In the famous film, Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), which depicts a fictionalised account of the actual Judges’ Trial of 1947, Burt Lancaster plays a judge who is on trial for sentencing many innocent people to death during the Third Reich. In his cell after being sentenced to life imprisonment, he tells the Trial Judge who visits him that he had never desired the mass murder of innocent people: “We never knew it would come to that.” The Trial Judge, played by Spencer Tracy, replies, “It came to that the first time you sentenced a man to death you knew to be innocent.”
That remark has always stayed with me as a reminder that one deliberate lapse in moral integrity is never just a “one-off”; unless recognised and repented it will always grow into other, larger lapses from grace. This is one reason why the saints are not nit-picking or over-scrupulous when they advise us to be serious about so-called venial sins.
These thoughts returned to me when I read The Work That I Did by Brunehilde Pomsel (Bloomsbury £16.99), the memories of one of Goebbels’ secretaries, recorded by Pomsel in 2013 when she was 102 (she died in 2017, aged 106). Pomsel, one must emphasise, was much less culpable than the Nazi judges. She was merely an apolitical, rather shallow young German woman, who joined the Nazi Party in order to get a job as a shorthand typist in the German Broadcasting Corporation and who was then seconded in 1942 to work in in the Ministry of Propaganda, run by Goebbels.
What is thought-provoking about her recording is that it is, I suspect, a largely honest account (with some retrospective special pleading) of what it was like to be an ordinary working girl within the Berlin population of those times, living through the collapse of the Weimar Republic and very keen “for work and money” amid mass unemployment. She reflects, “I was very industrious back then…That very Prussian thing, that sense of duty.”
She wasn’t personally anti-Semitic either. For four years she had worked for a Dr Goldberg in a Jewish insurance company, until in 1933 “all at once everything changed” and the firm was forced to close. She also had a Jewish girl friend, Ewa Lowenthal, telling the interviewer that in 1943 “all of a sudden Ewa was gone. And we couldn’t do a thing about it.” How much did she know about the real fate of the German Jews? It is hard to tell from her recorded memories if she was genuinely ignorant, believing the propaganda that they were being taken away “to fill the empty farmhouses in the east” as native Germans in those regions were being repatriated, or whether she suspected worse and chose not to know.
Among her remarks there is a telling reaction to the news of the savage reprisals against the White Rose, the name given to the heroic protest against Nazi atrocities, particularly on the Eastern Front, by a group of young Munich students and others, led by Hans and Sophie Scholl. Arrested very quickly and tried by the notorious Peoples’ Court, they were beheaded within days. Pomsel reflects, “Among ourselves we felt enormous sympathy because they were so young…It was so harsh, executing them straight away…But it was stupid of them to do things like that. If they’d kept their mouths shut, they’d still be alive today.” She adds candidly, “I’ve never had the courage for things like that…what they did was a bit incomprehensible to me.”
Of course it would have been incomprehensible to her. Pomsel determined early on to be a survivor, to keep out of trouble (meaning politics), to work hard at her job – there is no record that she was especially favoured by Goebbels among the other secretaries or that she typed anything significant for his underlings with whom she liaised – and never to ask questions. In taking this stance she could be Everywoman.
Nonetheless, allowing for Pomsel’s insignificant status in society, it is also the case that somewhere along the line and at some moment, long forgotten by her, she stumbled in her moral integrity. Her last remarks, recorded 70 years after the historic events through which she had lived, tell us much about her: “No, I don’t feel guilty. Absolutely not. Why would I?”