Gitta Sereny

Gitta Sereny

Gitta Sereny died recently. It would probably be true to say that no one has studied evil deeds and those that perpetuated them so closely and personally. She wrote books about her exhaustive meetings with Mary Bell - the child murderer, Albert Speer - Hitler’s architect, friend and armaments minister - and most chillingly Franz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka.

Treblinka was one of five pure extermination camps in Poland. Belsen, in Germany, was a concentration camp and Aushwitz a huge industrial complex as well as a killing machine. Treblinka was something different. Jews arrived in shipments for immediate killing. The station had flowers and other decorations to make it look ordinary. In the first few minutes men, women and children were separated. They were striped of their clothes and possessions and immediately murdered. In the first days of the camp they were shot and buried. Such were the numbers that the graves could not contain them and the decomposition gasses raised the earth so much that it moved - and the smell became overpowering.

The later shipments were made to dig pits over which huge griddles were erected. They were made to disinter the corpses of the shot and these were cremated over these griddles with fires in the pits below. Gas chambers were built and the process industrialised – but still with the vast open flaming ditches only gradually replaced by crematoria. Around a million people were fed into this killing machine spending only hours at most in the camp. When the Red Army approached, the camp was dismantled and the earth ploughed over.

The man in charge was Franz Stangl. He was a policeman from Austria; a family man devoted to his wife and two daughters. He was also a Catholic. After the war he escaped the first wave of justice and was eventually apprehended  and tried under the legal system of West Germany which eschewed capital punishment in favour of life imprisonment. It was in prison that Gitta Sereny met him many times and probed into what made this very ordinary man a killer on scale such has probably never been seen before or since.

Franz Stangll

This was no sadistic monster. His dominant characteristic was fear – a weak man who took a warped pride in doing a good job.  He maintained a sense of victimhood, insisting that he had no choice but to follow orders from above or end up on the griddles himself. He was a man with a blunted and cauterised moral sense – perhaps to keep himself sane. Under quiet pressure from Gitta Sereny he began to acknowledge his guilt and perhaps it was this that led to the heart attack that killed him before their interviews had concluded.  The terrifying thing about Stangl was that he wasn’t a monster but an everyman – proof that the ability to do the most terrible things is within us all and that if circumstances were different he could be any of us. It is this that makes Into That Darkness a great and important book.

Gitta Sereny herself lived through the terrible 20th century, witnessing a Nuremburg Rally and working after the war with its victims – displaced and orphaned children. She befriended and sought to  understand the child killer, Mary Bell, through two books – books that revealed a human being that had suffered the most awful abuse herself.  Bell went on, under an assumed identity, to live a relatively normal life with a child of her own. Gitta Sereny always managed to hold on to her own high standards of morality but balanced that with an acceptance of the humanity of those she sought to understand – ‘somebody’s husband, somebody’s son’. Though she was probably duped by Albert Speer, whose high but chilly intelligence avoided the hangman at the Nuremberg Trials, this was a small price to pay in a life and writing that shone a light into some of the darkest places a dark century had to offer.

She refused to wallow in instant judgements and join the lynch-mobs of popular opinion. She looked evil in the eye and faced it down not by the invocation of a Manichean world-view but by recognising that that the ‘crooked timber of humanity’ was an apt description of us all. Her life and work were the bright side of what humans can do.


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