Andrew Roberts: Secrets of Nazi Secretaries

Roundup: Talking About History

Historian Andrew Roberts' latest book, The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War, was published in the U.S. in May. His previous books include Masters and Commanders and A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900. Dr. Roberts is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Brunhilde Pomsel, Joseph Goebbels’s former secretary, has finally, at age 100, broken a 66-yearlong vow of silence and spoken to the German magazine Der 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 Juderiein, 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.

It is a relief finally to have a secretary’s-eye view of the period that is not kind to the Nazis...

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