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The German Trauma: Experiences and…
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The German Trauma: Experiences and Reflections, 1938-2001 (2000)

by Gitta Sereny

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http://shawjonathan.wordpress.com/2013/12/10/gitta-serenys-german-trauma/

Gitta Sereny (1921–2012) was one of the great non-fiction writers of the 20th century. Holocaust denier David Irving described her as a shrivelled Nazi hunter, but though she may well have worn the insult as a badge of honour it wasn’t accurate. She said of herself: ‘I am interested above all in how individual human beings succumb to, or resist, evil.’ In Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth (1995), and Cries Unheard: The Story of Mary Bell (1998) she digs with empathy and rigour into the minds of one of Hitler’s closest henchmen and a child murderer respectively, and sheds light on very dark places.

This book, retitled optimistically for the US market as The Healing Wound, was her last. It’s a collection of essays and newspaper pieces spanning 30 years, revised and with new interstitial pieces so that something of a coherent narrative emerges, beginning with the Austrian-born Sereny’s childhood and adolescent experience of Nazism (she accidentally attended a Nuremberg rally as an 11 year old schoolgirl and was enraptured; at 15 she shouted at an SS officer who was humiliating some Jews in Vienna soon after the Anschluss), and tracing her engagement with the meaning and legacies of that time up to the turn of the century.

It’s not pretty. She takes us with her just after World War Two on the extraordinarily distressing task of tracking down East European children stolen from their parents years before, and abetting their being torn from home for a second time – she was in the employ of the UNRRA, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, where she might have rubbed shoulders with Edith Campbell Berry if the latter hadn’t been a figment of Frank Moorhouse’s imagination. We encounter Franz Stangl, who was commandant of the Treblinka extermination camp (I haven’t read Sereny’s 1974 book, Into That Darkness, which expanded the Daily Telegraph article included here, though I may one day have the stomach for it) and Albert Speer (in an essay that doesn’t add a lot to her magnificent book, but is well worth reading). We are introduced to children of Nazis who find strength in each other to face the horrors perpetrated by their parents. We follow Sereny’s dealings with a number of odd individuals who are dedicated collectors of Nazi documents and memorabilia. We gain some understanding of the US’s dubious dealings over decades with the question of justice for Nazi criminals. We meet an elderly woman who was one of Hitler’s secretaries, to whom he was always kind and thoughtful.

And through it all Gitta Sereny’s gaze doesn’t flinch. The book is saved from being a catalogue of horrors by the pervasive sense that she is driven by a need to understand. Perhaps the most impressive moment in the book is her response to David Irving’s book claiming that Hitler knew nothing of the ‘final solution’: rather than dismissing it out of hand as incompatible with her own understanding, she was intrigued, and began her fact-checking exercise, which was to turn into a devastatibg debunking, almost hoping Irving was right.

I learned a lot from this book. The Jewish Holocaust was a towering piece of evil, a calculated attempt to kill a whole people that succeeded in killing a full third of them – something way beyond genocide. But the Nazi murderousness wasn’t restricted to Jews. They killed something like 15 million people – homosexual men and women, political opponents, Romany people, eastern Europeans, people with disabilities – not as war crimes but as murders committed under the shadow of war, some with industrial efficiency in the extermination camps, some a bullet in the back of one head at a time, some with hideous callousness and mind-boggling disrespect for the dead. The US’s ‘denazification’ barely scratched the surface, leaving the German courts to prosecute Nazi crimes for at least 30 more years. While most Germans tried to forget and move on with their lives, Sereny says, a small elite made up of writers, artists and lawyers pursued the incredibly difficult task of coming to terms with what was generally known as ‘the recent past’ until well into the 1980s. Next time I hear an Australian shock jock or rabid columnist condemning ‘inner city elites’ or a combatant in our renewing history wars use. Dismissive phrase such as ‘black armband history’, I’ll remember Sereny and gird my loins for battle. ( )
  shawjonathan | Dec 10, 2013 |
Gitta Sereny’s first experience with Hitler’s Third Reich was as an 11 year old girl. While passing through Germany she witnessed the powerful theatrical drama of a Nazi rally. Later, she watched the Nazi’s march into her home country of Austria. Her mother and Jewish step-father escaped to the Untied States and Gitta spent most of the war in France as a student and later as a volunteer nurse. She dabbled in anti-Nazi subversive activity, and when the war ended, Gitta worked with the UNRRA to assist the 5 million “Displaced Persons” and refugees which included hundreds of thousands of children.

