With much sadness, we note the death of Gitta Sereny at the age of 91. Possessing an abundance of analytical intelligence and moral acuity, Sereny’s writings explore the interplay of history and human psychology with peerless subtlety and skill, conveyed for the reader in a style that is graceful, complex and lucid.
Her virtuoso “examination of conscience” in the case of Franz Stangl, Kommandant of Sobibor and Treblinka, sets a very high standard for the forensic examination of human behavior in extreme circumstances. Rejecting the simplistic classification of Stangl as either a Nazi Monster or as a banal civil servant, Sereny reconstructs his social and private Lebenswelt with meticulous care, her spirit of empathy – even though she found him personally repellent – matched by an unsparing drive to excavate his deeply buried guilt.
In dialogue with Sereny, Stangl becomes human again for the reader, only for Sereny then to lay bare the fundamental corruption within his personality that permitted him to perform his role within the death machine with such cold efficiency. By cross-checking Stangl’s recollections with interviews of his wife, children and other key people in his life, she uncovers the emotional black hole at the core of his being, an emptiness which eventually expresses itself as a grotesquely distorted conception of “self-will”, an identity distortion that is absolutely critical to comprehending his obedience within the genocidal chain of command.
Sereny’s examination of Stangl is so cathartic for her subject that, at its conclusion, he at last acquires an understanding of his complicity and guilt: “My guilt is that I am still here. That is my guilt.” Nineteen hours later, he is found dead of heart failure. By the end of her account, the reader (or certainly this reader) also experiences a sort of collapse, a collapse that creates the conditions for fresh insight, well beyond the history of the death camps.
Her portrait of Albert Speer reaches the same depth, complicated by the eventuality of Sereny’s feelings of friendship and even admiration for Speer’s remarkable talents and personal qualities. Speer is certainly in a different category from the brutish provincial policeman Stangl. Speer is painfully aware of his profound guilt from an early stage, and devotes the rest of his life to an examination of his own conscience; hence Sereny’s title, Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth.
While Speer’s moral resolve wins respect from his interlocutor, she does not abandon her hunger for deeper questions, as she constantly pushes him on critical weaknesses in his personal accounting, above all regarding his complicity in the Final Solution. As readers, we witness their friendship strengthening in the exact same rhythm as Speer’s last defenses regarding the depths of his guilt weaken and then crumble. It is an astonishing tension to experience, rendered with literary skill equal to any writer of her time.
Though Mr. Rose is not even remotely in her class as an interviewer (we wince at his clumsy interruption in mid-sentence, when she is on the verge of making her most important point), the below video at least conveys some slight sense of her exceptional self-awareness and deep humanity.
In closing, we submit the epilogue from our DP office copy of Into That Darkness, in which she neatly summarizes her perspective on the social conditions for an active moral consciousness. Her fearless grappling with the mysterious core of human identity remains more relevant than ever, as the species spins off into yet another crazed Tarantella of corruption, cruelty and slaughter. The incomparable Gitta Sereny: the world will be very fortunate indeed to see her kind again.