Nazis, Goebels, His Secretary and Nippon. An Austrian Documentary Reminds Us Of Japan’s Failure To Reconcile History

She’s old, really old. You could describe her as an ancient relic. But at 103 years old, Brunhilde Pomsel seems strong, confident, even blase. Pomsel is the centerpiece of the stunning documentary, A German Life (released in Japan as Goebbels to Watashi ) in which she recounts the years she spent in the employ of the Third Reich, as a personal secretary to Joseph Goebbels. Shot in a gradations of black and gray, A German Life, highlights her still soft hair and the brightness of her eyes. What you’ll notice however, are the deep crevices crisscrossing her face, an incredibly creasy visage that make her look like some kind of exotic deepwater fish. Only once does her confidence falter, and that’s when she’s asked to recall whether she was aware of the existence of the concentration camps. “I didn’t know it,” she says but her voice lacks conviction. “I wasn’t guilty of that, but if I was, then the whole of Germany during the reign of the Third Reich – was guilty.”

The film will resonate with many viewers in Japan, not least because Germany was an Axis partner in WWII, but for the radical difference in the way the two nations have dealt with their wartime legacies of shame and humiliation. For many Japanese, the war years are a receding memory, most often romanticized and tinged with sentiment, as in The Eternal Zero. The stories told in the media or retold by our elders, have always varied little, summed up in a singular theme that combines victimization and valor. In this theme, the atrocities committed by the military in Asia, are glossed over. After all, the Japanese starved, Japan went through unspeakable deprivation, was relentlessly firebombed and then the Japanese people had two nuclear bombs dropped right on their heads for good measure. Whatever terrible things the Japanese military did in China and Southeast Asia, was paid for with our own suffering. We’ve checked off the items on our rap sheet of atonement. So let’s agree to sweep all that stuff under the futon and get on with the business at hand, shall we?

A German Life, which tells the story of Goebbel’s secretary and seems to explain how Germany allowed the Nazis to rise up and get away with what they did, opens on June 16th in Japan.

This particular logic (or lack thereof) has come to define the collective memory in the 7-plus decades after the Japanese surrender. It wasn’t really our fault, but the fault of the entire era, and the unstoppable war machine! Compare this mind-set to Germany. They also suffered from the air raids and bombings and went through hell. But they are also a people unafraid to rub their faces in the shit pile of defeat. To this day, they are still examining what exactly happened, and why. New revelations of Nazi atrocities are being unearthed all the time, to be dissected and discussed. The Germans have not averted their gaze from the past, rather they’ve been pretty relentless in their cause to track down and then lay bare the gruesome details of their own crimes. Consider the meticulously categorized displays at the Auschwitz Memorials. The unforgiving precision that characterize the guided tour of those Memorials. The sheer number of movies and documentaries that have come out about the camps and the Third Reich. Or the revived public interest in Sophie Scholl, the young political activist who was guillotined for her fierce anti-Nazism.

“For all that, I believe that Germany is experiencing an eerie deja vu of the Nazi years,” said Florian Weigensamer, one of the four-man directorial team behind A German Life. Weigensamer was in Tokyo to promote the film, along with another director Christian Krones, who is also the founder of Blackbox Films and Media Productions. Blackbox engineered the whole endeavor that is this movie and other award winning documentaries. Krones and Weigensamer have been colleagues and friends for over 20 years and they’ve dedicated a good chunk of their professional lives to the excavation of some of humanity’s most complex problems. (One of their recent projects is a documentary called Welcome to Sodom that examines Ghana’s burgeoning waste problem, born of discarded home appliances.)

Krones is the oldest and most experienced member of Blackbox but he stresses that there’s no corporate hierarchy at work. “I like to take a democratic approach to filmmaking. No orders are issued top-down. There are no one-man decisions. We hold extensive meetings and discuss the film process every step of the way, like a real democracy.” And he added with a chuckle, “We do this because the film industry tends to be very dictatorial and we are very sensitive to anything that smacks of dictatorship!”

The directors of “A German Life”

Blackbox is an Austrian company as are Krones and Weigensamer. Because they don’t carry German passports, the pair say that their gaze on WWII and the Nazi atrocities are a little distanced. “We were both born many years after the war,” said Weigensamer. “And growing up, I remember my own family didn’t really talk about the war unless it was to say that we were victimized. In this way, I guess we are a lot like the Japanese.” In 1938, Austria was forcibly annexed to Germany in what was known as the Anschluss, and according to Krones, it “laid the groundwork for turning a blind eye to Nazi atrocities. The Nazis held Austria in a grip of terror and the Austrians felt powerless. They descended into denial, and most people just tried to make it through the war years without getting killed.” Weigensamer nodded in assent, but said, “And now we are seeing the rise of neo-Nazis, and the end of tolerance for refugees and outsiders.” Indeed, Krones said, “When we first started filming ‘A German Life,’ I thought, we would be talking about something that was past and over with. Now I feel like I’ve gone back in time, and traveled to a future where the nightmare is beginning all over again.”

