THERE was only one time she felt afraid of him. But well into her 11th decade, when she remembered it, Brunhilde Pomsel would tremble and the hairs would start to lift on her arms. The day was February 18th 1943, when she had gone with a colleague to the Berlin Sportpalast to hear her boss give a speech. Everyone at the Ministry of Enlightenment and Propaganda was meant to go; as a junior, one of six secretaries in her office, she hadn’t known how to get out of it. So there they were, in the huge sports stadium, among the party high-ups in the reserved seats.

She knew Joseph Goebbels as soon as he appeared, of course: small, frail and tense, with his exquisitely neat hair and hands and the dragging club foot, which always made her feel sorry for him. What she did not recognise was what he became as he spoke: a raving, ranting midget, foaming and roaring about the need for total war, and making the crowd roar back its approval. She and her colleague gripped hands in terror, forgetting to applaud, until an SS man poked their shoulders to remind them. They clapped then, bewildered. 

As for the speech itself, she didn’t take it in. She was apolitical, as she kept saying when, seven decades later, she began to talk about it. Stupidly so, but there it was. Yes, she had voted for Hitler in 1933 because she felt, like most Germans, that Germany had been betrayed by its own government and kicked around by other countries. She joined the Nazi party then, too, because she had to join to get a job in state radio, but she celebrated by having coffee with her Jewish best friend Eva, so that was all the difference it made to her. And she had gone to work for Goebbels, Hitler’s chief of propaganda and architect of his most savage schemes, because she had an excellent typing speed and was ordered to. As a good Prussian girl, she did her duty.

Besides, it was a nice job. The pay was great, 275 marks a month, with flexible hours and pleasant people. As for her work, it was the usual round of typing, taking calls, sorting post, filing. She had to change some figures once, as the war turned, reducing the numbers of Germans killed and increasing the number of rapes of German women by Soviet soldiers. She was also given the file of Sophie Scholl, a student leader of the anti-Nazi resistance, who was executed for handing out leaflets at Munich University. Her instructions were not to look at it, but to put it in the safe. She did as she was told, and felt proud for having obeyed; proud, too, to have the key of the safe, but never to use it without Goebbels’s permission. The very thought that she had his trust made her feel a little more noble.

Not that she often saw him. He was polite but distant, and she wondered whether he knew her name. He invited her one day to dinner at his villa, even seating her next to him, but never said one word to her. If she had been a Hollywood starlet, he would have been all over her; but she was only medium pretty, and wore glasses. Magda, his wife, was kind, and gave her a beautiful blue wool suit when her flat was bombed. The six children were darlings, so well-behaved, and played on her typewriter when they came to the office.

Her Jewish friends

The spell she was under—the spell everyone was under—broke only in April 1945, when she spent ten days cowering from Soviet artillery in Hitler’s bunker, trying to get drunk and stay drunk, gulping cold food out of cans, and numb as a lost soul. She planned to tell the Russians, when they came, that she was only Goebbels’s typist. He had already shot himself and Magda and they had murdered the children, pushing cyanide into their mouths as they slept. The thought of that made her cry bitterly, unable to forgive them.

But what about the murders of all those others, that business of the Jews? She never knew they had been killed. There were camps; the Jews went to them; and then were sent on, she was told, to repopulate the eastern lands. That all made sense. As for the Jews she knew, their lives got difficult, but she was not sure why. Her first boss, Hugo Goldberg, a lawyer, kept cutting her hours and pay as his clients dwindled. Her friend Eva had to stop visiting her at the ministry, and eventually disappeared; she found her many decades later, on the death-roll of Auschwitz. Just before her death she confided to the maker of a documentary about her that the love of her life had been Gottfried Kirchbach, a Jew; he had escaped to Amsterdam, but her regular visits to him aroused too much suspicion, and had to end. For medical reasons she also had to abort his child. She never married afterwards.

This untypical story had not emerged in the documentary, or in any other interview she gave. Some things she still kept hidden—including, perhaps, the fact that she could be brave. She was tired of everyone saying she must have known more and should have resisted. No, she had been a silly superficial coward, but she had done nothing to be ashamed of. What could a typist have to apologise for?

Besides, she had been punished: five years peeling potatoes and sewing laundry sacks in Soviet prisons, no bed of roses, before she returned to Germany and other secretarial jobs. Back in her flat in ransacked Berlin, she found the blue suit Magda had given her still hanging in the wardrobe. She wore it for many years.