Tag Archives: Gitta Sereny

The Time Tunnel



With The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer and his anonymous collaborators give us a rare film that rewards repeated viewings; we have watched it closely several times since its release last year, emerging after each viewing with very different thoughts and insights. The filmmakers’ open spirit of tentative – even stumbling – enquiry is perfectly matched to the complexity and depth of the tunnel, as it winds through Indonesian minefields of genocide, trauma, memory, the rhythms of history and the complicity of cinema in all of the above.

Any attempt to come to grips with the psychology of the perpetrator of war crimes is bound to be morally ambiguous, as we have previously noted in reference to the exceptional work of Gitta Sereny; we only wish she were still around to watch this bravely uncompromising film, as it burrows down into the dark tunnel, in search of tangled mnemonic roots and fungal blooms.

In a recent interview with the LA Times, Oppenheimer speaks about one of the main “characters” in the film (and one of the main perpetrators of the genocide), Anwar Congo:


Again and again, we enter into the convoluted language of guilt, shame and raging self-exoneration, as evidenced in the below testimony from another perpetrator, Herman Koto:


You can cut off all the heads of your victims, yet their eyes remain open. As Anwar Congo reconstructs the scene, which will later be re-enacted:


Oppenheimer again, on the complicity of American Cowboy & Indian movies, in the shaping of a genocidal imagination:




When asked about the most promising response to the film in Indonesia, Oppenheimer says:


Can such spaces of reconciliation be sustained, or will they eventually become yet another layer of oblivion and impunity? Only time inside the tunnel will tell.

For historical context and background, we found a recent essay by Benedict Anderson useful, as we continue to think about this extraordinary film. Be sure to view the director’s cut; the theatrical release attempts to tidy up the messy reality, where meaning resides in densely ambiguous moments that refuse to be neatly story-boarded.




Memory and Justice



Now comes “Baby Doc” Duvalier, with a request to postpone a hearing regarding a long list of crimes against humanity. The grounds? It seems he does not wish to discuss such things on the anniversary of his departure for Paris in 1986, under cover provided by the CIA.

According to his lawyer Reynold Georges, “He wants the date to be changed. A lot of organizations and human rights people are saying, a bunch of ‘blah, blah,’ that if the court chooses that date, it’s because they want to throw out all the charges against him. We have nothing to hide. He will be cleared.”

Among those in the “blah blah” bunch, we find Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch, “The law is very clear. Haiti has a legal binding obligation to investigate, and if appropriate, prosecute the crimes committed under Duvalier.”  The underlying principle: There must be no statute of limitations for crimes against humanity.

With this in mind, and closer to home, descendants of the Sand Creek Massacre continue to press their own case for justice in response to the slaughter of 163 Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians, most of them women and children, on November 29, 1864. Bodies were mutilated, with various body parts cut off and placed on display inside a Denver theater.

Article 6 of the 1865 Treaty of the Little Arkansas officially acknowledged that “gross and wanton outrages” were inflicted upon “certain bands” of Cheyenne and Arapaho. Compensation was promised, yet never delivered.



At the close of her painstaking investigation into the case of John Demjanjuk (summarized here, but published in its entirety as a chapter in The Healing Wound), Gitta Sereny writes:

“But although the crimes are now and must remain a part of history, the Naz1-crime trials must cease. The alleged criminals, the survivors and the witnesses are too old: these are now men and women in their eighties; memories and evidence become flawed. Prosecutions are not safe. The survivors of that terrible period, with a pain of the soul that none of us can imagine, and their children who inevitably had to share it, must be allowed and indeed allow themselves to let go of it — to rest.”

Sereny is concerned about the quality of prosecution; that is, that crimes against humanity not be compounded by miscarriages of justice. In the case of Demjanjuk, facts proved elusive; in the case of the Sand Creek Massacre, however, there is no longer any question about what happened. There, the dispute is over compensation as articulated in the 1865 Treaty, though unqualified recognition of the event as an atrocity took well over a century, as documented in a fascinating recent study by Ari Kelman.

