On the first day of the trial for the former Serbian army commander Ratko Mladic, who faces eleven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, we turn again to Gitta Sereny’s remarkable descent into the conscience of Franz Stangl, the former Kommandant of Sobibor and Treblinka. In the central chapters of her book Into That Darkness, Sereny attempts to bring some small measure of light to Stangl’s day-to-day conduct within the shadowlands of the extermination camps.
Ultimately, of course, we know (and she knows) that the simple fact that he was there at all is enough to condemn him. Yet Sereny digs deeper; to conduct a thorough examination of Stangl’s conscience, she needs to know the precise details of his conduct, as divulged through his own recollections, which she then meticulously weighs, measures and balances against the memories and testimony of camp survivors and other witnesses. In particular, Sereny wants to reconstruct specific situations in which his actions might have alleviated the suffering of his victims, and whether he might even have developed a semblance of connection or compassion regarding any of the “work-Jews”, some of whom he would see on a daily basis.
Thirty years after the publication of her book in 1974, Sereny recalled one of these exchanges, adding several important details not present in the book:Returning to Into That Darkness, we discover that Sereny expresses her assessment of this incident slightly differently, writing that this story offered the starkest example of a corrupted personality that she had ever encountered. She goes on to write:
Corrupt suggests not just rotten but also somehow broken (latin, rumpere); and Sereny means personality in the classical sense of that quality which must distinguishes an individual. So in this brief recollection we find Stangl’s personality – his voice, self and sounding; his pneuma, spirit and breath – manifesting the evidence of a collapsed moral consciousness, in which the most injurious and cruel twists of the knife are construed by the actor as gestures of kindness and mercy.
In May 2012, it is now Ratko Mladic who sits in the dock, ready to reveal his conscience and to express his personality. Will he prove corrupt enough, in Sereny’s sense, to tell the truth?