Gitta Sereny

Death Becomes Her

Eugene Byrne talks to Gitta Sereny about her new analysis of Germany recent history, 

The German Trauma

Per Spike Magazine:

For someone who's spent most of her adult life staring into the abyss, Gitta Sereny laughs a heck of a lot. "I love to laugh. I laugh a great deal. I think because of my early exposure, if you like, to tragedy and to the sad events in Europe, I have learned detachment and that is the most valuable thing for any writer, any journalist, any historian to learn. There are different sides to my life."

Originally of Hungarian stock, she was born into a wealthy Viennese family in the 1920s, educated all over the place, including three years at an English boarding school, which she adored. One of her most vivid childhood memories is travelling home from England, getting stuck at Nuremberg and being taken to a Nazi rally - and loving it. She was all set to become an actress when the second world war intervened. She worked with orphans in occupied France, had to flee the country because of her Resistance connections, worked with refugees after the war, and since then has spent most of her life living in England after moving here when her American photographer husband Don Honeyman took a job with British Vogue. She became a journalist and author, with two principal areas of interest: Nazi Germany and its aftermath, and children who kill.

Gitta Sereny has long been a heroine of mine, and of many other hacks. Not only is she a formidable investigator who's managed to persuade some of the world's biggest newspapers and magazines to fund her probing (a stupendous achievement in itself), but she's also a better interviewer than we'll ever be.

Here's how good she is. One of the articles in her new book, The German Trauma: Experiences and Reflections 1938-2000, tells of how, in the 1970s, she interviewed Franz Stangl, who'd been commandant of the Treblinka extermination camp. He was in a German prison and she was hoping that, of all the Nazis she'd met until then, she was about to meet someone "less primitive" as she put it. Instead, she met a troubled soul in deep denial, a man who couldn't face the truth of what he'd done. Nineteen hours after her last session with him, he died of a heart attack.

The German Trauma starts out with a fair amount of autobiographical detail, but then sort of loses interest. "I've always said that I'm not going to do an autobiography, and I don't suppose I will, and I was tempted in this case to use the autobiographical means to explain to readers - because they're constantly asking me this - why I do these particular subjects that I do. I just thought it would be interesting for readers to see under what conditions one does this."

It's a series of essays and articles written down the years, as well as more recent material dealing with Nazis and how postwar Germany is dealing with the Nazi period. It's one of those books you pick up and think 'potboiler', before realising you've read half of it, swept away by a style that's vivid, but which also manages a ruthless intellectual honesty. Of particular note are her chapters on the children of prominent Nazis, on the Ivan Demjanjuk case, on the heartbreaking stories of children abducted by Germans in eastern Europe and settled on German families. Her investigation into the Hitler Diaries fiasco, in which a German magazine and our own dear Sunday Times paid thousands for patent forgeries, reads like a superior thriller. Her suspicion as to what happened to much of the money makes for a chilling conclusion.

Among her several publications she's probably best known for Cries Unheard, her book on the Mary Bell case, and for Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth. Speer started out as Hitler's favourite architect, and ended up as Nazi Germany's Minister of Armaments. Speer is covered in the book as well.

By Sereny's estimation, Speer's organisation of the German war machine prolonged the war's misery by at least one year. That he was not hanged after the Nuremberg trials was partly chance, and partly because, although he was indirectly responsible for millions of deaths - those of slave workers and war casualties - he played no part in the Nazis' extermination policies. He spent 20 years in Spandau prison but became close to Sereny in the years before his death. This was an extraordinary relationship; there were no other surviving individuals who'd been so close to Hitler, with whom he had an almost father-son relationship.

"I grew to like him," she says. "And I'm very grateful to him. He talked to me a great deal. It's an extraordinary thing to find a man as qualified as he who is willing to give what he did to me ... He phoned me a lot. He was in great need of communication. It was his need, not mine. I learned a great deal from him. I think he knew more about Hitler than anyone else. He was more willing to search in himself for the reasons why what happened did happen, and that's an extraordinarily courageous thing to do when you did as much harm as Speer did."

