Witnessing Germany

Witnessing Germany

Eric Weinberger reviews The Healing Wound: Experiences amd Reflections on Germany, 1938–2001, by Gitta Sereny.


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.

As is now widely known, Stangl died in prison nineteen hours after his last meeting with Sereny. This clearly has had a profound effect on her, who in Into That Darkness writes: "I think he died when he did because he had finally, however briefly, faced himself and told the truth; it was a monumental effort to reach that fleeting moment when he became the man he should have been." Her book about Speer, published in 1995, ends similarly: "To me it was some kind of victory that this man–just this man–weighed down by intolerable and unmanageable guilt…tried to become a different man."

The man one should have been, the man one tried to become… In the Sereny view of the world (which we might not be wrong ourselves to adopt), to be worthwhile life has its limits, and there is always our perfection, toward which we are striving. She quotes one of Stangl's prison guards, who wonders how Stangl can do what he has done or "even see it being done, and consent to remain alive." She quotes very close language from Speer's daughter to analyze Leni Riefenstahl. And there is a third person, the daughter of a Dutch collaborator, who says nearly the same thing, too: that for her parents to confess the "extent of their commitment…they would have to commit suicide." The repetition, because from so many voices, is uncanny; and it suggests that for human beings, survival is secondary beside the truth of one's life. This final rejection of materialism to me seems the essence of mysticism, a denial of the supremacy of our own lives. Not everyone will believe in it, but Sereny's iron consistency, in this as in many things, is impressive to behold.

Calling Sereny a mystic, however, won't carry very far with her; for her, the answer to problems of morality always "lies in a personal and human rather than a theoretical or intellectual realm." What she believes comes from the stories she has recorded; she truly does seem to come in on a blank page. And here–and yet–in her simplicity and directness, she has things to teach us. A nearly universal ignorance about the difference between concentration camps (Dachau, say), slave-labor camps and extermination camps (Treblinka, Sobibor), and the presence and use of the gas chamber in all three, has created openings skillfully exploited by neo-Nazis and revisionists. It might seem enough, in the spirit of "never again," to organize modern education around the study of the Holocaust, whose symbol is Auschwitz; but Sereny has been meeting with young Germans for more than thirty years and has observed more closely than most how they have learned their country's past. It is riveting to see where an education concentrating on the murder of the Jews has failed them. A 1978 report, published in The Healing Wound, shows the stricken response of teenagers understanding for the first time that the Nazis slaughtered their own: 80,000 handicapped Germans and Austrians, a third of them children, gassed before the war. "Children? German children?" cries a stunned youth. "Here? In Hamburg?" Dachau, which Sereny saw as a UN relief worker after its liberation, does no good to anyone as a restored, sanitized museum piece: One teenager perceptively (if disturbingly) observes of one renovated barracks, where the "bunks, tables and chairs smell agreeably of pine," that it is much like the youth hostels he has visited on his school holidays: "Our sheets are blue-checked too."

Witnessing in 1993 the chaotic end of the trial of John Demjanjuk, the Ukrainian Clevelander extradited to Israel and condemned (in a decision later reversed) as the unspeakable Treblinka guard "Ivan the Terrible," Sereny reached conclusions that seem common-sense now: Victims should not try their tormentors. And it is time for the trials to stop–not for the sake of the old criminals but out of sympathy for the witnesses, whose memories are no longer safe, whose pain has been terrible and who should now be allowed "to let go of it–to rest."

