollment was the condition made so that she could get a job at the parliamentary broadcasting. When she later gets the job at Mr. Goebbels’ office, her friend Eva Löwenthal is not allowed to visit her anymore because of the general situation, Pomsel describes 70 years later. Eva had beautiful eyes, reddish hair and she was witty. Eventually, the two lose contact, something Pomsel herself finds natural in relation to the conditions in Germany. For a long time, she believes that her friend has moved from the country with her family, despite the fact that she, through the whole interview, has pointed out that Eva and her family were extremely poor.

Large and small components. One is left with the feeling that Brunhilde Pomsel knows much more than she wants to tell us – but after all, she has not killed anyone. Here we are at the root of the problem: Pomsel was only one among thousands of components in a deadly machinery that led to the massacre of Jews, Romans, gays, political opponents, Russian prisoners of war and other innocent civilians. One day, the case file about the two siblings of resistance, Hans and Sophie Scholl (22 years old), lands on her office desk in the propaganda department. She is strictly informed that she has no access to the folders and she is ordered to put the folder in the safe. Pomsel obeys the order and is proud of herself and her own obedience, even though she was very curious. Still, she regrets the Scholl siblings’ cruel destiny, which was portrayed in the movie about Sophie Scholl’s last days, in 2005: they were thrown into a guillotine by executioner Johann Reichhart in 1943. Furthermore, Pomsel talks about the understanding of concentration camps as educational institutions where criminals and outlaws were to be transformed into good citizens in the new German Aryan community.

Although this has become a moving film told with a clear personal voice, it is tempting to call for a more expanded perspective on the source material. There were, after all, many other hardworking components in this system, which would have been so interesting to focus on: in 1945 and following years, over 1000 German scientists and engineers, including Wernher von Braun, were invited to the United States to develop the rocket science research they had begun during the Nazi regime (the secret “Operation Paperclip”), further. In the 1970s, von Braun received a total of 25 honorary doctorates in the United States and Germany
and helped develop the Saturn V rocket that enabled the country’s moon landing. Similarly, the engineer Helmut Gröttrup, was, together with more than 1000 other engineers and German scientists, deported to the Soviet Union in 1946 to assist the Soviets with their rocket launch program.

This led to Sputnik and Gagarin. In 1953 Gröttrup was allowed to return to Germany. Brunhilde Pomsel was, in her case, also a Soviet prisoner of war for five years. She was a prisoner in the concentration camp Buchenwald, an original German concentration camp, which became a Soviet prison camp after the war. Afterwards, Pomsel worked as chief secretary of the German federal broadcasting ARD. She lived to be 106 years old, had no children and never got married. Her friend Eva Löwenthal was murdered in Auschwitz, which Pomsel also talks about in the film. Would it be possibly more important to produce a documentary about the scientists and engineers who, with their own eyes, watched forced workers die in concentration camps? Those few who got away with dignity.