One chapter which she'd intended to include, but cut out at the last minute, would have dealt with American academic Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's hugely controversial book of a couple of years back, Hitler's Willing Executioners. Goldhagen's thesis, basically, was that all Germans were responsible for the Holocaust, and not just Hitler and the Nazi party.

"I'm so sick of Goldhagen that I decided to take it out," she says. "His theory is that the Germans were exterminationalist anti-Semites since the middle of the 19th century, which is historically completely false, because in the middle of the 19th century, no-one's borders were more open to refugees from Russian pogroms. It was a great age of liberalism in Germany ... He simply doesn't have a historical understanding, he doesn't know history, and he has an emotional interpretation of Germany - which I understand in his case and sympathise with, but it is wrong ... I think there was huge anti-Semitism in Germany, though there was more in Austria, and it was developed tremendously by Goebbels [Hitler's propaganda minister], but all of this he does not understand and does not say ... Germany did have 530,000 Jews, which is quite a large number if most of them were middle-class professionals, owners of department stores and things like that. That becomes very visible, and I think that that is a problem."

As for the danger of resurgent fascism in Germany, Sereny is relaxed. "I think the last country where it would resurge is in Germany. There is a danger everywhere, particularly in Russia, which is so huge and where they are so nostalgic for the dictatorship they have lost, which cared for them from birth to the grave, and that is dangerous. Thank God we haven't had this in the western democracies, and we don't need to long for it. And in Germany they would simply resist it, because that lesson has been very deep - and that is what my book is about."




Light on the other side of darkness


Gitta Sereny has spent a lifetime exploring the worst aspects of humanity, and has faced many terrible truths. Yet she has never lost her belief in the possibility of redemption. She talks to Erica Wagner.

The Times, 29 August 2001


The girl is 11 years old. One day in 1934, she is traveling from her boarding school in Kent back to her home in Vienna when her train breaks down in Nuremberg. The German Red Cross, perhaps thinking to entertain her, find her a seat at the Nazi Party Congress, and she is swept away by its fearsome pageantry: when she returns to school she writes and essay, ‘The happiest day of my holiday’, describing it.

Four years later, one night in a Viennese park in March, 1938, she hears her best friend Elfie reveal that her father is a member of the Nazi Party – which had been illegal – that he says Australia will be “disinfected” of Jews, while all around them in the dark she hears shout: Germans awake! Jewry perish!

Later, she stands beneath the balcony of the Imperial Hotel and hears Hitler speak. Later still, she sees the paediatrician who saved her life made to scrub the pavements with a toothbrush. Yet it would be some time before that girl, Gitta Sereny, rejected what she had seen.

Over 60 years later, in the comfortable sitting room of a book-lined flat in Kensington, Sereny is clearly still affected by what she saw as a girl – by what she saw as a girl – by what she failed to understand.

“I remember extremely well sitting high up in this huge arena and these men – and Hitler of course – were tiny, far away and tiny. But their voices were huge – they had what must have been the most sophisticated sound system there was, even now it seems extremely well done. And it was just so beautiful. It was beautiful.

And I am sure that all the children around me responded as I had done. What is more frightening is that in 1938,when the Nazis came into Austria, I would have thought that I would have known better, and I was again overcome. That is really strange. That was after I knew of my friend Elfie’s horror that her father had been an illegal, that she must never speak to any Jew again; had heard the terrible chorus of Deutschland erwache! Juda verrecke! Listening to that probably was more frightening than anything else. Standing in that dark park in Vienna, where I had played my whole childhood … It was the most peaceful place on earth for me.

And there we stood, just below the statue of Johannes Strauss, and we heard these terrible words. All right, so I had all that – and then the encounter with my paediatrician … so I knew. For God’s sake, I was 15 years old, I knew.

