Gitta Sereny is an Austrian-born writer who is now in her late 80’s. She has written a number of high-profile biographies of some of the most morally compromised personalities of our times and specialises in books on Nazi Germany and abused children. All of this merely reflects her own personal history; as a teenager travelling to boarding school in the UK from Austria, her train was delayed in Nuremburg and she ended up attending one of Hitler’s Nazi rallies there. After spending most of World War 2 in the USA, she returned to Europe after the war, working for the United Nations in Germany on a programme designed to reunite children (some of whom had been kidnapped by the Nazis as potential ‘Aryan’ breeding stock) with their biological families, even though many of the children could not recall their original families. Sereny attended the Nuremburg War Trials as a journalist where she first encountered the Nazi armaments minister, Albert Speer, who would form the subject of one of her later books.
Sereny’s notoriety in the UK stems from the two books she has published about Mary Bell, the Tyneside girl who was responsible for the murder of two young boys in the Scotswood area of Newcastle in 1968. Like the late Myra Hindley, Bell has usually been demonised by the British tabloid press as a figure of pure evil. Sereny’s attempts to understand Mary Bell’s behaviour in the context of her own traumatic childhood have not always played well with the British media who at the time of Bell’s trial had her pigeonholed as a manipulative figure of ‘pure evil’, as though this was some naturally occurring phenomenon rather than the product of Bell’s own experiences with her psychotic mother.
Penn Street, Scotswood in 1957, the year Mary Bell was born. Photo by the late, great Jimmy Forsyth
Sereny’s initial book about the trial and its aftermath was published as ‘The Case of Mary Bell’ in 1972. When I lived in Newcastle in the 1980’s the city was still scarred by the case and Bell’s name would be mentioned in hushed tones. My girlfriend of the time tried to borrow a copy of Sereny’s book from the local Public Library and was virtually compelled to sign over her soul before a copy was released to her – apparently dozens of copies of the book had been issued and had promptly been stolen from libraries across Tyneside in the years since its publication. Civic shame or grim prurience?
Whatever the case, my first encounter with Gitta Sereny came in the late 1970’s when I read ‘Into that darkness’, her biography of Franz Stangl, the Austrian who had risen through the Nazi ranks to become the Commandant of the Death Camp at Treblinka in Poland, before escaping at the war’s end and ultimately starting a new life in Brazil, where (a shade ironically) he worked for Volkswagen. Having been tracked down by Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal, Stangl was arrested and extradited to West Germany in the late 1960’s. He was tried as being responsible for the death of 900,000 people and whilst admitting his guilt, maintained that he had just been following orders. ‘Into that darkness’ is one of the more extraordinary books that I’ve read in my life. Sereny was able to gain unique access to Stangl in prison and slowly built a relationship of trust with him. She took the view that he knew that he was guilty and really just wanted to confess. Over a lengthy period, Sereny managed to unearth Stangl’s life story and revealed him to be just a cog in the Nazi machine. He was a deeply ordinary man and the most shocking thing about the evil he personified was in fact what Hannah Arendt has termed its very banality. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of Stangl’s relationship with Sereny is that he died of a heart attack in his prison cell some 19 hours after completing his final interview with her.
Stangl, to the left, at Treblinka.
So, for Sereny, the evil deeds committed by Mary Bell or Franz Stangl are issues of nurture rather than nature. Stangl’s rise through the ranks of the Nazi hierarchy was connected to his ability to detach himself from the terrible deeds for which he was responsible. According to Sereny, Mary Bell was corrupted by her mother who tried on several occasions to kill her and inflicted horrendous sexual abuse on her from the age of 4. Her book about Albert Speer(‘Albert Speer : His Battle with Truth ‘-1995) is most notable for the fact that Sereny apparently persuades Speer to finally admit that he knew about Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’.
Currently, I’ve just started reading Sereny’s second book about Mary Bell, ‘Cries Unheard’, published in 1998, by which time Bell, living in anonymity and trying to stay a step ahead of the tabloid hacks who wanted to expose her, had herself become a mother and a woman on the threshold of middle age. This book drew a lot of adverse publicity, mainly because Gitta Sereny revealed that she would be sharing her ‘fee’ with Mary Bell, outraging those who feel that Bell should not be allowed to ‘profit’ from her crimes in this way. Unlike ‘loveable’ Ronnie Biggs of Great Train Robbery fame who exploited his notoriety via numerous books and records over the years……
Still, let’s not expect consistency from the tabloids….
‘Cries Unheard’ seeks to generate discussion aimed at reform of the legal system as it applies to young children in this country. By the time it was published, Mary Bell’s crimes had been mirrored by the two Liverpudlian boys responsible for the murder of James Bulger. Interesting that their case is known by the name of its victim rather than its perpetrator(s)…
‘Cries Unheard’ is nowadays viewed as a standard text for social workers, child welfare staff and anyone dealing with children and the Law.
One can only speculate on the motivation of Sereny, who has spent her life, in the words of one observer, ‘staring into the abyss.’ She is seemingly a remarkable woman and clearly a gifted author who has broadened our understanding of what evil is and how it manifests itself.
Post-script: Gitta Sereny died on 14/6/12.
Vaya con dios……
From ‘The Guardian’ website, a good piece by Giles Fraser…
and ‘The Guardian’s’ obituary of an extraordinary human being….