Surprisingly, Gitta Sereny's new book on Germany turns out to be a book about love. There, among her many interviews, essays and investigative pieces spanning the past half-century in the life and memory of Europe's dominant nation, is Leni Riefenstahl, at the age of 90, confessing her ancient love for Adolf Hitler, an ardor shared by the unlikely figure of François Genoud, a Swiss lawyer and fixer and unabashed Nazi until his death in 1996, who in the same sentence absolves Hitler and exalts him. "It was some time before I realized that, and he was wrong," Genoud says of Hitler's bigotry and warmongering, "but I'm very forgiving to those I love, and the truth is, I loved Hitler."
And then there is Sereny herself, on the man she has become most closely associated with, culminating in a 750-page book after his death: Albert Speer, Hitler's architect and armaments minister who so narrowly escaped the hangman at Nuremberg, of whom it was said that his organizational genius prolonged the war by at least a year. Yet Speer was a man of taste, intelligence and profoundly distressed conscience–"in many ways a man of excellence," Sereny wrote in Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth. And Sereny writes in this one: "It was a long time before I grew to like Speer, but by the end of our first three weeks together [in 1978], I fully believed, and loved, that feeling of guilt in him." It is not as preposterous as it sounds. One is moved by most struggles, even those of criminals when their conscience is involved; and as the book makes clear, Sereny has a lot of love to go around, starting with her many old, old, often aristocratic friends (French, German and Austrian) to whom she devotes rather too much attention in the early pages. And, she says, recalling, collectively, her "most important years," as a child and young adult swept up in the mid-century cataclysm (born in Vienna in 1923, a teenager in occupied France caring for children in a Loire Valley chateau, escaping France through the Pyrenees, returning to Germany in 1945 as a children's relief worker), young people then were "creatures of emotion. We could love."
As Sereny notes in her introduction, The Healing Wound essentially comprises her autobiography–which she hadn't intended, but there it is. It is a march of triumph, a lap of honor, an honorary degree and career award–it presumes, without any real arrogance, that hers has been an important life, and that her witness must be shared. It is the only way to justify its organization, which is a collection of journalism over many decades, twenty pieces in all, most of which are prefaced by an essay on its circumstances and aftermath. Throughout the book she thanks editors and patrons, her American husband (frequently her co-researcher and photographer) and many friends; these are the most boring parts of her book, yet excusable. She has had an extraordinary life and made friends of the most remarkable people, yet she is not a show-off nor, apparently, even that interested in herself; self-absorption is not something a reader of The Healing Wound will have to live with. Frivolous herself in her youth–aspiring to be a dancer and actress in pre-war Vienna, loving parties in Paris–she has reworked her native emotionalism into something steely and unfazed for the only task she knows, the grim obligation of facing up to the twentieth century.
She is no intellectual, however. In none of her books does Sereny reveal herself as a profound thinker, or even a thinker, really, at all: She is in the truest sense a witness, and it is her patience and lack of easy judgment that explain her journalistic success. She deals in simple terms, speaking a simple idiom. The same ideas–trite as they sound–recur. She is emotional, loves children, believes they are born good. Crimes are committed by individuals, against individuals. Something must happen to people–probably in their childhood, or elsewhere in their moral formation–to make them commit unspeakable acts of evil, for she acknowledges that evil exists. Her conclusions can be simplistic–affronts, perhaps, to the discriminating intelligence. She believes that it was a lack in Speer's childhood that made him unable to feel or know empathy, hence his struggle. Similarly with the subjects of two other of her books: Into That Darkness, about Franz Stangl, commandant of Treblinka; and most recently Cries Unheard, about the Englishwoman Mary Bell, now living under another name, who in 1968 at the age of 11 killed two little boys in her hometown of Newcastle. Bell does not feature in The Healing Wound–it is a book about Germany, after all–but the other two do, from her original magazine profiles of them, before the books came out: Stangl in 1971, Speer in 1978. And her conclusions about the men, which appear in the books (both, it should be said, at two or three times the length they need to be), point to the resolution of Sereny's seeming simplicity, which is that when your beliefs are very basic and unchangeable, a certain mysticism is the inevitable result.