[13 January 2004]
A friend of mine once sent me a Photoshop-doctored CNN banner with a picture of Der Führer and the headline, “SPECIAL REPORT: HITLER WAS BAD.” The joke is obvious: Hitler is, of course, a synonym for “evil,” the near universal revulsion his name evokes making him seem like the invading aliens from Independence Day, some otherworldly force without human context. But the truth is that Hitler was very much of this earth, and though he rose to power using violence and intimidation, he was also helped by the facts that many people wanted someone like him in power, and that many others didn’t bother to resist.
Because his popularity is difficult to imagine now, it is chilling to watch Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary, a documentary that amounts to a series of interviews with Traudl Junge, Hitler’s personal secretary during the last years of his life. Though she swears that she has come to believe in Hitler’s inherent evil as much as any of us, she also uses the word “love” several times to describe her one-time feelings for him. Such statements are both baffling and horrifying, because Junge is not only recalling her younger self, but also echoes millions who once felt the same way.
The film (assembled by André Heller and Othmar Schmiderer) is exceedingly spare, consisting almost entirely of close shots of Junge in interviews from 2001. Occasionally, it cuts from one interview session to another, and there are a few curious scenes of Junge watching footage of herself sharing her memories. Her testimony is different from those of war criminals on trial in Nuremburg, or the self-serving clean-up job found in autobiographies like Albert Speer’s. She was merely doing a menial job, she says, and insists she was more or less “apolitical.” This was a rationale for millions of her fellow citizens, from Goebbels on down to the lowliest foot soldier. Unlike in other “just following orders” excuses, however, Junge is honest enough to admit that she was a bit more than a reluctant follower.
A family friend recommended Junge for the secretary position in 1942, when she was 22 years old; she recalls that she passed the interview process with flying colors, though not without a bit of trickery. When taking some test dictation from Hitler, she discovered that she had flubbed her first paragraph horribly, filling it with mistakes. When his attention was diverted by a phone call, Junge retyped it on the sly. “Luckily, or maybe unluckily for me,” she says, still unsure almost 60 years later. Junge worked with Hitler every day for three years, and came to see him as a father figure, much in the way that Hitler tried to make himself into a paternal force for all of Germany. “I mean, it’s not as though everyone apart from me realized what a criminal he was,” she says.
Junge’s most gripping remembrances focus on Hitler’s last days in the bunker, where he and his staff hid while Berlin was bombed by Allied forces. She recounts each day from the time Hitler announced “All is lost” until his suicide, in vivid detail, describing a paranoid maniac who poisoned his own dog to make sure the cyanide pills would work when the time came. While taking dictation on Hitler’s “final political statement” (he rambles on about the interference of Jews and Bolsheviks), she begins to realize for the first time the extent of his madness. Particularly heartbreaking is her recollection of the doomed Goering children, who would soon perish along with their parents and somehow anticipated what was to come.
Junge speaks at length uninterrupted, commenting on her own feelings of guilt or lack thereof. Though I expected more inserts—Nuremburg rallies, concentration camps, and Nazi flags, History Channel-style—Blind Spot‘s very starkness creates an apt context for Junge’s tale. Hitler was careful to isolate himself and his staff from the horror that he created. When traveling by train, Junge tells us, he would make sure that the windows were blacked out, so neither he nor his entourage could see the waste he’d made of the German countryside. She repeatedly stresses how much she did not know, how much of the terror was out of her line of sight because she was so close to its source. The close focus on her perspective reinforces her “blindness.”
I never felt that Junge was being insincere or attempting to whitewash her past—anyone who admits that she “loved” Hitler is surely not afraid of being honest. However, her regret seems generalized, the remorse of an entire nation that went mad en masse, rather than an individual sorry for her own culpability. The only time she evinces a sense of personal guilt comes near the end of the film, when she recalls passing a memorial to Sophie Scholl, a member of the German resistance movement. “I realized that she was the same age as me, and I realized 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.”
Even as the film doesn’t blame Junge explicitly, the tremble in her voice and the tears welling in her eyes suggest she is amazed that she was ever able to discover her responsibility at all. Blind Spot is a chilling reminder of Hitler’s advance, not only by heinous acts of evil people, but also by the ignorance of good ones.