Friday, July 22, 2005

BOOK: Gitta Sereny, "The German Trauma"

Gitta Sereny: The German Trauma: Experiences and Reflections, 1938–2001. Penguin Books, 2000, 2001. 0140292632. xxii + 383 pp.

This is a curious miscellany of a book. It is a collection of Sereny's writings on various topics related to Nazi Germany, the WW2, and the post-war attitudes to the Nazi period. Many of these pieces have been published in various magazines or newspapers over the years, some of the material overlaps with her books, but there is also some new material.

All in all I found many interesting passages in this book, while a few parts were also fairly boring. I often found myself wishing that the book had had a clearer unifying common thread running through all the pieces, i.e. something more than just “Gitta Sereny writes about WW2-related subjects in her usual way”. Not that I necessarily object to her approach to history; I certainly think it's good that somebody cares for more than just discovering and listing facts; but at the same time I find her preoccupation with topics of guilt, morality, conscience, responsibility, etc., somewhat tiresome. She often seems more interested not in what a person did, but what he or she felt, or thought, or knew, or could or should have known, etc.

The first two chapters have more of an autobiographical character and describe the author's youth and her experiences during the war. During 1940–41, she worked as a volunteer nurse for a children's charity in France (p. 11). She almost got arrested for complicity in hiding a British airman, but was warned in time by a friendly German officer and managed to escape (pp. 13–14), eventually reaching Spain (p. 21) and then the U.S. She joined the UNRRA at the end of the war (p. 23) and worked with displaced persons, particularly children (ch. 3).

In some of the occupied territories during WW2, particularly in Poland, the Nazis made efforts to identify children of “good racial types” (in Himmler's phrase, p. 38), who would then be taken away from their parents and sent to Germany (pp. 45–47), eventually to be adopted by German families. At least it seems that the children (unless they were found racially “defective” in some aspect) were treated reasonably well during this process (p. 47). The adoptive parents were not told that the children had been abducted from their real parents, and usually treated the children genuinely well; thus it was not only the abduction of the children that caused grief, but also their repatriation after the war was over (p. 44). Curiously, it seems that the U.S. at some point considered refusing to allow Soviet children to be returned to their parents; rather than having them live in the Soviet Union, they were to be resettled in English-speaking countries. Fortunately, this was not actually implemented (p. 49).

Chapters 4, 7, and 20 discuss how various post-war generations in Germany react to the burden of German guilt for the war. I must admit that I am personally not particularly interested in questions of guilt. Being a bit of a cynic, I don't have any lofty expectations of human nature. Going about on a murderous rampage in the hopes of territorial conquest and extermination of one's neighbours and rivals is surely one of the most natural things for a nation to do; for this to actually come to pass, all that is necessary is that a government (and to some extent the population) of the aggressor country feels that they stand a good chance of winning the war and that the expected gains justify the risks and costs. Much of the time they don't, which is why wars don't occur even more frequently than they already do. But when they do occur, as I said, although most regrettable, they are a most natural occurrence and there is not much point in obsessing over guilt and shame. Instead we should make efforts to arrange matters so that wars will be less likely to seem appealing. In fact, the second half of the 20th century seems to have discovered a good recipe for that: give the people a capitalist economy and a moderate amount of democracy, dangle the carrot of economic progress and wealth in front of them, and they will more or less gladly abandon the dreams of slaughtering their neighbours for the pursuit of a new car, a week-end cottage, an exotic holiday, a pay raise, or whatever other fetish their consumerist fancy happened to alight upon that particular day. Engulfed by material posessions, with reasonable chances of obtaining more by continuing in the same direction as heretofore, war will have little allure left for them; in war they will have much to lose and little to gain. And I must admit that, much though I deplore the vapid consumerism and the pursuit of filthy material wealth, it has to be said that even they are not altogether bad, insofar as they distract people's minds from wishing to slaughter or enslave the population of neighbouring countries. Even though the exploitation of e.g. sweatshop labourers in the present system of capitalism is utterly abominable, it is nevertheless probably relatively benign in comparison to e.g. the system envisaged by the Nazis for their occupied eastern territories.