As for Brunhilde Pomsel, she comes off as neither a tragic heroine or an evil monster but a woman with exceptional secretarial skills and a breathtakingly banal personality. Astonishingly, before taking up her duties for the Third Reich, Pomsel had worked in a Jewish insurance company in Berlin while having a side gig in the afternoons working for an official in the Nazi Party. Her lover and fiance was half Jewish. (In the film, she has a silver band around her ring finger.) He was killed in Amsterdam in 1942. Her best friend was a young Jewish woman named Ava, who died in one of the camps. All around her, Jewish people were being taken away, ostensibly to a place of “re-education,” and she didn’t think to question what this may really mean. Her take on Joseph Goebbels is that he was “so dapper, so dashing! The cut of his suits was perfect.” Pomsel even remembered how Goebbels’s children would come to pick him up at lunchtime so that they could all walk home together for the midday meal.

Pomsel apparently compartmentalized all that into her life, and shut out whatever she deemed unworthy of attention. She never stopped to examine the contradictions of her thoughts or her actions. She simply wanted to perform her duties well, and then go home.

“The thing is, she was very likable,” described Weigenhamer. “She was articulate, self-sufficient and loved going to the theatre. She took very good care of herself and liked to have a good time. At first I thought I liked this woman but the more time I spent with her, the more I got to hate her.” Krones said: “What struck me was her incredible selfishness. I honestly got the feeling that she was alone because she didn’t want to share her life with anybody. She enjoyed living. But as in the war years, she wanted her life to be hers alone. And this mentality, this wish to shut out others – is part of what made Hitler successful.”

Brunhilde Pomsel died last year, at the age of 106.

The film opens in Japan on June 16th. Editor’s note: ironically, the current government of Japan doesn’t only have a desire to revise history and bury Japan’s war crimes, the Prime Minister and his cabinet have a great fondness for the Nazi Party and their political strategies. History does repeat itself.

 

Japan’s Dangerous Tilt to The Right: a report from Hamburg, Germany

by Natalia Berner* 

HAMBURG

Japan is plunging to right, as voices of alarm start to rise, but most of German and Japanese society does not realize how serious the recent political situation has become. Reactions are similar to those of a paralyzed moose facing the headlamps of an upcoming truck. Koichi Nakano, a professor of political science at Sophia University (上智大学) is one of the very few outspoken critics still standing up and critiquing the Abe government. He recently lectured in Hamburg, Germany. He explained with great honesty and clarity, why in his opinion, Japan is shifting dangerously to the right. The lecture resonated in Germany in a way it may resonate nowhere else.

         “I can’t remember any time in postwar (Japan) when things looked this bad”.

If you heard the lecture about Japan’s drift to the right, ending with those words, held at the Hamburg University on December 9th,  you might seriously start to worry, if you’re not worried already.

In Germany, Japan's far shift to the right raises concerns. In Japan, the Vice Prime Minister makes remarks praising Nazis and Prime Minister Abe's cabinet appointees not only associate with Japan Nazi Party Members but lavishly praised this book "Hitler's Election Strategy" written by an LDP flack.
In Germany, Japan’s far shift to the right raises concerns. In Japan, the current Vice Prime Minister makes remarks praising Nazis and Prime Minister Abe’s cabinet appointees not only associate with Japan Nazi Party Members but lavishly praised this book “Hitler’s Election Strategy”,  written by an LDP flack. Prior to elections, the State Secrets Law, which muzzles reporting and whistle-blowing with odious punishments went into effect on December 10th. Elections are being held today December 14th, 2014.

 

I know you’re generally not supposed to start an article with the conclusion but it seems appropriate. Why? Because it is like in Lars von Triers film Melancholia: in the very first sequence, it is visualized how the earth is being irreparably destroyed by an enormous planet moving toward the earth. The viewer’s optimistic nature about the future during the movie is being nipped in the bud, it is certain you will feel no hope, because right from the start everyone knows how the story will end. And sadly, this bears a striking similarity to Japan’s recent political situation. Cherishing hope is what we should not do, especially with the elections today. It is very unlikely that Abe’s agenda will be stopped. A surprising failure of the LDP will not come true. The reason: there is no alternative. No opposition. No left left. Japan is in very dark and deep waters right now.

This situation seems not to make the Japanese people concerned and this is in a way, understandable. At first, if you just take a superficial glance, it might seem like nothing really will change or has changed. The LPD has ruled the parliament most of Japan’s post-war history, and it has always had some “nationalist lunatics” within their roster. For example Abe’s grandfather, Nobosuke Kishi, who had been imprisoned as a category A war criminal, was released without any consequences and become the 56th and 57th Prime Minister of Japan. Kishi was synonomous with corruption, shady deals, criminal influence and even put up bail for a Yamaguchi-gumi (yakuza) boss accused of murder in the 1970s.

But exactly this is the reason why it is getting menacing: Japan is drifting to the right and it looks like the society doesn’t really realize, react nor care.

