Im Toten Winkel [Blind Spot] (2002):
What Did Traudl Know? And When?
Blind Spot (2002), a low-budget Austrian documentary, offers captivating personal reminiscence, both in presentation style and historical content. Gertraud (Traudl) Humps Junge (1920-2002), her talking head the film’s sole presence, had been an observant bystander at the Third Reich’s Götterdammerung in Berlin. She began her journey to this ghastly moment as a poor young woman in 1942 postponing her dance career. A prestigious opportunity came through a family connection to Martin Bormann, Hitler’s personal secretary. The initial placement was a clerical job at the Reich Chancellery. Then she received an invitation to compete for one of the positions as Hitler’s personal secretary. She succeeded, likely because of her looks and comforting Bavarian accent.
Junge relates her belief that she and Hitler were predisposed to bond emotionally. Lacking her own intimate father--he had deserted the family and later remarried--Adolf Hitler became a warm, softly speaking substitute. On the Führer’s side, his depression over Operation Barbarossa and the disastrous encirclement of the 6th Army at Stalingrad had matured. Hitler’s sensitive digestive system could tolerate no more grim table discussions with his SS or the disrespectful Wehrmacht leaders. He sought instead the consolation of “Tischdamen,” solicitous, pretty female companions for meals and teas. In their scope of duties, these women apparently were restricted to social correspondence or typing public speeches.
Junge reports notable incidents for the entourage: the July 20, 1944 assassination attempt at the Wolf’s Lair in Prussia; Hitler’s last-minute wedding in the bunker to Eva Braun prior to their joint suicide; the distribution of poison pills to everyone who wished to kill themselves; and it was Junge to whom he dictated his “Final Political Testament,” which reaffirmed his feelings of personal glory and persecution by Jews and traitorous underlings like Goering and Himmler. Being with Hitler revealed to her in retrospect the “blind spot” within his circle of intimates. When Hitler moved about the country with all blinds drawn in his train, the ruined cities on the outside were invisible. His attendants were unlike the harried citizens, who could hear Allied radio broadcasts about the fronts converging on Germany.
Perspectives of this sort are important characterizations of Hitler as historical personality. In Blind Spot they are rendered without artifice: no music, no evidential photographs or documents, and not even the head shot of an interviewer, whose weakly amplified voice is heard only a couple of times. Despite the “never before told” hyperbole of marketing for Blind Spot, most of these pieces of factual information were hardly new revelations. They had been reported often by Junge herself to both American and Soviet interrogators, to historians, and most recently to the journalist Gitta Sereny for her treatment of Albert Speer’s “battle with truth” (249-51, 512-13, 533-34). As early as 1974 Junge appeared on screen in a separate program of BBC’s The World at War. Junge had also published her 1947 memoir in Pierre Galante and Eugene Silianoff’s Voices from the Bunker (1989). An even more complete telling, supplemented by diary entries, appeared in her book Until the Final Hour: Hitler’s Secretary (2002/2003). In such narrations she has stood for decades unchallenged, not least because so much of what she had to say was independently confirmed by other eye witnesses.
So what could now be controversial about Traudl Junge and Blind Spot? The most prominent complaints were voiced when producers for the widely successful German film Der Untergang [Downfall] (2004) -- released with producer claims of historical accuracy (Eichinger 153) -- made a double use of Traudl Junge. Her final book, along with Joachim Fest’s book Der Untergang (2002), was a principal text for the screenplay, in which the story of Hitler’s final days in Berlin is told largely through her character’s young, innocent eyes. The film’s ending symbolically “rebirths the nation” by showing two young people, Junge and a fictional Hitler Youth named Peter, leaving Berlin’s ashes as they presumably walk toward a new Germany. The air of authenticity for this renaissance is augmented by short segments from Blind Spot that bookendthe film’s beginning and end--ones in which the elderly Traudl condemns her own naivete, her personal “blind spot” in failing to see the criminality of Hitler’s actions.
For critics such as Jeremy Jones, Michael Oren, David Cesarani and Peter Longerich Downfall amounted to collective exoneration. They also complained that too much about Junge herself has been hidden in both Downfall and Blind Spot--that her own father was a Nazi; that she participated in the Bund Deutsche Mädel (The German Girls League, the female branch of Hitler Youth); that she had later belonged to the elite Glaube und Schoenheit (Faith and Beauty), an organization aiming to cultivate Aryan girls as mates for SS men; and finally, that she had been married for several months to Hans Junge, an SS man killed in Normandy. These life markers are all related in her book with Mueller, and some surface in Blind Spot as well. Their elision from Untergang is seen by the critics named above as a filmmaker’s strategy to unburden Germans of their collective guilt for the Third Reich’s crimes. In effect, they claim, the people of Berlin and even the Wehrmacht itself are victims of a hypnotizing, self-destructive madman. Klaus Neumann was rare among severe critics in suggesting that “Junge’s reflections on her own involvement are infinitely more interesting than anything Downfall’s recreation of the last days in the bunker has to offer” (“Downfall”: Almost the Same”).
Focusing on the believability of Junge’s testimony in Blind Spot, considered as a separate, the issues of historical truth are different, because her own narrative is not an uplifting tale of German rebirth and collective exoneration. To see it in mid 20th century existential terms, it is about the anguish of bad faith, the suspicion that one’s life is grievously burdened by dishonest, self-deceiving choices. Her monologue mixes information about the events of her brief career with Hitler and her struggle to understand how she had been captivated and blinded to the realities that were so apparent to so many who had moved outside Hitler’s narcissistic bubble. By the time the suicides in the bunker were over, she describes herself as hating Hitler for his desertion of the Germans. She had finally understood that he had become indifferent to the destruction of everything needed for the country to live on after the war’s end.