In the matter of Baby Doc, we are confronted with a rather different question: whether the Haitian legal system is able to break with the long tradition of permitting despotic rulers to get away with murder.

As stated by Amnesty International’s Javier Zuñiga,“The arrest of Jean-Claude Duvalier is a positive step but it is not enough to charge him only with corruption. If true justice is to be done in Haiti, the Haitian authorities need to open a criminal investigation into Duvalier’s responsibility for the multitude of human rights abuses that were committed under his rule including torture, arbitrary detentions, rape, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions.”



Even in the Sleeper


We know a good deal about Albert Speer during his years at Spandau, both through his own voluminous accounts, and through forensic cross-examinations performed by the incomparable Gitta Sereny. Her book, Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth offers the patient reader a model of careful excavation, the sort that yields tiny fragments of bone that suddenly disrupt everything we thought we knew.

Shortly after arriving at Spandau, Speer realized that sitting in his cell with his scraps of text would not be enough to sustain himself; he soon began a different sort of labor, in the garden. As he wrote to his wife Margret:


It is about 6,000 square meters of wilderness full of nut trees and huge lilac bushes. Now we are all spending hours every day weeding; it is good for us. I already feel much better. I have big ideas for the garden, have designed a promenade I will lay, and plans for all kinds of flowers, a rock garden and, above all, fruit trees and vegetable plots for which I hope I will be allowed to have seeds sent me. (…) There is a lot to do, and I think the soil is healthy.

For this reader, the words promenade and plots summon other images into this upbeat and arcadian scene: images of the death camp Himmelweg, shaped by its dense tangle of barbed wire and pine trees, an improvised fusion of steel and nature that captures the essence of Nazi aesthetics. Though Speer did not participate in the construction of the camps (Hitler would not permit such crude soiling of his muse’s “purity”), he would likely have approved of the idea of a barbed bough. He would also have approved of the fluid linkage between a straight passageway leading to a well defined terminus, a signature feature of his vision for Berlin.

Eventually, having completed both the garden and his memoirs, Speer needed another way to stay in motion:

I had worked it out – if I did thirty circuits of the path I had laid out in the garden, that would be seven kilometers a day. I asked Hess, who sat and watched me, if he would mark down each time I passed him, so that I wouldn’t lose count. He had a marvelous idea. He gave me thirty peas and said, “Put these in one pocket and move one to the other pocket each time around. That will do it.”

In 1954, Speer decided that he would walk from Berlin to his home in Heidelberg:

It was a more imaginative goal than just completing the circuit thirty times, as I had been doing. That was successful, so I kept on going, across the mountains to Italy, and finally decided to see how far I could get. After preparing for the walks by studying maps, travelogues and art history books, I focused imaginatively on the differences in the landscapes, the rivers, flowers, plants, trees and rocks. In the cities I came through, I thought of churches, museums, great buildings and works of art.”

Often, he would receive specific advice from his friend and rather unrepentant Nazi Rudi Wolters, who would also faithfully supply him with source books and maps:

For the trek through the huge uninhabited wastes of Siberia, I would strongly advise you be kind to yourself and take a train. Saves time, too as you can do it at night! But don’t sleep too much. It would be a crime to miss seeing those unending snowy mountain chains and prairies and the sea of stars above. If you open the top slat in your compartment window, you can smell the purity of the air even in your sleeper. Only careful – if you expose your face too long, your mouth and nose will freeze. 

Speer took his last walk on September 29, 1966. He had covered 31,936 kilometers; “I suppose it too became an obsession. But what’s wrong with that, if it makes one happy?” He was released from Spandau the next day, having served his complete sentence.