And I think this is the question that we need to ask ourselves very seriously. Why do we succumb? Why do the Africans succumb to Mugabe? What is it? What is it in these individuals who have this hellish gift – which Hitler had – that pulls us? Because it persuades us. I swear to you, I think of this now very, very often.”

That Sereny knew – as she says – and was still persuaded, is perhaps what has enabled her to do what she does: to explore what it is that makes what we might call monsters. Into That Darkness was her account of Franz Stangl, commandant of Treblinka; Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth looked into the soul of Speer, Hitler’s cultured Minister of Munitions and who, as Sereny wrote, “I knew well and grew to like”; Cries Unheard was her second book about Mary Bell, who, in 1968, killed two little boys when she was the same age as the Sereny who sat in the arena at Nuremberg.

Now comes the paperback publication of The German Trauma, a collection of essays – in one of which she tells the story of her childhood experience of the Nazi Party Congress and the Anschluss – that reflects her life’s work in connection with that country, a country she believes has now changed out of all recognition.

“This book is supposed to show that the German personality has really changed, which is an admirable thing. It is the only country in the world that has taken issue with its past. Don’t you think that’s extraordinary? Given the awful things their grandfathers did. The German young are really so different now.”

Sereny, now at work on a history of Vienna in the 20th century, believes in redemption – which is remarkable, given what she has seen. Born in the Austrian capital to an actress mother and a Hungarian father who died when she was two, at 16 she fled finishing school for Paris, and worked as a volunteer nurse when France was occupied.

After the war she joined the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration as a child welfare officer to work in the displaced persons camps in what became the American zone of Germany. From this stems the two aspects of her work: her interest in children and her interest in the Third Reich.

In 1946 she attended the Nuremberg trials, and caught her first glimpse of the “startlingly handsome” Albert Speer.

To the discomfiture of many, she has worked all her life to understand what makes such men as they are. It is that understanding, she believes, that can lead to change.

“I am interested in perpetrators,” she says. “It is not that I am not interested in victims. I am sad for the victims. But what can we learn from them? That’s really the question. Writing about the perpetrators, I really feel that one does learn from it. I wish I could say that we learn enough to prevent. But I don’t think so.

I don’t think any one experience or work or any two or any three, can make it so, but a collection of works – by other people, too – which investigate people such as those I write about – I do think it has an effect. I know it does.

I’ve had thousands of letters. There is barely a day when I don’t get letters from young people who have read my books and who say God, you showed me this and I know this now. Of course, “she laughs, “they all want to come and talk more – it really is rather difficult! What more can I say?”

Sereny’s laugh is warm and generous, and it comes often in our conversation, despite its serious subject. It comes often too, when we speak on the phone about the pieces she writes for The Times book pages, when she pleads for more space and I usually give in. When I think of her, it is her laugh that comes to mind. Nearly a lifetime of considering the worst of which humankind is capable appears to have left her unscarred, and never dented her belief that change is possible: if some good can come of investigating evil, then there is still the space for laughter.

I am not surprised that her correspondents want to talk further with her –her books are powerful in that they are dialogues not only with her subjects but with her readers and herself. If she appears to have a high opinion of herself, she has the same opinion of her readers – but her trust that they will be able to be as intelligent and thoughtful as she is has not always been justified, especially in the case of Mary Bell.

Her evident sympathy with the woman Bell had become and her publisher’s payment of Bell for her time gained her much opprobrium. Her ruthless desire to stick to the facts – that, say, Auschwitz was not a ‘death camp’ – has not always won her friends. She is particularly scathing about the identification of Hitler’s evil with the death of the Jews and only the Jews. She deplored the use of the word “holocaust”, she says.

I deplore it because what happened to the Jews was the sort thing that was done – but it has now become the only thing. And that is totally wrong. If one wants to be disgustingly numerical, one would have to say that Hitler killed more Christians than Jews. But we don’t want to be like that. It’s all wrong.

