Finding the right tools to break a guilty silence

The German Trauma
August 31, 2001

The successful stage adaptation of Gitta Sereny's excellent book on Albert Speer, Hitler's architect and minister of armaments, has made her name widely known. A gifted writer and enterprising journalist, Sereny has for a long time written on German themes. In this book she reflects on her experiences of Germany and the Germans that go back to childhood. Its 19 chapters are adapted from newspaper articles written over a period of 30 years. They are frequently prefaced by reflections.

Sereny's attitude to Germany reveals insight, commonsense and compassion. It is inspired by a liberal political attitude and a quest for justice. However, when she ventures into generalisations about the German national character she enters treacherous ground, for that concept has rightly been viewed with scepticism by so eminent a sociologist as Morris Ginsberg.

But her ability to ferret out the truth from war criminals such as Speer or Franz Stangl, who as commander of the Treblinka extermination camp was co-responsible for the murder of 900,000 men, women and children, is impressive. Searching, but not unfriendly conversations with them enabled her to penetrate to the core of their personality and make them face their guilt. She shows how Stangl, who was nominally Roman Catholic, believed that his conscience was clear because he was obeying orders and doing his duty. Only just before a fatal heart attack did he grasp the truth of his guilt. Similarly, Speer, a highly intelligent man who wished to be honest, found it extremely difficult to admit to himself and others that he had known about the extermination camps. But, in the end, he showed her a letter in which he stated that he knew of the plan to exterminate the Jews and of its implementation. His tacit consent, if not approval, of this crime was the guilt he had to live with.

Sereny's account of the inquiry into Odilo Globochnik, whom Himmler had put in charge of four extermination camps, though not of Auschwitz, in which 3 million people were murdered, reads like a detective story. Up to the end of the chapter, we are left in suspense whether Globochnik survived. Only when a photograph of his corpse is identified do we know the answer. Kurt Waldheim, the former Austrian president and United Nations secretary-general, did, in her view, not commit criminal acts during the war; his guilt lies in his reluctance to admit that he knew of them, even though he could not possibly have prevented them. He appears to her characteristic of most Austrians who never came to terms with their conduct under Hitler's rule.

Sereny also depicts the change in German attitudes to the Third Reich. After the war, too many Germans wanted to forget all about these years and their complicity in Hitler's crimes. Far too many ex-Nazis got away lightly, which was largely ignored until the German historian Norbert Frei explored it in his Vergangenheitspolitik (Munich, 1996). In the late 1960s, the younger generation rebelled against their parents' attitude. Nowadays, young people's interest in the Third Reich is not emotional, but intellectual. Admittedly, neo-Nazism has of late come to the fore, particularly in the former GDR, but, in contrast to the Weimar Republic, it has only minority support. However, as Sereny observes, xenophobia is a disease deeply embedded in the human psyche. The Israeli trial of the Ukrainian John Demjanuk, who was not Ivan the Terrible of the Treblinka extermination camp but had lied about his past, convinced her that only an international court should try war criminals.

As an 11-year-old schoolgirl in 1934 returning from her British boarding school to her mother in Vienna, Sereny's train broke down in Nuremberg. In her brown school uniform, she was whisked off to the annual Nazi Party rally and was overwhelmed by this grand show, not realising that for Hitler it was a tool he used with remarkable skill to arouse German emotions for his purposes. Her admiration soon vanished. When in March 1938 Hitler marched into Austria, he destroyed her world. She was appalled by the arrests and persecution, particularly of the Jews. Her mother, the fiancee of the economist Ludwig von Mises, who was Jewish, had to flee from Austria to join him in Geneva. Sereny herself went to Paris to study. After the beginning of the war she worked for a charity. Finally, she had to flee to join her mother in the United States, who had gone there with von Mises.

After the war, Sereny worked for UNRRA (UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration), an experience of which she provides a moving account. She brings to light the often-forgotten murder of millions of Poles, Russians, Ukrainians and people from other occupied countries. She suggests that by concentrating on Auschwitz and the Holocaust, admittedly the worst of Nazi crimes, attention has been deflected from Hitler's atrocious crimes against others, which is, in her view, not in the interest of the Jews. Another cruelty committed by the Nazis was robbing Polish and Ukranian parents of their children if they believed they detected "Aryan" characteristics in their faces. To increase the German population they sent them to foster-parents in Germany. After the war their parents sought to reclaim them. However, repatriation was very hard on the children who sometimes wanted to stay with their foster-parents. The law had to be complied with, but Sereny is at a loss to know whether it was morally right to do so.

This book offers rich fare and many insights. It makes exciting, at times compulsive reading.

Hans Reiss is emeritus professor of German, University of Bristol.

The German Trauma: Experiences and Reflections 1938-1999

Author - Gitta Sereny
ISBN - 0 7139 9456 8 and 014 02 9263 2
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Price - £20.00 and £8.99
Pages - 368

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