In the end, the internal life of Albert Speer remains stubbornly inaccessible, with an unbroken cipher at the heart of all those thousands upon thousands of well-crafted sentences. For all his weeding and lateral perambulations, Speer never ventured to descend into the darkest soils of his self. Past a certain depth (Speer’s ability to experience love and empathy only through art and abstraction), even the formidable soul-seeker Sereny comes up blank. She grants him the benefit of the doubt regarding his moral recuperation, yet her conclusion is tentative.

In 1981, while in London for a BBC interview and in the company of a much younger woman, Speer suffered a stroke that would end his life a few hours later. Was this the autumnal love that might have finally released the meaning of the cipher, or yet another happy obsession for prisoner number five?


The Mysterious Core

Gitta Sereny, 1921-2012

Gitta Sereny, 1921-2012

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.

The Game of Death


A colleague in the realm of Desperado Philosophy has brought to our attention a French television documentary made in 2010 titled Le Jeu de la Mort by Christophe Nick, who has since become a prominent critic of reality TV and its many brands of casual cruelty.

As a basic dramatic structure, Nick adapted Stanley Milgram’s well known obedience experiments in which “teachers” would deliver shocks to “learners”, while prompted and at times badgered by a scientist-in-situ. Interestingly, Nick claims his original inspiration for the experiment came not from his reading of Milgram but from a French version of The Weakest Link, wherein contestants are relentlessly bullied and belittled by the host, while also scratching and clawing at fellow contestants to avoid being culled from the feeble brain trust.

With the simple idea télé, c’est le pouvoir as his rather banal point de départ, Nick then sets out to discover whether that power is sufficient to cajole or compel ordinary citizens to become willing or at least obedient torturers, in public and on national television, and without any monetary incentive. With blinking lights, sexy helpers, a perky/pushy host, roaming cameras, and an audience shouting encouragement, the scenario has an air of inevitability about it, and indeed Nick solicits the proof that he set out to find: 64 out of 80 contestants deliver the full Monty throttle of 460 volts, at which point the victim – quite convincingly performed by an actor – no longer screams but slumps in the chair, ominously silent.

Voiceovers and expert commentary leave little to the imagination, as the basic structure of scripted subservience plays itself out over and over accompanied by a music pastiche that gropes for all the expected emotive buttons.

In post-mortem remarks, Nick said: They are not equipped to disobey. They don’t want to do it, they try to convince the authority figure that they should stop, but they don’t manage to. Indeed there was one contestant whose Jewish grandparents had been tortured by the Nazis. She had wondered all her life how the Nazis could perform such atrocities, yet now she has inflicted the same sort of pain upon a perfect stranger: I was worried about the contestant, but at the same time, I was afraid to spoil the program.


In the process of informing contestants that they had been lured into his scenario via the false premiss of a game show audition, and securing their permission for the film, Nick assured one and all that they had performed “normally”, and – sounding just like Philip Zimbardo – that the context of the situation was responsible for their actions; within his simulacrum of torture, they were not guilty, two thumbs up. Nick reports that most of them are thrilled to have participated in an experiment that could be useful for something, and some of them are ready to do it all over again. 

As we contemplate this dreary episode, in which both the subject and the object of critique become unified in the expression of some far deeper truth that is, however, never allowed to push through the totalizing aesthetic of the film itself, we recall the words of Gitta Sereny, who spent seventy hours with Franz Stangl, Kommandant of Sobibor and Treblinka; Gitta Sereny, who wrote in her beautiful and moving epilogue: This [essential core], however, cannot come into being or exist in a vacuum. It is deeply vulnerable and profoundly dependent on a climate of life; on freedom in the deepest sense; not license, but freedom to grow: within family, within community, within nations, and within human society as a whole.


Agents in the Dark Wood

The year 1974 saw the appearance of two remarkably different explorations of the tense interplay between conscience and obedience, with the horrific experience of Nazi Germany offering historical background for both books: Stanley Milgram’s Obedience To Authority and Gitta Sereny’s Into That Darkness. However entangled their subjects may be, the subtitles reveal strikingly different ambitions, for while Milgram proposes “an experimental view”, Sereny sets forth on “an examination of conscience”. Inside the dark wood of morally compromised obedience, these two paths will lead us into very different places.

