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Thinking Out Loud

A Most Mundane Evil

by Michael Jinkins | Oct 18, 2016

Mundane EvilBrunhilde Pomsel was a secretary in the office of the Nazi minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. In 1942, as a bright young woman with experience as a stenographer for a Jewish attorney and a typist for a right-wing nationalist, a friend in the Nazi Party helped her get the job. She joined the Nazi Party, in fact, in order to secure it. That was more than half a century ago.

At 105 years of age, she agreed to participate in a documentary film, “A German Life,” which premiered at the Munich Film Festival last summer. Charly Wilder, reporting from Munich, Germany, for The New York Times, told her story and the story behind the documentary in a fascinating article, "The Nazi Inner Sanctum and an Unwitting Witness in the Secretarial Pool," in the July, 25, 2016, issue of the newspaper (Also read online as “Goebbels’s Secretary Struggles With Her Responsibility,” nytimes.com, July 5, 2016).

We have become familiar with a phrase, "the banality of evil," introduced by Hannah Arendt in her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Arendt used the phrase to describe the pedestrian manner in which ordinary people served a massively destructive, cruel, inhuman war and genocide machine, then calmly went home to their dinners each night, and sat by the fireside.

Writing of Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi war criminal who was tracked down in Buenos Aires in May of 1960 and flown to Israel to stand trial for "crimes against the Jewish people, crimes against humanity, and war crimes during the whole period of the Nazi regime and especially during the period of the Second World War," Arendt wrote:

"As the months and years went by, he lost the need to feel anything at all. This was the way things were, this was the new law of the land. ... whatever he did he did, as far as he could see, as a law-abiding citizen. He did his duty, as he told the police and the court over and over again; he not only obeyed orders, he obeyed the law." [Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Viking Press, 1963), pp. 21 and 135].

It is one thing to imagine the defiant Eichmann in the Jerusalem courtroom and quite another to hear Ms. Pomsel calmly saying of her decision to join the Nazi Party in order to get a prestigious job: "Why shouldn't I? Everyone was doing it." Here the banality of evil has a new face, the smiling, bespectacled young woman photographed during the war, as proud as punch to have landed such a well-paying and respected position. Now elderly, this great-grandmotherly woman looks into the camera and calmly asks: "Is it bad, is it egoistic when people who have been placed in certain positions try to do something that is beneficial for them, even when they know that by doing so they end up harming someone else?" (Charly Wilder, "The Nazi Inner Sanctum and an Unwitting Witness in the Secretarial Pool," New York Times, July, 25, 2016, p. C5).

On the whole, Ms. Pomsel enjoyed working with Goebbels, one of Hitler's closest and most trusted aids, the key figure behind the Nazi regime's anti-Semitic propaganda. She described him as "well-kept" and "good looking," an "outstanding actor." He was the best she had ever seen "at transforming himself from a civilized, serious person into a ranting raving hooligan." (Wilder, “Nazi Inner Sanctum,” C5)

By all accounts, she loved playing with Goebbels's children and dining at his country villa. She heard the things he said, but went along apparently with little thought and no remorse.

Her frankness is disarming. Her lack of a sense of personal responsibility disturbing.

She says she is doubtful when people today say that they would not have stood by and let the Jews of Europe suffer and perish at the hands of the Nazis. "I really believe that they sincerely mean it," she says, but then adds that, sincere or not, they wouldn't have acted any differently from the Germans like her who did nothing to help. And when asked if she felt any responsibility, she struggles a bit. "No," she says, "I wouldn't see myself as being guilty. ... Unless you end up blaming the entire German population for ultimately enabling that government to take control. That was all of us. Including me." Today she confesses to having "a bit of a guilty conscience." "I just didn't listen. ... Because it didn't interest me. That was stupidity within me, I know this now." (Wilder, “Nazi Inner Sanctum,” C5)

Reading Ms. Pomsel's comments, I am struck again by the aptness of Arendt's analysis of Eichmann and his ilk. What a mundane face evil can wear. But I am struck by something else as well, the prophetic timing of this documentary.

Wilder, commenting on conversations with the film's directors, observes: "At a time when rightist populism is on the rise in Europe, they want the film ... to be a reminder of the human capacity for complacency." As Olaf Muller, one of the directors, said: "The dangers are still alive. It could happen again. ... One of the main aims of the film is to have the audience question: How would I have reacted? What would I have done in her situation for a new step in my career?" (Wilder, “Nazi Inner Sanctum,” C5)

These are not purely hypothetical questions about a historical event.

A recent issue of The Economist tells us:

“Across Europe, the politicians with momentum are those who argue that the world is a nasty, threatening place, and that wise nations should build walls to keep it out. Such arguments have helped elect an ultranationalist government in Hungary and a Polish one that offers a Trumpian mix of xenophobia and disregard for constitutional norms. Populist, authoritarian European parties of the right or left now enjoy twice as much support as they did in 2000, and are in government or in a ruling coalition in nine countries. ... News that strengthens the anti-globalisers' appeal comes almost daily. ... This is the gravest risk to the free world since communism. Nothing matters more than countering it.” (“The New Political Divide," The Economist, July 30, 2016, p. 7)

Does the moral act of a single person matter? I'm not sure I know of anything else that finally does. The right response to a most mundane evil must surely be a most mundane goodness.

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