Unlike any other public personage I have ever witnessed, Junge condemns herself and visibly suffers on camera during the revelations. Contrast her behavior with that of Robert McNamara in The Fog of War (2003), where admits to having lied about Vietnam as tens of thousands died, yet he stiffly refuses any gesture of contrition because he felt an imperative of loyalty to LBJ. Or contrast Junge with Leni Riefenstahl’s tenacious, self-righteous demeanor in The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Riefenstahl (1994). In Blind Spot’s early moments, we see Junge watching her own testimony on a TV monitor; she clutches toward her throat nervously, suggesting a desire to strangle that infuriating person she sees on the screen. We now know that she was dying at an accelerated pace in those moments, because she was dead just months after the filming’s completion. So this is really a final reckoning with herself.
Listen to the statements from Blind Spot exported to Downfall as bookends for the whole ten day narrative. In the first, she characterizes her decision to work for Hitler.
I feel that I should be angry with her, that I must have been a childish, bad creature--or that I cannot forgive her because she did not immediately recognize the horror of this monster. … And above all, that I so thoughtlessly said “yes.” … After arriving in Berlin, I could have said “no, I will not participate and I will not allow myself to be sent to the Fuhrer’s headquarters. (translation by JSL)
And then the words about her sense of guilt that appear at Downfall’s conclusion.
I had merely been content that I had no personal guilt and had never had any estimate of the scale. But one day I passed a memorial for Sophie Scholl on Franz-Joseph Street and there I saw that she had the same birth year as myself and that she had been executed in the same year that I came to work for Hitler. In that moment I truly realized that one’s youth offers no excuse--that one could have actually understood things. (translation by JSL)
These are the sorts of judgments that some people rehearse silently to themselves, if at all. It is rare to witness such a scrutinizing self consciousness, particularly in someone who has sat close to center of destructive power.
In sum, the film shows us a dying Junge’s struggle with her past rather than offering any disclosure that proves what she’s hiding what she really knew. Did she have more reason to suspect the Holocaust than she concedes? She had, after all, attained the age of eighteen by the time of Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass)? During her brief marriage to Hans Junge, the SS officer, had they spoken frankly about the Reich’s military operations? Or had they married in order to have a relationship that shut out the more dreadful world around them? She has, of course, publicly condemned herself for a willful blindness—despite the fact that she has never been accused of any crime.
Junge’s attempt to finally tell how she sees herself will challenge some to break away from binary, melodramatic views of guilt and innocence. The scholar Dagmar Barnouw, a child survivor of the Dresden fire-bombing, suggests that Germans have been stereotyped and that we ought to perceive innocence, victimage, and guilt in relative terms (9). Such thinking would accord with obvious facts. For example, historian Robert G. Moeller reminds us that the German soldiers who took an aggressive “race struggle” to the Soviet Union had also been victimized by the Führer, who showed contempt for their suffering and desire to survive. And the surviving Soviet soldiers who broke through the German offensive against their nation eventually went on to terrorize millions of people on their path to Berlin (177-79). In her profound unhappiness with herself, Junge perhaps challenges all viewers to recognize the blind spots in their citizenship that permit them not to know, even to will not knowing the terrible things done in their collective name. If that is the effect, it would be a rare achievement for a documentary film. Her life may be less shameful than she found it, not least because of her participation in this cinematic coda. Would it be controversial to suggest that she is a kind of hero that we should emulate?
- Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary. Originally Im Toten Winkel—Hitler’s Sekretaerin. Dir. André Heller and Othmar Schmiderer. Dor Film Produktionsgesellschaft GmbH (Austria), 2002. Color, 90 mins. Film Website includes interviews with the directors: < http://www.im-toten-winkel.de/>.
- Der Untergang (Downfall). Dir. Oliver Hirschbiegel. Constantin Films, 2004. Color, 156 mins.
- World at War, The. Vol. 9 (1974). “Hitler’s Secretary.” Dir. Ted Child and Michael Darlow. Imperial War Museum/Thames Television. Color, 23 mins.
- Barnouw, Dagmar. The War in the Empty Air: Victims, Perpetrators, and Postwar Germans. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005.
- David Cesarani and Peter Longerich. “The massaging of history.” The Guardian (U.K., online). April 7, 2005. http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1453678,00.html
- Eichinger, Bernd. “Ich halte mich an die Geschichte’ (Interview mit Bernd Eichinger).” Der Spiegel. April 19, 2003, p. 153.
- Galante, Pierre and Eugene Silianoff (1989). Voices from the Bunker. New York: G.P. Putnam, 1989.
- Jones, Jeremy. “Bunker Mentality--Seduction by evil.” Australia/Israel Jewish Affairs Council Review (online) May 2005. http://www.aijac.org.au/review/2005/30-5/bp30-5.html
- Junge, Gertraud, and Melissa Mueller, Ed. . Bis zur letzten Stunde : Hitlers Sekretärin erzählt ihr Leben. München: Claassen, 2002. Published in UK as Until the Final Hour: Hitler's Last Secretary (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003).
- Moeller, Robert G. “Germans as Victims? Thoughts on a post-Cold War history of World War II’s Legacies. History and Memory: Studies in Representations of the Past. 17:1-2 (Fall 2005): 147-94.
- Neumann, Klaus. “Downfall: Almost the Same Old Story.” Rouge 6 (2005)(Australia): <http://www.rouge.com.au/6/downfall.html>.
- Oren, Michael B. “Absolving Germany--Pass the Fault.” The New Republic (online) July 4, 2005: <http://www.tnr.com/doc.mhtml?i=20050704&s=oren070405>.
- Sereny, Gitta. Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth. New York: Knopf, 1995.