But if we concentrate entirely on what happened to the Jews, we cannot see its parallels – and you know many in the Jewish community refuse to see such parallels because they think it diminishes their suffering.

But it’s not just terrible to kill Jews – it’s terrible to kill anybody. This whole thing of the murder of the Jews – we must never forget it, it is part of history, children as long as the world lasts must know that this happened – but we badly need to accept it now as part of a terrible history, not the terrible history. I don’t want anyone to think that I diminish it. I don’t diminish it. It was the worst thing. But it was not the only thing.”

Sticking to the facts is the only way to avoid playing into the hands of people such as David Irving. “Untruth always matters,” she writes, “and not just because it is unnecessary to lie when so much terrible truth is available. Every falsification, every error, every slick rewrite job is an advantage to the neo-Nazis.”

She is puzzled, too, by what she perceives as a reluctance to confront the truth by those who seem to have the most interest in it: “Why on earth have all these people who made Auschwitz into a sacred cow … why didn’t they go and look at Treblinka which was an extermination camp? It was possible. There were survivors alive when all this started. Nobody did. It was an almost pathological concentration on this one place. A terrible place – but it was not an extermination camp.”

Then she sighs; and suddenly the fierceness leaves her. “The distinctions are important,” she says more quietly. “But – death is death.”

If her subject, Albert Speer, battled with truth, Sereney battles for truth. In this good fight, she has been supported  for over 50 years by her husband, the American photographer Don Honeyman, who appears at intervals during our talk, fetching this, copying that, pouring drinks, making coffee. Watching them together I say that the work she has done must have come at some personal cost – she has two children, long grown up, and grandchildren too.

She is reluctant to bring her private self into our discussion. Earlier I had asked her, as a friend once asked her with reference to her book on Stangl, why you? She answered with seeming lightness: “Why not me?” And then gave me a list of perfectly practical reasons (her perfect German, her social class, her not being Jewish) as to why she was suited to this particular project.” I don’t understand the question,” she said, or “it is impossible to answer”. But, having eluded that, she admits that yes, there has been a cost – and that what she has undertaken would have been impossible without the support of her family.

The emotional strain of writing Cries Unheard was great: “Sometimes, at the end of the day with her, Don and I would just lie in our beds, unable to speak or do anything.” And there was, too, the price that all working women with families pay. Recently her son’s daughter came to stay, and asked to see pictures of her father when he was a boy. When she saw the pictures – of Gitta playing with her little son – she was amazed. “What did you expect?” Gitta said, astonished. “He just told me about the nannies,” said her granddaughter.

What is extraordinary about Gitta Sereny is not only her understanding of evil; it is her faith in goodness. Perhaps this remains in her because she knows, from her own experience, that it is possible to refuse evil. I ask whether her early experiences might not have offered her a kind of inoculation against it. “It’s interesting what you say, it may be true,” she says. “The advantage is to reach this age and to have this continuity of thinking on these subjects, so that despite having had a perfectly normal life with a husband, children, love and friends – there hasn’t been an interruption in the sense of concentration.

So the inoculation, if that happened – carried me, helping me to have the detachment that I needed. Gave me understanding and protection. I hesitated to put that story of my 11-year old self into the book, but I was determined to get across to myself and to the reader that I thought this spectacle was wonderful. I think that is important, at least to me. Somebody younger would perhaps feel, oh, I can’t say that. But at this point, there’s no reason why I can’t say that I thought this was extraordinary. And that I, knowing how awful it was, stood in front of the Imperial Hotel, and shouted Heil! It’s incredible. Can you imagine me, shouting Heil?”

And she throws her head back and laughs.







Fredrick Töben comments

The 17 September 2002 Federal Court of Australia prevents me from saying anything about Gitta Sereny's thoughts on Auschwitz. I can say that if the German law applies to her, then she can prepare herself for a stint in prison, i.e. were she to visit Germany. 


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