International Campaign for Real History

Author and journalist Gitta Sereny has been peering into the glass darkly of evil for decades, writes Sarah Lyall.

Sereny is being sued by author David Irving in libel in the British High Court

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Murder, She Wrote


IN THREE DECADES of studying guilt, responsibility and the nature of evil through the twin obsessions of her professional life, Nazis and child criminals, Gitta Sereny has been accused of growing too close to her subjects, of becoming not only a confessor, but also an apologist.

When she wrote Into That Darkness (Random House, 1983), a rigorous examination of the unspeakable crimes of Franz Stangl, the fearsome commandant of the Treblinka death camp and one of Nazism's cruellest practitioners, a critic demanded to know how she could have, as she described in the book, made soup for the ailing Stangl on the last day she spent with him. ("I had to ask myself whether there was something morally wrong with what I had done," Sereny says now. "But it was a pragmatic thing: I needed him for another day.")

Albert SpeerAnd when she published Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth (Knopf, 1995), the result of a 16-year project that delved deep into the conscience of [Albert] Speer, Hitler's brilliant, urbane architect and one of his closest confidants, Sereny daringly revealed in her first sentence that she "grew to like" her subject.

Albert Speer (Photo: by Walter Frentz, from Hitler's War)

But the great accomplishment of the book served to quell all but the most carping criticism: Sereny, through her relentless questioning and amassing of evidence, finally forced Speer to admit what he had been concealing even from himself: that he had known and tacitly consented to Hitler's "final solution". Nothing in her journalistic career, however, prepared the formidable Sereny, now 76, for the uproar that greeted her in Britain last spring. when she published her most recent book, Cries Unheard. The book is about Mary Bell, who became one of Britain's most notorious criminals in 1968 when, barely 11, she murdered two young boys and then appeared, at least to a horrified nation that followed the news of her case, to show no remorse.

With her customary habit of becoming immersed in her subject, Sereny spoke to Bell over a period of months, sometimes for as long as 10 hours a day, in an effort to understand what drove her to commit her crimes. But this time, Sereny's involvement in her subject went even further, and she grew to like Bell and to believe that the convicted killer had redeemed herself.

Reaction in Britain was swift and condemnatory, particularly when it emerged that Sereny had paid Bell for her co-operation. Fury and moral outrage greeted Sereny's conclusion that Mary Bell had not been morally responsible for her crimes because of her age and because she had suffered abuse as a young girl. The British tabloids referred to Bell's "blood money" and "depraved story".

"I think Gitta Sereny is confused when it comes to issues of moral blame," Andrew O'Hagen, author of The Missing, an account of violence and murder in Britain, told The Guardian, criticising the way she "found it easy to enter into complicity with Mary Bell in her more self-redeeming aspects".

As in Sereny's other work, Cries Unheard wrestles with the idea of guilt, evil and the possibility of redemption in a civilised society. It also speaks to the fraught, sometimes mutually exploitative relationship between subject and biographer, a relationship whose implications Sereny said she fully understood from the start.

Speaking in her book-filled London apartment recently, Sereny remained resolute in her conviction that she was right to produce the book and research it the way she had. "What they don't understand is that if you do what I do, you have to develop a relationship," she said. "There is no other way. Your relationship is always at a distance, of course. But it's not possible to spend weeks or months with someone and not develop a relationship."

Cries Unheard examines the Mary Bell murders in excruciating detail and is not, Sereny says, intended to justify what Bell did. But the book dwells at length on Bell's time in prison at the mercy of a system that Sereny says is woefully inadequate for child criminals.

It also provides a wrenching chronicle of her childhood: Bell was abandoned by her father and unloved by her mother, a prostitute who tried to murder her on a number of occasions and who forced her to perform sex acts with her customers.

Through her work with Mary Bell, who is now living somewhere in the north of England under a new name and with her 14-year-old daughter, Sereny became convinced there was no such thing as an evil child. That notion, she says, puts her in conflict with what seems to be the conventional wisdom in Britain, where Mary Bell and the two young boys who killed three-year-old Jamie Bulger in another notorious case several years ago, are seen as the embodiment of wickedness.

