To most of us, the line that separates the monsters of this world – the baby killers, the Nazi commandants – is sharply demarcated, as though there was an actual frontier between us and them. The great lesson of Gitta Sereny’s writing was the understanding that this barrier was the flimsiest of curtains.
Sereny died at 91 last week, and will be remembered most for three books: Into That Darkness, about Franz Stangl, commandant of Treblinka; Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth, about the man who helped Hitler’s Reich work at a practical level; and Cries Unheard, about Mary Bell, who killed two young boys when she was 11 years old herself.
Where the world saw monsters, Sereny saw something far more frightening: evil was just as much part of the human condition as goodness. It could be nurtured, deliberately, but it could also flourish from neglect and thrive in passivity or timidity or denial.
She often confused critics who flinched when Sereny recognised, and drew out, what she thought of as the essential goodness in people like Speer, presenting it alongside his darkest and ugliest selves. Some of her critics felt that she went too far in her attempt to understand evil, crossing the line into identifying with men who had committed monstrous acts, presenting them with sympathy.
But to Sereny, there were no monsters, only humans. In The Healing Wound, an under-rated collection of essays which was the closest she came to writing an autobiography, what shines through is her love of life, and of people, and of the ordinary goodness in the world. Sereny grew up in Vienna, and recalls attending the Nazi Party Congress rally in Nuremberg in 1934. She records with complete honesty how beguiled she was by the spectacle, the “joyful faces all around”, the drama and theatre that she wrote about in an essay for school, “The Happiest Day of My Holiday”. Her teacher gave her Hitler’s Mein Kampf to read, so that she could understand the forces at work better. But Sereny was, in her words, a privileged child, growing up in an enchanting city; she struggled to understand, and settled back into her comfortable, happy life.
It was four years later, in 1938, when she was to become “terribly, achingly aware of wrong, wrong in my small world and in the world beyond it”. Her friend, Elfie, was trying to come to terms with the fact that her father was a Nazi who wanted Vienna – and Europe – to be “disinfected” from the Jews. Walking around the city, Sereny saw her paediatrician and his wife among a group of middle-aged Jews, forced to scrub the pavements with toothbrushes. (Dr Berggrun and his wife were gassed in Sobibor in 1943.)
The story Sereny tells does not foreground her intervention – she and her friend remonstrate with the crowds – but her confusion, her awareness that ordinary, normal, good people can be caught up in evil.
This is accompanied by the slow understanding that passivity and looking away are just as deadly acts.
In a speech she gave in 2001, Sereny wrote, “In order to understand what provokes our reaction of rejection, dislike or even repugnance to another’s colour, his religion, the shape of his face, or his manner of living or being, we have to first acknowledge its existence in us. We have to consciously recognize it and we have to realise its power of corruption… We think of ourselves as good people, innocent of prejudice, But perhaps – as Albert Speer would only do toward the end of his life – we need to remember that this innocence is only as real as our capacity to maintain denial.”
If there is one writer who should be paired with Sereny, it would not be the other historians of Nazi Germany, or even the many great writers who have investigated murder, or pogroms, or war crimes. Her parallel was to be found in Viktor Frankl, who wrote about what it meant to live in and survive the concentration camps: the blunting of emotion and the many spiritual and physical deprivations were real, but so was the heightened awareness of the preciousness of life, the search when all else was removed of its real meaning.
Sereny chronicled Speer’s own denial, the way in which he stopped seeing Jews and prisoners as human or any more than cattle; and yet she also chronicled his fine mind, his ability to appreciate art and to experience love. Frankl chronicled the hardening of the prisoners under the rigours of camp life, and perhaps he wrote the final judgement on both Speer and the value of Sereny’s work. “No man should judge,” he writes of certain prisoners in Dachau, who transferred their brutality to their fellows, “unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.”