Reviewing these essays, all these articles, one bends before the righteousness and moral force of Gitta Sereny, marvels at what she has seen. There is no furor or controversy she has avoided; she has not been afraid. Her iron is in every fire, and this book is the putting out of all those fires, whether the purported Hitler "diaries" that turned up in 1983 (she was part of a team investigating the fakery), Demjanjuk, Speer, Riefenstahl and Kurt Waldheim. Even before Deborah Lipstadt, Sereny tangled with David Irving, the only near-formidable one among the abject yet active class of Holocaust deniers, revisionists and Hitler enthusiasts. Irving sued her for libel before suing Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin, in a case he conclusively lost, last year in London, when his research was exposed as bogus [see D.D. Guttenplan, "History and the Holocaust," May 1, 2000]. But of course Sereny was there first, in 1977 reviewing Irving's citations in his book Hitler's War to refute his claims about Hitler's ignorance of the Holocaust. She is invincible, it seems. Beyond her relentless attention to detail, her mastery of archives, her exhaustive research and fact-finding, her interviews that go on for weeks or months, there is her own longevity and her native command of German and its many inflections. In her book about Stangl, an Austrian, it is fascinating how Sereny studies Stangl's voice and changing accent as he accounts for certain times of his life, speaking one way about youthful happiness and quite another about Treblinka, his crimes and complicities. She knows more than we will ever know–even Irving, to whom she condescends by none too slyly rubbishing his German: "I made him most angry in 1977 when I accused him of mistranslating something. Anyone who speaks German as a foreigner can make mistakes. He speaks very good German, but obviously my knowledge is deeper."

Naturally Irving cannot bear this, but Sereny is, among her other skills, a master psychologist. It is how she has insinuated herself so deeply into the lives of her subjects. Ever the haughty Viennese and friend of privilege when she needs to be, Sereny begins her "encounters," as she calls them, not by pretending gratitude to these men who have agreed to receive her, but by laying down rules:


My rule is to tell [her subject] at the very start how I feel about him. I do not pretend to come as his friend, to help or console him…. In the case of people involved with the Third Reich, I tell them what I feel about the Nazis and how I feel about them personally.


Of course, this is exactly the way to talk to men or naughty boys, for Sereny, in addition to everything else, is a woman; a wife and mother. And with these men–Stangl, Speer–it produces the hoped-for result: "Making such a statement creates a special atmosphere: people respond to it, speaking more openly, saying, perhaps, things they would not otherwise have said."

Speer lasted a bit longer than Stangl's single day or nineteen hours, but until his death he was in constant touch with Sereny, and it is in his profile published in The Healing Wound that he admits, most subtly and wearily, the truth that would have got him hanged in Nuremberg. Immediately Sereny concludes her profile: "He is a haunted man who has battled for three decades to recapture his lost morality. Unless we deny all men the potential for regeneration, this man, I believe, must now be allowed peace."

That was in 1978; Speer had three more years. When he died, Sereny "was not sad…. I thought that his death was right." But still she thanks him, and honors his legacy to her, "a new understanding of the significance, in political events, of human emotions." Because, of course, Speer had loved Hitler, and because of that love, for which Speer had sustained the Reich well beyond its final breaking point, a world was changed. And strangely the love goes on, for Sereny herself, in what is the most perfect meeting of her subject and her own life, her personal history that this book is. In giving her "the gift of himself," Speer has provided Sereny the vital, life-cherishing context or opposition "against whom I could place, consider, deplore and mourn all those events, and all those human beings who had lived and died in my time."

But as to the living–there are always the children, as Sereny reminds us. Her introduction cites her love of children, and her previous book was about a child who killed children and is full of policy recommendations about how child criminals should be cared for and counseled or tried, if it comes to that. In The Healing Wound, hope for Germany must lie in its young, and she has had several generations to contemplate; there are reports here from 1967, 1978 and now 2000 and 2001. But even in her other articles they are never absent, and they are always intelligent, earnest, probing, serious–admirable, in fact. Again, the essence is the barest simplicity. Here Sereny presumes to speak for all of us: "It is time that we say loud and clear to the young Germans that we do not consider the children responsible for the parents' sins; that we do not believe in inherited guilt; that we do not accept the transferred image of the 'ugly German.'"

This is from 1978, but Sereny has always believed it, and believes it still, with the same triumph of hope over experience shared by any parent. It seems small-minded to call it anything but love.

Ad Policy