"Behind their reaction is the idea of the Devil, the idea of evil." she says of her critics. "There is this belief that the evil person is evil, period. There's no rehabilitation, no redemption. This is a Christian nation, but the Christianity stops short of redemption."

Sereny's examination of these issues is pertinent now, as the US grapples with a rash of horrific murders by children. In the most recent case, two boys, aged seven and eight, have been accused of sexually assaulting and killing an 11-year-old girl in Chicago, raising calls for them to be tried as adults.

Sereny disagrees. "I think 14 is a fair age to make a child morally responsible, because there's been a moral growth," she says. "Children at 10, nine and eight are not morally grown. Why should they be, any more than intellectually or physically?"

Bell's daughter, a straight-A student who seems untouched by the chain of hatred and violence that so affected her mother, is living proof that redemption is possible, Sereny says. "Mary Bell has broken the cycle by her own character, her own strength. Instead of being demonised, she should be celebrated for what she has accomplished."

Even after a career spent facing down the perpetrators of evil, Sereny does not believe that people are evil, except perhaps in exceptional cases like those of Hitler or Fred and Rosemary West, the notorious British child-killers who tortured and sexually assaulted their victims. But those sorts of people are rare, she says, and hold no interest for her.

"I am a great believer in people's capacity to change, to find themselves, to understand if they have done something terribly bad," Sereny says. That, she says, is partly why she had sympathy for Speer, who was consumed by guilt and tried to redeem himself by relentlessly examining his own soul. "I grew to like him when I realised he really wanted to find out the truth for himself," she says. "That is very likeable, when the truth is so terrible."

Sereny's own search for the truth has lasted almost all her life. She was born in Vienna, read Mein Kampf as a teenager and, though not Jewish, began to recognise the horrors of Nazis, as she saw Jews beginning to disappear from her neighborhood. She was in Paris, studying at the Sorbonne, when France fell to the Nazis, and she left school and began working as a nurse at a camp for abandoned children. When her anti-Nazi work made it impossible for her to remain, she left Europe, returning after the war as a United Nations child welfare officer, working with children who had been in concentration camps.

"People are made by the circumstances of their lives, and what I am involved in comes out of the war," she says.

Sereny began to work as a journalist, and gained a reputation as a dogged investigator who would not stop until she wrestled her subject into submission. About 20 years later, living in London with her husband, Don Honeyman, a photographer, she was sent by The Daily Telegraph magazine to cover the war-crimes trials of former Nazis in Düsseldorf, Hamburg and other German cities. On and off for six months, Ms. Sereny sat and listened as witness after witness described the indescribable. And as the stories began to come alive, the truth became in a way more elusive.

"All of them -- the accused and the witnesses -- had two things in common," she said. "None of them wanted to be there, and they had all seen or done things no human being should ever see or do. The blocking of these experiences and these feelings, and the guilt at what they had felt or seen or done, was so strong."

"What you didn't get was themselves," she says. "You got their descriptions of what happened, but you didn't get themselves, because it was unfaceable. None of them could speak out about what they had felt and what it had done to them inside themselves, I kept thinking, 'Why isn't anyone asking these questions?"'

Sereny decided that she would ask the questions, looking at individual guilt as a way to examine society's collective culpability. That is why she studied every available document and spoke to every available acquaintance and colleague about Speer, building up to the point where she confronted him with the biggest paradox of his life: that although he was in Hitler's inner circle during the worst excesses of the Third Reich, he professed to know nothing about the systematic extermination of the Jews.

And that is why, after covering the trial of Mary Bell in 1968 (she wrote an earlier book about it, called The Case of Mary Bell), Sereny waited almost 30 years for the chance to meet Bell face to face and question her until she was satisfied with the explanations. "In all these things, what I want to find out is what that makes them capable of doing what they do, or incapable of doing what they didn't do," she says.

Referring again to the Second World War, she says: "Like all of my generation across the Western world, whether Jews or Christians, we have been deeply affected by what the Germans did. It was the worst kind of inhumanity, such an enormous wrong, and we were all in my generation part of it. Because of it, humanity lost something. We lost a moral part of ourselves, and somehow we must regain this part. Maybe my way of regaining it is by doing what I'm doing."

This article was published by The New York Times, The Age (Melbourne) and other newspapers around the world


©Focal Point 1998  e-mail:  write to David Irving