Gitta Sereny, The German Trauma (Allen Lane 2000)
Gitta Sereny (1921–2012) was one of the great non-fiction writers of the 20th century. Holocaust denier David Irving described her as a shrivelled Nazi hunter, but though she may well have worn the insult as a badge of honour it wasn’t accurate. She said of herself: ‘I am interested above all in how individual human beings succumb to, or resist, evil.’ In Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth (1995), and Cries Unheard: The Story of Mary Bell (1998) she digs with empathy and rigour into the minds of one of Hitler’s closest henchmen and a child murderer respectively, and sheds light on very dark places.
This book, retitled optimistically for the US market as The Healing Wound, was her last. It’s a collection of essays and newspaper pieces spanning 30 years, revised and with new interstitial pieces so that something of a coherent narrative emerges, beginning with the Austrian-born Sereny’s childhood and adolescent experience of Nazism (she accidentally attended a Nuremberg rally as an 11 year old schoolgirl and was enraptured; at 15 she shouted at an SS officer who was humiliating some Jews in Vienna soon after the Anschluss), and tracing her engagement with the meaning and legacies of that time up to the turn of the century.
It’s not pretty. She takes us with her just after World War Two on the extraordinarily distressing task of tracking down East European children stolen from their parents years before, and abetting their being torn from home for a second time – she was in the employ of the UNRRA, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, where she might have rubbed shoulders with Edith Campbell Berry if the latter hadn’t been a figment of Frank Moorhouse’s imagination. We encounter Franz Stangl, who was commandant of the Treblinka extermination camp (I haven’t read Sereny’s 1974 book, Into That Darkness, which expanded the Daily Telegraph article included here, though I may one day have the stomach for it) and Albert Speer (in an essay that doesn’t add a lot to her magnificent book, but is well worth reading). We are introduced to children of Nazis who find strength in each other to face the horrors perpetrated by their parents. We follow Sereny’s dealings with a number of odd individuals who are dedicated collectors of Nazi documents and memorabilia. We gain some understanding of the US’s dubious dealings over decades with the question of justice for Nazi criminals. We meet an elderly woman who was one of Hitler’s secretaries, to whom he was always kind and thoughtful.
And through it all Gitta Sereny’s gaze doesn’t flinch. The book is saved from being a catalogue of horrors by the pervasive sense that she is driven by a need to understand. Perhaps the most impressive moment in the book is her response to David Irving’s book claiming that Hitler knew nothing of the ‘final solution’: rather than dismissing it out of hand as incompatible with her own understanding, she was intrigued, and began her fact-checking exercise, which was to turn into a devastatibg debunking, almost hoping Irving was right.
I learned a lot from this book. The Jewish Holocaust was a towering piece of evil, a calculated attempt to kill a whole people that succeeded in killing a full third of them – something way beyond genocide. But the Nazi murderousness wasn’t restricted to Jews. They killed something like 15 million people – homosexual men and women, political opponents, Romany people, eastern Europeans, people with disabilities – not as war crimes but as murders committed under the shadow of war, some with industrial efficiency in the extermination camps, some a bullet in the back of one head at a time, some with hideous callousness and mind-boggling disrespect for the dead. The US’s ‘denazification’ barely scratched the surface, leaving the German courts to prosecute Nazi crimes for at least 30 more years. While most Germans tried to forget and move on with their lives, Sereny says, a small elite made up of writers, artists and lawyers pursued the incredibly difficult task of coming to terms with what was generally known as ‘the recent past’ until well into the 1980s. Next time I hear an Australian shock jock or rabid columnist condemning ‘inner city elites’ or a combatant in our renewing history wars use. Dismissive phrase such as ‘black armband history’, I’ll remember Sereny and gird my loins for battle.