"Everything that is beautiful is also tainted."
May 22, 2017 8:44 AM   Subscribe

A German Life. Brunhilde Pomsel died on January 27 of this year, at the age of 106. Seventy-five years earlier, in 1942, she began work at the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, as a personal secretary to Joseph Goebbels. Before her death, she recorded 30 hours of interviews, which form the basis of the film A German Life (Trailer 1, Trailer 2, IMDB)

There are obvious comparisons to be made between Pomsel and Traudl Junge, Hitler's personal secretary, whose interviews at the end of her own life formed the basis of the documentary Blind Spot, and whose memoir of the Fuhrerbunker was the inspiration for the memetically inescapable Downfall. Unlike Junge, however, Pomsel shows little remorse looking back at the actions of her younger self, and seems to shrug off her complicity as a cog in the machinery of the Holocaust.
posted by McCoy Pauley (6 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Apparently Pomsel never even saw the line she crossed.

Was it willful self blindness to avoid the horrible necessity of taking responsibility for herself, or was she genuinely oblivious even at 106?
posted by sotonohito at 9:27 AM on May 22, 2017 [3 favorites]

In an unjust structure, it's all too easy to do the wrong thing and think it is right.

There's a lesson in all of this for white Americans -- we've never even had the national conversation around acknowledging our centuries of wrongdoing. All those folks from Little Rock who were spitting on schoolchildren, all those cops who set dogs on them; all the cops who kill people today and those who support them.

Thanks so much for this.
posted by allthinky at 9:57 AM on May 22, 2017 [8 favorites]

To add some observations outside the impersonal voice of the FPP: I watched the movie yesterday at the Washington Jewish Film Festival, and it's been bugging me ever since (which is part of why I felt the need to post about it).

As a film, it could be better constructed. The interview sections with Pomsel herself are the heart of it, and they're fascinating, but they're intercut with assorted period material that feels like it was thrown in more because it was available than because it contributes to a coherent narrative. There are also several sections of particularly brutal Holocaust footage which, important as it is in itself, feels shoehorned into this context, and might drive people out of the theater who would otherwise watch all the way through.

But Pomsel herself drives me a little crazy. She acknowledges the enormity of events, and calls herself a coward for not standing up or fighting it in any way, but also insists that anyone would have acted as she did, and that she bears no real responsibility for anything she was part of.

There were several moments when I wanted to reach into the screen and start shaking her, one when she talks about having been handed the White Rose file by one of her superiors and told to file it without reading it. And she talks about how she did exactly as she was told, and didn't read it in spite of her inevitable curiousity, and then was terribly proud of herself for following her orders exactly despite temptation. It's a direct and inescapable contrast with Traudl Junge talking about encountering the memorial to Sophie Scholl and realizing that she could have been aware, and she could have done something. (By the way, thank you for that comic, sotonohito -- I had not seen that.)

One of the other frustrating moments for me is when she talks about going to meet her Jewish friend Eva Löwenthal for coffee, and instead dragging the poor woman to the nearest Nazi party office, to wait on a bench outside while Pomsel stood in line to register as a party member, so she could get the better job that a Nazi friend had recommended her for. (And then complaining to Eva that she'd just spent her last ten marks on the membership fee, so she couldn't afford to buy coffee after all.) There are a lot of moments like that, especially in her dealings with Eva, which reek not just of self-justification, but of complete obliviousness to the import of her actions.

The whole thing is a powerful reminder that you don't need a nation of cartoonish monsters to commit genocide -- all you need is a few monsters to lead, and a great many people who are happy to keep the wheels of the machine well-oiled and running smoothly as long as there's a good paycheck in it. After all, all they have to do is process paperwork, and nobody really *believes* all the things politicians say, do they, and how could they have known what was really going on, and they didn't do anything that someone else wouldn't have done in their place...
posted by McCoy Pauley at 10:51 AM on May 22, 2017 [11 favorites]

I think there's no question this woman should be condemned for her actions and inactions, but I don't feel I can look down on her because while the Holocaust was stopped short of the Final Solution some 70 years ago, a mere 60 years before that the genocide of the American Indians was almost completed, and I haven't done jack about that.
posted by jamjam at 12:13 PM on May 22, 2017 [3 favorites]

jamjam, it's not about looking down on her. For me, it's about the awareness that any of us could be her. (And some of us already are.)
posted by McCoy Pauley at 8:28 AM on May 23, 2017 [1 favorite]

also insists that anyone would have acted as she did, and that she bears no real responsibility for anything she was part of.

It's weird, and I suppose predictable, how that is flipped around. One has to take responsibility *because* of the fact that anyone would act that way. Banality is not a excuse, it is the *reason*. The evil is built into us, and we have to counter-act it every day.
posted by smidgen at 1:02 PM on May 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

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