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Wed, 09 Mar 2005 In the Bunker

I recently heard an interview in which an administration insider described a political leader as follows:

That's an area where Hitler did a huge amount of harm: he actually tried to manipulate the consciences of the German people. He convinced them they had a task to do, they had to exterminate the Jews, because the Jews caused all our problems. It wasn't Hitler's own idea... it had been put forward much earlier... that they had to make a sacrifice.

And I can remember a writer... she interviewed a soldier who had been stationed in a concentration camp. He was a guard, and she asked him: Didn't you feel any pity at all... for the people you treated so badly there?

And he replied "yes, I did feel pity, but I had to overcome it. That was a sacrifice I had to make for the greater cause." And that's what happend to conscience.

After all, Hitler used to always say "You don't have to worry, any of you... you just have to do whatever I say, and I'll take responsibility." As if anyone can take charge of another person's conscience. I do think you can make someone's conscience more sensitive, or desensitize it, or manipulate it.

The longer I live, the older I get, the more I feel this burden, this feeling of guilt, because I worked for a man, and I actually like him, but he caused such terrible suffering... and the feeling that I was so unaware and so thoughtless... that I didn't notice or pay attention. That feeling has oppressed me more and more.

It seems to me that I should be angry with the child I was, that juvenile young girl, or that I can't forgive her for failing to recognize in time what horrors that monster caused. The fact that I didn't see what I was getting involved in, and above all that I just said "yes" without thinking at all... I find it hard to forgive myself for everything.

He was a crimintal -- it's just that I didn't realize it. At some point afterwards, I began to wonder if I should have seen that... and after all, apart from me there were millions who didn't see that. I mean, it's not as though everyone apart from me realized what a criminal he was. And I try to take heart from those thoughts.

And Hitler did somehow embody something monumental. At first, when I was a child, the first time I met him he probably had a kind of paternal protective attitude towards me... and that's something I had longed for. I used to envy children who could say things like "My father says so and so," or "My father thinks..." I used to think having a father must be very important. Then I started working for Hitler, and suddenly I had that sense of security, too. There really was a sense of security in that community, which cut itself off so much from the outside... I think I had a very subservient attitude toward him as a father figure.

You know, I never had the feeling that he was conscious of pursuing criminal aims. For him they were ideals. For him they were great goals. And human life meant nothing to him in comparison. But that only became so apparent to me afterwards. You see, in the inner circle surrounding him, in his private sphere, I was shielded from the megalomaniacal projects and the barbaric measures. That was the awful thing, and that's what gave me such a shock later, when I realized what had been happening. When I started working there, I thought I was at the source of information and in fact, I was in a blind spot. It's like in an explosion, there's one place where calmness reigns. And that was the great illusion, the great, not disappointment, but lie that I had made myself believe.

The word Jew was virtually never used in everyday speech. The fact that Hitler would, at times, say something in his speeches about "international Judaism" or "the Jews," that was virtually ignored. Nobody ever raised the subject. At least, not in our presence. Actually, the only time I can remember the subject really being an issue was one evening at the Berghof when Frau von Schirach was a guest. I wasn't there at the time, I only heard about it. I was out of the room when it happened. She was on fairly cordial terms with Hitler, and she suddenly raised the subject. She told the Fuhrer directly that it was quite terrible, the way the Jews were treated in Amsterdam. They were packed into trains, she said, and it was an inhuman way to behave. It must have made him very angry, and he said to her: "Don't interfere in things you don't understand. This mawkishness and sentimentality." He really was very annoyed. He walked right out of the room and didn't return. And Frau Schirach was never invited to the Berghof again.

You couldn't discuss anything with him that was somehow sensitive or difficult. It was one aspect of him. And that was really the only time a conflict situation developed.

He didn't think in human dimensions. Humanity was never of any importance to him. It was always the concept of the superman, the nation, always this abstract image of a vast German Reich, powerful and strong. But the individual never mattered to him.

As for myself, deep in my heart, I did have some doubts, and I wondered: "Is all this absolutely right?" But then to question the situation, actually to initiate a discussion, would have taken more courage. And I think it's also the case that if you value and respect someone, you don't really want to destroy the image of that person -- you don't want to know, in fact, if disaster lies behind the facade.

I don't think he considered war a light-hearted matter. He regarded it as a terrible thing, although he never said so. For instance, whenever there were reports of air raids and people described the situation, or if I said something like: "My Fuhrer, you can't imagine how miserable it is for all those homeless people whose houses have been bombed -- it's just so terrible." He'd stop me right away and say: "I know exactly how it is, but we shall strike back. We shall take revenge, and with our new weapons everything will change. Vengeance will be ours!" He would always say that, and in particular he'd say that we would rebuild everything after the war and make it better than ever.

I think there was a general policy of denial. He never did see a city that had been badly bombed. We traveled through Germany in the special train with the blinds down, and when he reached Anhalter Station in Berlin at night the chauffeur would take the streets that weren't so badly damaged.

In the early days after the war, the past wasn't an issue, strangely enough. It wasn't a subject to be discussed in public either. And there weren't any books about it. In politics there wasn't yet the process of coming to terms with the past. Not even the Nuremberg trials started that process, the way it happened later, in the '60s. I don't know exactly why, but suddenly there were so many books. And lots of voices were raised. We heard about the SS state and then the diary of Anne Frank and there were people who had survived the whole thing. People who had resisted also spoke out. The thing that made a very strong impression on me was that after the war, the world wasn't at all the way Hitler had portrayed it and predicted it would be. Suddenly there was a spirit of freedom and especially the Americans -- I didn't get home until a year after the occuption, but especially the Americans -- turned out to be very good democrats and very helpful people. The care parcels started coming. I suddenly realized that none of it was true.

So in the early years it didn't really occur to me to come to terms with my past. Naturally all the horrors that emerged in the Nuremberg trials about the six million Jews and people of other faiths and beliefs who lost their lives -- all that struck me as very shocking. But I wasn't able at first to see the connection with my own past. I still felt somehow content that I had no personal guilt and had known nothing about it. I had no idea of the extent of what happened. But then one day I was walking past the memorial in Franz Josef Street to Sophie Scholl, a young girl who opposed Hitler, and I realized that she was the same age as me and that she was executed the same year I started working for Hitler. At that moment I really sensed that it is no excuse to be young, and that it might have been possible to find out what was going on.

The film is "Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary." The directors include a commentary that describes Traudl Junge's later life, including the fact that she took an early retirement due to severe depression, and spent years volunteering as a reader for the blind. Shortly before the film opened, she told one of the directors "I think I'm starting to forgive myself." She died of cancer on the day of the film's premiere.

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