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Jan 2001 Journal

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The unanswerable question

Gitta Sereny, THE GERMAN TRAUMA, Penguin Press, 2000.

This book is a collection of personal memoirs, interviews and comments. In it Sereny, for the first time, tells her own story  - witness of the Anschluss in her native Vienna, studies in France, welfare work with refugee children and escape over the Pyrenees.

After the war she worked with UNRRA who had the unenviable task of returning, often against their will, children who had been abducted and “germanised”, to their Polish families of origin.

Sereny’s chapter on German attitudes to their past (written in 1967) describes how the older generation, maintaining a stony silence about the war, spoil their young with material goods and substitute a frantic dash for industrial success for the acknowledgement of their guilt. She quotes a range of views among the younger generation, much of it depressingly hostile to the provision of pensions to Nazi victims and ignorant of the fact that a much larger sum is devoted to German war-victims. She contrasts this with genuine attempts to bring to trial the guilty men of the SS. In a chapter written recently, we learn how the children of high-ranking Nazis like Bormann and Heydrich are attempting to atone for their parents’ wickedness. One of them states that even today “…there is…a mass denial in Germany about what millions of German soldiers witnessed in the East. It is a very important part of our unresolved pathology, which by lies and silence…has created the myth of an ordinary war.” Yet the memories are there and will not quite go away.

The most interesting parts of the book are the interviews with Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka, President Waldheim, Leni Riefenstahl, Hitler’s favourite filmmaker, and an account of the trial in Israel of John Demianiuk, alias ‘Ivan the Terrible’ of Treblinka. Riefenstahl, from her charming cottage in Bavaria, declares that her film Triumph of the Will extolling the glories of the Nazi regime was “not political”, and that she had “suffered greatly” as a result of her friendship with Hitler. To wit, she was shown nasty pictures of concentration camp victims, and had to endure several months’ house-arrest in her own home! The most probing interview is with Stangl, from which readers can glean a mass of facts about the organisation of death camps – as well as evasion and self-justification in the place of any admission of guilt for the crimes committed there. As to the Demianiuk trial, if one has already “supped full of horrors” here are more to come in the description of the activities of ‘Ivan the Terrible’. The outcome of the trial, as we know, was inconclusive, and Sereny doubts the wisdom of relying on evidence so far removed in time.

One is bound to ask what new light Sereny’s interviews shed on the Nazi mentality. We learn much about the surrounding social and political circumstances, but inside these people there remains a core of evil no-one can penetrate. Nevertheless, there is much to ponder on in this long but never less than fascinating book about the enduring effect of the Nazi period on the German people.
Martha Blend

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