In his first chapter, Milgram makes clear the underlying motivation for his lengthy series of obedience experiments, which began shortly after the trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961:

It has been reliably established that from 1933 to 1945 millions of innocent people were systematically slaughtered on command. Gas chambers were built, death camps were guarded, daily quotas of corpses were produced with the same efficiency as the manufacture of appliances. These inhumane policies may have originated in the mind of a single person, but they could only have been carried out on a massive scale if a very large number of people obeyed orders.

Consistent with the parameters of the experiments, a summary exposition of which occupies his first nine chapters, Milgram introduces the problem of individual conscience within the context of systems theory:

The presence of conscience in men can be seen as a special case of the more general principle that any self-regulating automaton must have an inhibitor to check its actions against its own kind, for without such inhibition, several automata cannot occupy a common territory.

He next discusses the problems posed by such an inhibitor when placed within the hierarchy of complex systems, whereby efficient and preferably immediate compliance best achieves the objectives of the system:

Therefore, when the individual is working on his own, conscience is brought into play. But when he functions in an organizational mode, directions that come from the higher-level component are not assessed against the internal standards of moral judgement. Only impulses generated within the individual, in the autonomous mode, are so checked and regulated.

Because being part of the system assures survival and delivers numerous other secondary benefits to the individual, potentially disruptive autonomy is “checked”, identity becomes “agentic”, and the individual will thereby execute the commands of superiors within the hierarchy, free from the cumbersome inhibitions of conscience:

From a subjective standpoint, a person is in a state of agency when he defines himself in a special situation in a manner that renders him open to regulation by a person of higher status. In this condition, the individual no longer views himself as responsible for his own actions but defines himself as an instrument for carrying out the wishes of others. 

When morally or ethically disturbing consequences of actions come into conflict with the imperatives of the agentic self, undermining the strength of “binding factors”, strains then emerge within the system. Such strains are resolved first through expression of dissent and then, if left unresolved, by outright rejection of the hierarchy through explicit acts of disobedience.


Now let us enter Gitta Sereny’s Into That Darkness, her prolonged examination of the conscience of one such agentic self: Franz Stangl, Kommandant of Sobibor and Treblinka, with prior experience in the Tiergarten Euthanasia Program. Sereny spent seventy hours talking with Stangl in a style that might best be described as empathic interrogation, her subtle intelligence slowly penetrating elaborately entrenched defenses, present since childhood yet perfected in the camps. She then spent eighteen months examining documents and cross-checking Stangl’s account of himself with Treblinka survivors and other witnesses, including his wife, Theresa, who had consistently urged dissent and disobedience, with little effect on agent Stangl. Over the course of the examination, Sereny leaves no doubt about what happens to a buried conscience: it rots.


Assigned to the point of maximum strain within the tight binders of the Nazi hierarchy, Stangl managed the messy business of genocidal extermination, applying his considerable administrative and creative talents to the task, details of which are exhaustively recorded by Sereny. Like so many before him, Stangl later tried to defend himself by claiming, in Milgram’s terms, that his autonomous self was absent from the scene, and that he was present only as an agentic functionary, performing his assigned duty within the hierarchy with the same professional diligence he would bring to any assignment:

FS     It was a matter of survival – always of survival. What I had to do, while I continued my efforts to get out, was to limit my own actions to what I – in my own conscience – could answer for. At police training school they taught us (…) that the definition of a crime must meet four requirements: there has to be a subject, an object, an action and an intent. If any of these four elements are missing, then we are not dealing with a punishable offense.

GS      I can’t see how you could possibly apply this concept to the situation?

