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A German Life: are we all Pomseline?

Pomsel

A documentary film was made in 2013, and shown recently on British television; it might have been shown here on a previous occasion, but this was the first time I saw it. It was made by film-makers Christian Krönes, Olaf S. Müller, Roland Schrotthofer, and Florian Weigensamer; it had the title Ein Deutsches Leben (A German Life), and it enabled the then 103 year old Brunhilde Pomsel (affectionately known by her friends & family as Pomseline) to tell her life story, as best as she could remember it, which was surprisingly well (without wishing to be in any way patronising). A book, entitled The Work I Did, and the reason for this post, was written by Thore D. Hansen, and published in an English version, with a translation by Shaun Whiteside, in 2018 (Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2018).

What makes this book and, of course, its source material, the subject of the first section, so interesting, is that it is the chronology of a woman whose most notable employment, in the context of 20th century history, was as a typist in the office of Joseph Goebbels who, for those who might not already know, was effectively second only to Hitler himself in the hierarchy of the Nazi machinery until the very end of the second world war. In itself, that would make for a fascinating read, for those of us with a thirst for knowledge of recent history, but she was by no means an ardent Nazi: not quite the reverse, but it is her apparent indifference at the time to events that were unfolding all around her, with the probable inevitable inference to be drawn that she was driven almost entirely by self-interest (and was also possibly not being entirely candid) that galvanised Thore Hansen into presenting a written record of the interviews, followed by an analysis of her recollections, and what relevance they have for the recent re-emergence (interpreted by many as a danger) of right-wing nationalist parties on a global scale, but more specifically in a European context.

But of course I’m guilty in the sense of being stupid. But it wasn’t what everybody wanted. They promised themselves a new revival after the loss of the First World War, and at first that actually happened. A re-blossoming of a humiliated people who had lost the war and not gained some of the rights that could have grown out of the Treaty.

Hansen points out how easily she could have informed herself about contemporary events, using information that was easily available to her, but “[t]he desire for personal recognition and her blind sense of duty towards her superior took precedence in the young secretary.” When the aforementioned documentary film was premiered, the current detachment from, and lack of interest in politics & the democratic process, on the part of large sections of people around the world, giving rise to ignorance, passivity and apathy, enabling those already radicalised to recruit those who are credulous & gullible enough to follow them, was emphasised; Paul Garbulski of the German Vice magazine was quoted as saying: “I have always tried to protect myself from others, and it is the ordinary person in me, filled with sufficient weary absurdity, who paves the way for betrayal and the violence of entire armies. Let us pay attention to the little bit of Pomsel within each of us.” (Gib acht vor der Nazi-Sekretärin in dir {Watch out for the Nazi secretary in you}; VICE Magazin, 17 august 2016, at: http://www.vice.com/de/read/sind-wir-nicht-alle-ein-bisschen-pomsel, visited 28 December 2016)

According to Hansen, “… currently many people are turning away from the democratic system because they do not question the mechanisms that lead to the breakdown of social and human solidarity — or perhaps because they don’t want to question them? In Pomsel’s life, or at least so it seems, little mattered apart from her own advancement.”

And now that was my fate. Who is in control of his fate in such agitated times? Very few people can say: I did this and this for that and that reason. It just happens to us!

What is happening in Europe & the United States is what is engaging Hansen on our behalf, and the parallels between the 1930s and the present day: “Are parts of the population, most of whom have not yet been radicalised by the new demagogues, in the end just as passive, ignorant or indifferent towards current developments as Pomsel described herself and those around her when she was aged twenty-two to thirty-four? Is youth today just as apolitical, and is the political disenchantment of the middle class the actual threat to democracy? Have the democratic elites failed by ignoring the long-term consequences and causes of an increasing political disenchantment? Are we returning, open-eyed, through our passive attitude and apathy, to the 1930s? And can we really draw conclusions for the present day from Pomsel’s biography — conclusions that will stir us into action? Anyone who does not wish to see totalitarian states emerging should take the experiences of the 1930s and Brunhilde Pomsel’s life story seriously.”

He goes on to give a specific example of this fear, as embodied in Turkey: “In our own times we are seeing a dictatorship emerging in Turkey. In the end it is people like Brunhilde Pomsel who have, at the behest of of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, brought the opposition, parliament and the media under the sole control of the president to ensure Erdogan’s power. We don’t know how much opportunism these police officers, functionaries and other henchmen displayed or had to display just to live (or survive) in Erdogan’s new system, but they are calling democracy into question. … The death penalty is due to be reintroduced. The Turkish parliament has been stripped of its power, and the powers of the president have been strengthened. These are all signs clearly reminiscent of the Nazi dictatorship, under which Brunhilde Pomsel began her career in the Reich Broadcasting Corporation after it was cleansed of Jews. What we are observing in Turkey is also happening elsewhere in the world, but we are talking about a country aspiring to membership of a community of democratic values — the European Union. … Democracy is the constant attempt to safeguard and protect the rights of the individual. The new right-wing populists, should they come to power, will deny individuals these rights again, and the old anti-fascist warning ‘Resist the beginnings’ is being uttered far too late.” I have only been able to scratch the surface here of this fascinating book, and there is plenty in it to stimulate thought about the current state of the world without, I hope, giving rise to pessimism: positive action, even in a small way, is possible, and can achieve tangible results.