Koichi Nakano is asking exactly this question: “Is Japan shifting to the right?”. In his opinion Japan is on it’s way further “right” and in an almost right-tilting death spiral.

“Oh, gosh, this is just the ‘normalization’of Japan,” some say.  This is one of the arguments used by many, many people to trivialize the changes.

“Oh, Japan is becoming normal. They still have Article 9 in the constitution which forbids wars. The people are pacifists. They’re becoming normal just like Germany become normal. Germany also participates in military action and it’s not like it’s the return of Hitler all over again. So don’t worry: Japan is just doing the same.”

Sure.

Japan could maybe do the same, if Japan’s process of coming to terms with their past existed like it does in Germany. Germany came to terms with the atrocities committed by the Nazis and the nation during WWII; Japan denies them. It doesn’t teach them to their children. The current administration wants to bury the past, whitewash it, but not come to terms with it.

Reputedly in recent years “nothing really changed”. This is such an unsustainable argument like Abe’s declaration that his visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, where the masterminds of Japan’s war are enshrined, is just paying his respects to the spirits of the war dead. He even claims it’s to renew the pledge that Japan shall never again wage war.” Of course, he doesn’t mention his wish to revive militarism.

“New Right Transformation” is the term Koichi Nakasone is calling Japans political development within the last twenty to thirty years. He claims this change doesn’t start with Abe; things started to move from the 1980s. This change of the political system in Japan is a long-term development.

“During the cold war there was the 1955 system. The LDP was always in power, the socialists were always in opposition. It was like the Japanese political system was frozen. No change at all. Prime Ministers were coming and going, one corrupt man replaced by anothercorrupt man. It was impossible in the Cold War context for the socialists to gain power.”

Lost Opportunity

After the end of the cold war, after the end of the bubble economy in Japan, things came into flux. People are given more choices. Japan was more opening up, more self-concious . “The New Right Transformation” was built from this liberalization of the politics in Japan and these liberating moments also became the cause for the Japanese left to collapse.

“The socialists failed to adapted to the new liberalized open politics and they dug their own grave. The liberal opening is eventually ending today in illiberal politics.”

The Japanese have, of course, not become all of a sudden a horde of visible nationalistic maniacs, who go on the streets and spill hatred and blood. People like the Zaitoku-kai – an ordinary bunch of people, who are Japan’s version of neo-nazis—are still the minority, they have just become a little bit more “in your face” than before. But, they are a reaction to the right-leaning tendencies the elites in the politics are initiatin.

Professor Nakano points it out: it is not like Japanese society is outspoken and the government is following, it is exactly the opposite. It is an “elite-driven and not society-driven” process that pushed Japan to the right.

Nakano, explains Japans political development to the right within the last 20-30 years with waves and a pendulum: every time the pendulum (symbolizing the Japanese politicial front) swings to the right, the set-point is also shifting to the right. So the moment the pendulum is going back to the left, the left is more right than it was before.

The rightward tendencies can also be seen as waves, which are coming and going. The very first wave was with Nakasone Yasuhiro, the second wave with Ozawa Ichiro, the third with Hashimoto Ryutaro, the fourth with Koizumi Junichiro and now the rightist tidal wave with Abe Shinzo. So one thing is true: Japan’s right wing shift did not begin with Abe and probably it won’t end with him either.

The New Inequality

One indicator for Japan’s ultra-conservative shift can be also found in Japan’s social-economic conditions. Japan is a very unequal country. Japan used to be often referred to as a very equalitarian society. There was a semi-credible myth, that everybody in Japan was middle class. Now, relative poverty in Japan in according to OECD statistics is 4th from the bottom. A reason: the number of irregular, part-time, unstable jobs increased; decent, stable and regular jobs decreased. Thanks to Abe and his predecessors slowly crippling Japan’s labor laws and empowering temporary staffing companies and corporations over the common people.

Another indicator of a hard-shift right related to domestic politics is the Law and Order Issue. The Secret State Law, that came into effect on December 10th. The state now decides what is a secret, can keep anything secret up to 60 years, and can arrest and probably imprison anyone who is asking about a secret, even if they don’t know it is a secret. Nakano lambastes the law, saying, “It is absurd and makes Japan look more and more like Russia: the state knows everything and we do not know anything.”

Japan has become a very illiberal and undemocratic country in two short years. Japan isn’t just drifting right, it’s plunging into the right.

“I can’t remember any time in postwar Japan when things looked this bad.”

You don’t have to be an expert on Japan to see where things are heading. For those listening to Professor Nakano’s lecture in Hamburg, his words sent a chill up our spines.

History does repeat itself if you don’t know it—or you do know it and try to bury it.

The rulers of Japan seem to be learning a lot from the Nazis. That's not heartening.
The rulers of Japan seem to be learning a lot from the Nazis. That’s not heartening.

 

*Natalia Berner is the JSRC correspondent for Germany. A newbie journalist, we hope to hear more from her in the future. Jake Adelstein also contributed to this article.