Writer who tried to analyse notorious people seen by public as evil
GITTA SERENY:GITTA SERENY, the writer and journalist, who has died aged 91, spent her adult life wrestling with the huge moral question of how to explain evil. She did it primarily through an extraordinarily intense process of research and writing about the twin themes of the evils of the Third Reich, on which she became a formidable expert, and of deeply troubled children, including the child killer Mary Bell.
She returned repeatedly to her subject, in biographies of Franz Stangl, commandant of the Treblinka death camp, of Adolf Hitler’s architect and close companion Albert Speer, and of Bell, and in writings on the boy murderers of the toddler James Bulger – pursuing her subjects with a passion to understand and an intense moral commitment.
Sereny attributed her fascination with evil to her own experiences of Nazism as a child of central Europe in the early 20th century. She was born in Vienna, the daughter of a beautiful Austrian actress, whom she later described as “without moral opinions”, and a wealthy Hungarian landowner. Her father died when she was a child and her elder brother left home at 18. Sereny herself was sent to Stonar House boarding school in Sandwich, Kent.
In 1934, on a journey home from school, she witnessed the Nuremberg Rally and was profoundly moved by the beauty of the spectacle. These favourable impressions of the Nazis survived both a reading of Mein Kampf and the 1938 Anschluss, when Hitler annexed Austria. The grim realities of Nazism, however, soon began to affect her life in Vienna where she was a drama student.
She later described seeing a Jewish doctor she knew well being forced to clean pavements with a toothbrush; the terror became more personal after her mother, Margit, with whom Sereny had a poor relationship, became engaged to Ludwig von Mises, the Jewish economist. Von Mises had left Austria for Switzerland, but a German friend tipped Margit off that the authorities planned to arrest her to oblige him to return. Margit fled to Switzerland with her daughter.
Sereny was sent to a finishing school but absconded, first to London then to Paris. Margit and von Mises moved to the US, where von Mises was later to become one of the inspirations for the libertarian politics and market economics of the Reagan era. Sereny, eventually, was also obliged to flee, first across the Pyrenees to Spain, then on the US.
She returned to Paris four months after the war ended, to join the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, working with orphans in a Europe ravaged by Hitler’s wars. It was in post-war Paris, in 1948, that she met and married photographer Don Honeyman, with whom she was to have a son and a daughter.
The couple moved to London where Sereny wrote a novel, The Medallion, published in 1957, but it was in her work as a journalist that she found her direction. In 1968, she covered the trial of Mary Bell, who was charged, aged 11, along with a 13-year-old companion, with the murder of two children. The companion, who sobbed throughout, was acquitted; Bell was convicted of manslaughter. The crimes, her youth and her strange detachment made her a symbol of evil in the public mind. Sereny’s book The Case of Mary Bell (1972), explored Bell’s appalling childhood as an explanation for her behaviour and a system of justice that allowed a child to be tried in an adult court.
Sereny believed that all children were born good. Her hallmark technique consisted of meticulous research, combined with long hours of non-judgmental interviewing that owed much to psychoanalysis: the goal was to reveal the motivation. It was a technique that had its critics in those who felt she grew too close to her subjects.
She also reported on the trials in Germany of Third Reich functionaries, including concentration camp staff. In 1967, Stangl, the former commandant of the Sobibor and Treblinka death camps, was discovered in Brazil and returned to Germany. In 1970, he was found guilty of the murder of 900,000 people. He died six months later, but Sereny had the opportunity to interview him extensively, to probe how an ordinary man came to commit such extraordinary acts and, equally important, how he survived his own conscience. She contended that it was his – slight – acknowledgment to her of his guilt that precipitated his death, 70 hours later.
Her book on Stangl, Into That Darkness (1974), remains one of the best books on the Third Reich and established Sereny’s reputation as an authority on the period.
Her relationship with Speer, Hitler’s architect, armaments minister and friend, was more complex. Speer was tried at Nuremberg and sentenced to years in Spandau prison. Released in 1966, he contacted Sereny in 1977 to support an article she had written, challenging right-wing historian David Irving’s contention that Hitler was ignorant of the Nazi extermination of the Jews.
Sereny was to spend 11 years researching and interviewing Speer, a man whom she confessed to liking and who, she insisted, had found a moral redemption. The resulting book, Albert Speer, His Battle With Truth (1995), repeatedly challenges Speer’s contention that he too was ignorant of the fate of the Jews under the Nazi regime.
Redemption was a theme in her most controversial book, Cries Unheard (1998), in which she returned to the subject of Bell, by then released from prison, married with a young daughter, and living under an assumed name.
Sereny was rarely daunted. She fought a 20-year battle with Irving and was often targeted with fascist hate mail. She resisted all invitations to write her own autobiography, but in her late 70s she published a partial memoir in The German Trauma: Experiences and Reflections 1938-1999 (2000).
She is survived by her son, Christopher, her daughter, Mandy, two grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
Gitta Sereny: born March 13th, 1921; died June 14th, 2012