FS      That’s what I am trying to explain to you; the only way I could live was by compartmentalizing my thinking. By doing this I could apply it to my own situation; if the ‘subject’ was the government, the ‘object’ the Jews, and the ‘action’ the gassings, then I could tell myself that for me the fourth element, ‘intent’ [he called it ‘free will’] was missing.

Yet Sereny does not let the schematic flow chart of such well worn defenses stand uncontested. Like a forensic anthropologist delicately yet firmly exposing the contours of a disappeared corpse, she enters into the death pit of Stangl’s conscience to assemble, fragment by fragment, the awful evidence of his guilt. There is so much to be said about this remarkable book, and the rare interlocutory skill of its author; I am sure to return to her often in months to come. For now, though, consider Stangl’s final – halting – confession, the extraordinary “farewell” exchange with Sereny whereby his “agentic self” finally gives up the ghost; for the first and only time, the former Kommandant Stangl comes face to face with the gaping oblivion of his own existential responsibility. In the interest of placing maximum focus on the power of Sereny’s interrogation, I have removed all narrative linkages, leaving only the bare transcript of their dialogue:

GS      In retrospect, do you think there was any conceivable sense to this horror?

FS      Yes, I am sure there was. Perhaps the Jews were meant to have this enormous jolt to pull them together, to create a people, to identify themselves with each other.

GS      Do you think that that time in Poland taught you anything?

FS      Yes. That everything human has its origin in human weakness.

GS      You said before that you thought perhaps the Jews were “meant” to have this “enormous jolt”; when you say “meant to” – are you speaking of God?

FS      Yes.

GS      What is God?

FS      God is everything higher I cannot understand but only believe.

GS      Was God in Treblinka?

FS      Yes, otherwise how could it have happened?

GS      But isn’t God good?

FS      No. I wouldn’t say that. He is good and bad. But then, laws are made by men; and faith in God too depends on men – so that doesn’t prove much of anything, does it? The only thing is, there are things which are inexplicable by science, so there must be something beyond man. Tell me though, if a man has a goal he calls God, what can he do to achieve it? Do you know?

GS      Don’t you think it differs for each man? In your case, could it be to seek truth?

FS      Truth?

GS      Well, to face up to yourself? Perhaps as a start, just about what you have been trying to do in these past weeks?

FS      My conscience is clear about what I did, myself. But I was there. So yes, in reality I share the guilt … Because my guilt … my guilt … only now in these talks …  now that I have talked about it all for the first time …  My guilt is that I am still here. That is my guilt. 

GS      Still here?

FS      I should have died. That was my guilt. 

GS     Do you mean you should have died, or you should have had the courage to die?

FS      You can put it like that.


GS      Well, you say that now, but then?

FS      That is true. I did have another twenty years – twenty good years. But believe me, now I would have preferred to die rather than this. And anyway – it is enough now. I want to carry through these talks we are having and then – let it be finished. Let there be an end. 

Nineteen hours after confronting the truth for the first time, Franz Stangl was dead of a heart attack. In her epilogue, Gitta Sereny, clearly shaken by her journey into the grave corruption of Stangl’s subjectivity, offers a few tentative conclusions of the sort that do not lend themselves to neat formulae or flow charts, conclusions that remain as timely today as the day she wrote them:

I do not believe that all men are equal, for what we are above all other things, is individual and different. But individuality and difference are not only due to the talents we happen to be born with. They depend as much on the extent to which we are allowed to expand in freedom. 

There is an as yet ill-defined, little-understood essential core to our being which, given this freedom, comes into its own, almost like birth, and which separates or even liberates us from intrinsic influences, and thereafter determines our moral conduct and growth. A moral monster, I believe, is not born, but is produced by interference with this growth. (…)

This essence, however, cannot come into being or exist in a vacuum. It is deeply vulnerable and profoundly dependent on a climate of life; on freedom in the deepest sense; not license, but freedom to grow: within family, within community, within nations, and within human society as a whole.