After an absence of more than a decade, Dame Maggie Smith is set to return to the London stage, starring in a one-woman play about the Nazis’ propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels‘ secretary, Brunhilde Pomsel. Pomsel stood by her man until the end.
A German Life is a new play by Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons), based on Pomsel’s life and the testimony she gave to a group of Austrian filmmakers for their documentary A German Life shortly before she died in 2017 at 106-years-old .
Pomsel insisted that she knew nothing, despite being at the center of the Nazis’ propaganda machine. Pomsel:
I know no-one ever believes us nowadays. Everyone thinks we knew everything. It was just another job.
Born in 1911, Pomsel’s life spanned most the 20th century. She struggled to make ends meet as a secretary in Berlin during the 1930s. She worked for a Jewish insurance broker and the German Broadcasting Corporation, before taking a job with Goebbels, who spent much of his time at the radio station making speeches and offered her a job as his assistant. She must have been thrilled to be working with the second most important person in the Third Reich.
Yet, Pomsel always insisted that she was not aware of the murder of millions of Jews in death camps in Germany, Austria and German-occupied Poland until after the war and said Goebbels ”must have kept correspondence about it away from her sight”.
She was inside Hitler’s bunker in Berlin in May 1945 when he shot himself as the Russian Army closed in on his hiding place. Pomsel was captured by Soviet troops and sent to prison for five years. Astonishingly, after being released from prison in 1950, she went back to working in broadcasting in West Germany until she retired in 1971. She is never married or had children.
In 2011, Pomsel broke a 66-year vow of silence with a German newspaper, in an interview with her as the last surviving member of the Nazi leadership’s inner circle. She talked about her three years working for the man responsible for spreading Hitler’s ideology in newspapers and across the airwaves. She said:
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.
Pomsel described on the film how she was told to keep the top Nazis supplied with alcohol ”in order to retain the numbness and stave off the reality of their imminent defeat by the hated Russians”.
Her revelations about the Nazi leaders’ last moments shocked the world. She revealed that even after a lifetime of service, Goebbels barely acknowledged her:
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.
Pomsel spent the last 10 days of the Third Reich in the cellars of the propaganda ministry as Russian artillery and American bombers destroyed her surroundings. She continued to obey orders from Goebbels until the very last minute, when Goebbels shot his wife then himself, after killing their six young children by breaking cyanide vials into their mouth. The Russians came into the bunker and dragged Pomsel out. She spent the next five years as a prisoner of the Russians in special camps.
She claimed not to have known about the Holocaust:
I was a stupid, politically uninterested little sausage of simple means. I only learned about the Jewish extermination program after the war. Goebbels never mentioned it in his correspondence.
Smith, who is 84-years-old, will be alone on stage for the entire length of play each night. A German Life opens April 6 at London’s Bridge Theatre.
Smith was last on stage in Edward Albee‘s The Lady From Dubuque in 2007. Smith has had career for more than 65 years. Her notable performing credits include a Tony Award-winning performance in Lettice And Lovage (1990), and Academy Award-winning performances in The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) and California Suite (1978). You probably know her best as Professor Minerva McGonagall in the Harry Potter films (2001-2011) and as Lady Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham on Downton Abbey (2010-2015).