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08.30.11

Secrets of Nazi Secretaries

Senior Nazis’ office staff seemed to get on well with history’s greatest monsters—but not Brunhilde Pomsel, who after six decades of silence, has revealed that her boss, Joseph Goebbels, was a coldhearted swine.

Brunhilde Pomsel, Joseph Goebbels’s former secretary, has finally, at age 100, broken a 66-yearlong vow of silence and spoken to the German newspaper Bild about her old boss. After five months of negotiations, the woman who took dictation from the Nazi minister of propaganda and public enlightenment has recalled what it was like to type up reports, such as the one to Hitler boasting that Berlin had become Judenrein, or “Jew-free.”

Brunhilde didn’t much like Dr. Goebbels, who would certainly rate a starring part in the new Hollywood movie Horrible Bosses. She remembers him as “cold and distant” as well as “a monster,” adding: “You couldn’t get close to him. He never once asked me a personal question. Right up until the end I don’t think he knew my name. He got away lightly with suicide. He knew he would be condemned to death by the Allies. His suicide was cowardly, but he was also smart because he knew what was coming if he didn’t take that way out.”

The way he took was to shoot his wife, Magda, and himself, but not before they made their six children swallow cyanide, because they did not want them growing up in a post-Nazi Germany. (According to those who found the corpses, their eldest, 12-year-old Helga, fought back against her mother once she realized what was happening.) Brunhilde herself candidly admits her Nazism: “I joined the party in 1933—why not? Everyone did.” She denies knowing anything about the Holocaust, for the simple, and in this case credible, reason that Goebbels did not commit such things to paper.

History would be all the poorer without the secretary’s-eye view, so long as it doesn’t obscure the greater picture. If it were ever allowed to, Churchill would be the villain and Hitler the hero.

It is a relief finally to have a secretary’s-eye view of the period that is not kind to the Nazis. By and large, the office staff of the senior Nazis—except Joachim von Ribbentrop, whom absolutely everybody despised—seemed to get on well with history’s greatest monsters. Adolf Hitler, despite being the most evil force ever to befoul mankind, was also a kind and conscientious employer. His secretary Traudl Junge, who took down the dictation of his last will and testament in the Reich Chancellery bunker, later said: “I admit, I was fascinated by Adolf Hitler. He was a pleasant boss and a fatherly friend. I deliberately ignored all the warning voices inside me and enjoyed the time by his side almost until the bitter end. It wasn’t what he said, but the way he said things and how he did things.”

Another of Hitler’s secretaries, Christa Schroeder, who also stayed with him to the very end, wrote in her memoirs, He Was My Chief, of the small courtesies the führer would pay to his secretaries, how he would visit his staff in the hospital and interest himself in their lives. (He encouraged Traudl to marry Waffen-SS officer Hans Hermann Junge, who died in combat a year after the wedding.) Hitler didn’t allow his secretaries to smoke, however, and one of the first things they did after they heard the suicide shot in the bunker was to get out their cigarettes and light up.

I interviewed Ribbentrop’s private secretary, Reinhard Spitzy, who despised his boss with the contempt that only an aristocratic Austrian can summon up for a man he called “a jumped-up German champagne salesman who lived off his wife.” Spitzy, a Nazi who escaped to live in Argentina after the war, was particularly derisive of the means by which Ribbentrop got the right to use the prefix “von” before his name. “He paid a distant aunt to adopt him while his parents were still alive,” Spitzy told me. “And then he reneged on the payments.”

There seems to be little connection between world-historical splendor and kindness to staff. Winston Churchill could be brusque and exasperating to his secretaries, and certainly didn’t interest himself in their private lives. He was intolerant of bad typing, often spoke too quickly for his stenographers, and growled at them in mock—but sometimes genuine—admonition. They found him a tough and exacting boss, but of course worshipped him for what he was doing to save them from the Employer of the Year over in Berlin. Churchill’s wife, Clementine, even had to write to him in June 1940 warning, “There is a danger of your being generally disliked by your colleagues and subordinates because of your rough, sarcastic and overbearing manner.” He promised to change, and did.

Napoleon’s secretaries, Louis de Bourrienne, Emmanuel Las Cases, and Baron Fain, also found it hard to take dictation from the emperor, as the torrent of words poured forth so fast, but they, too, were devoted. Bourrienne, with whom Napoleon had been at school, had to be sacked for embezzlement, and wrote snarky memoirs of Napoleon in revenge, but he had few complaints of the emperor purely as a boss.

Even the famously haughty Lord Curzon of Kedleston, the grandest of all the viceroys of India and British foreign secretaries, was approachable to those of his staff and servants who summoned up the courage to try. When his drunken valet Arkatall packed the wrong tuxedo trousers for the Versailles Peace Conference, all his lordship said was: “You seem to be a most indefinite Arkatall.” When the president of France died unexpectedly, Curzon’s private secretary Harold Nicolson insisted that Curzon be asked to come to the only telephone at Kedleston Hall to be told the news privately. “Do you mean to tell me, Nicolson,” Curzon said, clearly tongue-in-cheek, “that you have had me brought the entire length of a house whose proportions are not unadjacent to those of Buckingham Palace in order to impart a piece of mildly diverting gossip?”

Of course, history, which at times seems little more than a compendium of mildly diverting gossip, would be all the poorer without the secretary’s-eye view, so long as it doesn’t obscure the greater picture. If it was ever allowed to, Churchill would be the villain and Hitler the hero. Nonetheless, it is gratifying to discover from the splendidly named Brunhilde Pomsel, albeit from testimony that comes two thirds of a century late, that Joseph Goebbels was indeed the coldhearted swine we had always assumed him to be.