It is impossible to imagine, even with all the detailed descriptions provided in a multitude of publications over the past 66 years, the utter chaos Europe was in at the war’s end. Everyone knows 6 million Jews died under Hitler’s rule, “but they also killed 5 million Russian civilians, 2 million Poles - including a large part of their finest intelligentsia - and a million other people: gypsies, German free thinkers, and German insane or incurably sick... what they chose to call ‘inferior stock’.... 14 million” civilians (Pg. 81)

Four of the big questions everyone asked when the war ended were: How could this have happened? Why? Who must pay for these crimes? and, What now?

Gitta Sereny dedicated the rest of her life to answering these questions. She became a highly respected journalist, attended many court hearings including the Nuremberg Trials, interviewed Albert Speer - Hitler’s protege and Minister of Armaments, and Franz Stangl - the commandant of Treblinka. Excerpts of the interview with Albert Speer are included in "The German Trauma".

As time passed and others grew weary of the quest for answers, Gitta plodded on - obsessed with her mission which was no easy task considering the mental anguish associated with the subject.

"The German Trauma" is partially autobiographical, relating Gitta’s experiences during the war and her life thereafter of investigative journalism. She explores the psychological aspects of how the Germans live with the eternal consuming black cloud of guilt hanging over their country. And she describes the barriers that exist between the older generations of Germans who were consenting adults during the war (and now refuse to talk about it) and the young children today who want answers but are horrified to think their own parents or grandparents may have been willing participants to the atrocities. She analyzes human conduct - the extreme range of capabilities in behavior - the nature of evil, and how a supposedly normal person can be mentally conditioned to commit insanely cold-blooded acts of evil.

Addressing politics and social sciences, Gitta discusses how the historical stigma of Hitler’s evil dictatorial leadership now inadvertently causes Germany to carefully lean to the liberal left.

Through her thorough investigation and intensive interviews over the years, Gitta never stopped pondering and debating the guilt associated with collaboration - coerced or voluntary - and the level of guilt of Germany’s war criminals. She always spoke out against intentionally misleading documentaries, Neo-Nazi propaganda, and fake memoirs of holocaust survivors. She became a leading authority on Germany’s individual post-war retribution. Gitta stressed the importance of documenting and preserving the truth and keeping the memories alive... the only hope for elevating the morality of humanity in the future is to learn from the past. Her contribution to journalism won her several prestigious awards, and "The German Trauma" is very well written; educational and informative, unique in it’s content, and a must read. ( )
1 vote LadyLo | May 19, 2013 |
TBR
  miketroll | Feb 23, 2007 |
For over 50 years Gitta Sereny has been a one-woman truth and reconciliation committee for post-war Germany, inserting her needle every so often to make sure that no one should forget the crimes of the Nazis and to measure the ambient climate of acceptance and regret. The German Trauma is a collection of these investigations, loosely tied together with an autobiographical thread. Few writers are better placed than Sereny to examine the German conscience and few do it as well. She attended a Nuremberg rally in 1934 at the age of 11 and has had her hooks into the pernicious influence of Nazism ever since. She is perhaps best known for her brushes with Albert Speer, whom she eventually persuaded to admit what he had previously denied: that he had known of the Final Solution. But there are other Nazi apologists and sympathisers here, too--David Irving, Kurt Waldheim, Leni Riefenstahl and John Demjanjuk--and none escapes the Sereny probe. For all that, Sereny is never less than scrupulously fair. She only wants her pound of flesh and takes no more. Those who admit their wrongdoings are blessed with some forgiveness; only the deniers are taken to the wire. The converse of this is that Sereny allows few grey areas into her analyses; there is merely good or bad, wrong or right. One could argue that Nazism permits no other approach, but humans are rarely that two-dimensional. For most of us, there is no one final leap into evil but rather a continuum of quantum collusive jumps. So when Sereny tells of those who stood up to Nazism, she intends to parade them as ordinary bastions of good with which to bash all those who failed to measure up to such ideals. A more telling way of looking at them might have been to give them a quasi-saintly status, and to view those who failed to measure up as mere fallible mortals. But then one is often left feeling with Sereny that she needs or rather is desperate to paint a picture of a Germany that stepped so far over the moral abyss that it can never be repeated. You can't quibble over the morality, but sadly you can over its abnormality. And there are signs towards the end of the book that Sereny has just begun to understand this. Nazism isn't a one-off; it is being acted out in variant forms in Serbia, Kosovo, Rwanda and Iraq. And with a desperate irony that would not be lost on Sereny, the Israelis can themselves no longer claim any moral high ground in their treatment of the Palestinians. Maybe that's where she will turn her attention next. --John Crace