This subject is of particular interest to me, given my own involvement, as a research subject, with British fascism in the 1930s, having discovered many years ago that my grand-uncle was a major player in the movement, before he detached himself, for reasons explained in his biography, Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles, to concentrate (very successfully, in my humble estimation) on animal welfare in general, and anti-vivisection specifically. It was always stressed, from the top, in the person of Oswald Mosley himself, down to the rank & file (with some notable exceptions, such as William Joyce, aka Lord Haw-Haw, it has to be said) that fascism in Britain, such as it was in its limited and, with the onset of war, failed manifestation, owed nothing to National Socialism in Germany; rather it was modelled on (but not cloned from) Mussolini’s Blackshirt movement in Italy, with its system of corporate government, rather than polarised party politicians who could be (and still can be, in many countries) easily bought. It is futile to speculate from the standpoint of the early twenty-first century whether Mosley could have been the mythical ‘benign dictator’, had he succeeded in his ambitions; my own opinion, for what it’s worth, is that such a thing is impossible, now, especially within the all-pervasive capitalist system, which surely only the most ardent (and blinkered) free-market proponents could resist admitting has failed miserably, but until the world sees sense and transfers all resources to common ownership, we will have to prop up democracy as best we can, to avoid global catastrophe. However, this does mean that we must all engage with politics, even if only to the minimum extent of voting, ideally for issues of importance, rather than being constrained by party straitjackets or, worse, submitting to apathy, expecting other people to decide their fate for them.

There is a fascinating, and rather poignant, postscript to the Brunhilde Pomsel story, which for reasons not elucidated in the book, concerns part of her life that wasn’t revealed during the filming: before the 1936 Olympic Games she met a half-Jewish printmaker & illustrator in Berlin. It is evident that Pomsel must have had more information at her command with regard to the plans of the German administration for the Jews in Germany than she had admitted to during the film, because as a result of their conversations, Gottfried Kirchbach (son of the painter Frank Kirchbach) moved to Amsterdam after the Games to escape persecution. Pomsel was pregnant, but Kirchbach felt he wasn’t ready or prepared to set up a family home in a foreign country and, sadly, Pomsel had to terminate the pregnancy because of the danger to her health from the lung disease she had been subject to for many years. Pomsel was able to visit Kirchbach a few times in Amsterdam, but this became too dangerous for her, and after the war started, she never saw her lover again. Kirchbach died in Amsterdam (no details given) in 1942; Brunhilde Pomsel never had any children after this, lived alone and died in Munich in the night of 27 January 2017, aged 106, and it is mentioned in the book that this is the day before International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Photo credit: still from A German Life, via The Times of Israel: https://www.timesofisrael.com/shot-in-black-and-white-a-german-life-paints-wwii-in-chilling-shades-of-gray/

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Hilda Kean

Hilda Kean

Wilfred Books is very pleased to be able to offer a short profile of an author, Hilda Kean (right), who was very helpful with sources and background information that was most useful in the writing of Black Shirt and Smoking Beagles, in the second of an occasional series, in which established authors explain how they undertook the process of writing & publishing their work.

I haven’t quite thought previously about what I have written, since it covers an odd subject including a medieval Carmelite friar, early education in the initial C20th – including assertive suffrage activists in schools, women’s political history, ways of approaching public history, and histories of animals.

The last two topics came about when working at Ruskin College, Oxford, for over twenty years. I was encouraged by the late Raphael Samuel, with whom I worked, to develop the first MA in Public History in the country, including running many open conferences. Raphael also helped me write my first historical essay on anti-vivisection, published in his History Workshop Journal, and I then went on to the Animal Rights book [see below], and many articles including Greyfriars Bobby, squirrels, animal cemeteries, Trim the cat, animal war memorials and unusual animal statues.

My latest book The Great Cat and Dog Massacre. The Real Story of World War II’s Unknown Tragedy came out last year, and there is a new paperback in the next few weeks. I try to write material on a range of topics on my website, where you can pick up various writing, and welcome comments from readers: http://hildakean.com.

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Hilda Kean’s book, Animal Rights, was published by Reaktion Books.