Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Book Review - The German trauma : experiences and reflections 1938-2000 by Gitta Sereny

The German trauma : experiences and reflections 1938-2000 by Gitta Sereny

London: Allen Lane, The Penguin Press, 2000   ISBN 0713994568

Gitta Sereny has been writing about the Third Reich and The Holocaust ever since the War. As a young volunteer nurse in France in World War II, she was nearly arrested by the Gestapo for resistance activities; ironically, given her hatred for Germany and Germans, she was tipped off about her impending arrest by a German Officer, and successfully made it to the USA via Spain.

After the war she returned to Europe, working for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), which was engaged in the melancholy duty of trying to repatriate children to their birth parents where possible (especially children "stolen" by the Nazis and given to Aryan parents). This experience, and the loss of her homeland and childhood to Nazism, has led to a life-long quest to try and find meaning and answers from participants in the most horrendous crimes committed in Europe during the War.

The German trauma is a collection of many of the articles written by Sereny over the years on the German response to their history. Most of the articles have been re-written for inclusion in this book, and are headed by reflections and responses by Sereny. She begins with a little of her own history, her work with UNRRA, and the responses of Germans to her when she was representing the "victors". She moves from that experience to the youth of Germany in the post-war period, who were caught between their parent's generation, who were trying to forget or block out the past, and the truth of history and their place in it. One article discusses the work of the German prosecutors who worked on the trials that took place in Germany for decades, trying servants of the Nazis. These committed men and women, many driven beyond their capacity to cope, are some of the few Germans who clear-headedly faced up to the nations crimes. These trials were always extremely well reported by the German press, and even attended by schoolchildren as part of their education. However, as Sereny notes, the reaction of many Germans was to switch off, unable to face such horrible facts (a thing that happens in many countries with nasty episodes in their past).

One of the biggest trials held under this process was of Franz Stangl, who was Commandant of the Treblinka extermination camp, and for a time, of Sobibor. Sereny spent several months talking with Stangl after he began serving his life sentence. As with her major work Albert Speer : his battle with the truth, Sereny is interested mainly in how Stangl lived with the knowledge of what he'd done. Unlike some of the other Nazis involved in the extermination camps, Stangl was an intelligent and thoughtful man. His justifications under the relentless blowtorch of Sereny's questions is painful to read, and his partial realisation of his guilt preceeded his death by heart attack by nineteen hours. In fact many of the people Sereny talks to over the years point out that one could not live with the idea that such horrors occurred, let alone having a direct part in them, which is perhaps one of the more compelling reasons perpetrators go to such lengths to avoid taking responsibility. Her piece on the trial of John Demjanjuk, accused of being "Ivan the Terrible" of Treblinka, being a case in point. Demjanjuk preferred to be sentenced to hang than admit he was a guard at one of the other camps (Sobibor), which would have seen him acquitted from the charges laid against him. Of course to admit that would have given the lie to his entire life since the war, as a well-loved father and husband and pillar of his local church. Eventually, the truth saved his life, while at the same time destroying it.

The apologists for the Nazis also appear in these pages, and get short shrift from Sereny. From people who are merely treasure-hunters, to those with more sinister motives; her articles about the Hitler Diaries hoax and the life and death of Odilo Globocnik (head of Aktion Reinhard, the creation and use of extermination camps which killed over 2 million Jews in 1942-43) revealing how deep the threads of Neo-Nazim still run in our society.

The book ends, however, on an optimistic note, pointing out that the Young Germans of today (2000, when the book was written), seem to be more interested than ever in discovering and talking about the past, and are not weighed down by some of the taboos of previous generations. Ironically, given the books release not long before 9/11, Sereny's final message is a plea against racism and xenophobia, and the "categorization" of peoples and races. Something humankind still has to learn.

The German trauma is well worth a read - you will learn something, and as always with Gitta Sereny, you will be reading well-shaped prose. Try and find it at your local library.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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