Book Jacket
It is now fifty years since the end of the Third Reich, yet in Germany the past seems always present. It is no longer--as it certainly was for a long time--that foreigners provoke this awareness: it is just there.

Gitta Sereny's new book is about Germany and her experience of it during and after the Second World War. Sereny's first encounters with the Nazis came in 1934 at eleven when, by chance, she was taken to a Nuremburg rally, and four years later when she was in Vienna during the Anschluss. In 1940, she was studying in Paris when the Blitzkrieg overran the Allied a armies: she became a nurse in a chateau on the Loire in occupied France, looking after abandoned children, until in 1942, warned that she was about to be arrested, she escaped across the Pyrenees. After the war she worked in Displaced Persons camps for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in occupied Germany.

When, later, Sereny became a writer, the Nazi period and its lasting impact on Germany not surprisingly became one of her main themes. The German Trauma gathers together the best of Sereny's writings about Germany over 50 years, exploring the guilt, denials and deceptions which in many different ways the Nazis left behind them. "I am interested above all," she writes, "in how individual human beings succumb to, or resist, evil." So she writes about individuals, many of whom she came to know well, who were deeply involved in the events of the period--among others, Franz Stangl, the Commandant of Treblinka.
2 vote antimuzak | Nov 21, 2005 |
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"In this memoir spanning more than fifty years, Gitta Sereny confronts Germany's troubled past, investigating the dark moments in the country's history as well as chronicling how her life has been repeatedly linked with that nation's history. Sereny first encountered the Nazis in 1934, at the age of eleven, when by chance she was taken to a Nuremberg rally, and again four years later when she was in Vienna during the Anschluss. In 1940, she was studying in Paris when the Blitzkrieg overran the Allied army; she became a nurse in a chateau on the Loire in occupied France, looking after abandoned children, until 1942 when, warned that she was about to be arrested, she escaped across the Pyrenees. After the war she worked in Displaced Persons camps for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in occupied Germany. When Sereny became a writer, the Nazi period and its lasting impact on Germany not surprisingly became one of her main themes. The Healing Wound gathers together the best of Sereny's writings about Germany over fifty years, exploring the guilt, denials, and deceptions that, in many different ways, the Nazis created. She writes about individuals, many of whom she came to know well, who were deeply involved in the events of the period - among others, Franz Stangl, the Commandant of Treblinka, John Demjanjuk, the alleged Ivan the Terrible, Leni Riefenstahl, Francois Genoud, a Swiss man who loved Hitler, and of course Albert Speer"--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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