Chapter 5 is about Franz Stangl, the commander of the extermination camp at Treblinka. This is mostly material that has been described in more detail in Sereny's book Into that Darkness, which I read last year. Here the main interest of the author seems to be: how could someone like Stangl, who was by and large “an intelligent human being” (p. 96) with “a semblance of conscience” (p. 96), end up doing all the horrible things he was responsible for, and how could he subsequently bear to live with his guilt? It seems that the main reasons in Stangl's case were, firstly, that his involvement in Nazi crimes proceeded little by little, by degrees, which gave him some time to become used to what he was doing; secondly, that he managed to compartmentalize his thinking (p. 120) and convince himself for a long time that the horrors were only being perpetrated by others while his own role is much less problematic (e.g. “merely [...] responsible for law and order” during the euthanasia programme, p. 104); thirdly, by the time he was expected to do really problematic things such as head an extermination camp, he felt (probably with much justification) that it would be distinctly unhealthy for him, and possibly for his family, to refuse these assignments (p. 116), and besides, getting himself shot for refusing wouldn't make any difference in the wider scheme of things as the job would be taken over by somebody else (pp. 128 9). I very much sympathise with this last reason; when somebody is forced to choose between committing some crime and getting himself killed, I don't think it's reasonable to expect that he will refuse to commit the crime. If he does, that's great, we can only wish that there were more people like him; but the human wish to survive (cf. p. 130) is in my opinion so strong that it would be unnatural to expect people in general to prefer death to committing a crime. In fact the author seems to hold a milder form of this opinion as well (p. 116). (Not everyone agrees, of course; cf. p. 351.) Another thing that helped Stangl carry on with his gruesome job was the dehumanisation of the victims; after seeing the large masses of corpses, he starts thinking of the victims as mere cargo (p. 124), and is later reminded of them when seeing a freight train carrying cattle (p. 93). The dehumanisation was made easier by the fact that the victims were always seen in large groups (rather than as individuals), and were forced to undress before being sent off to their deaths (p. 125); their weakness and passivity also made it easier to feel contempt for them (p. 129).

A hilarious piece of information from p. 143: “In his own letter [...] Himmler used his pet name for Globocnik: ‘Dear Globus, [...] Cordially yours, H.H.’ ” (And there's another instance on p. 198.)

Chapter 8, about the Hitler diary hoax, is extremely interesting, as is chapter 9 on the author's investigation of claims (false, as it turns out) that Odilo Globocnik did not really commit suicide after being captured by the Allies in 1945, but was instead provided by them with a new identity and allowed to settle in the U.S.

There are a few curious mentions of Karl May. “X [a former SS officer, whose name is not given and who is referred to as X throughout this chapter] belonged to an Indianer club where the members dressed up as braves and squaws. The appeal of Red Indians to men like X is their racial purity — a subject which Hitler's favourite author, Karl May, wrote about incessantly.” (P. 182.) And on p. 222, mentioned by the film director Syberberg: “ ‘Here I had them all together,’ says Syberberg. ‘Ludwig, Karl May, Hitler — three pathologic egocentrics in “recent” German history — and the link, Wagner. [...]’ ” Well, Karl May happens to be undoubtedly the favourite author of my childhood. I read as many of his novels as I could lay my hands on. Frankly, I feel somewhat sad to see him lambasted here as some kind of Nazi fodder. It's been a long time since I last read his books, and I don't remember whether the obsession with the racial purity of the Indians is there or not; but I certainly remember that the books made a very positive impression on me even then (although I was just a child and knew nothing about May's life, the period when he lived or the context in which he wrote; but then I still know very little about these things; in particular, I don't know whether he was a pathological egocentric, but at least in his novels there don't seem to be any obvious indications of that, unless perhaps in the sense that his novels tend to feature a first-person narrator named Karl, who is in many ways a most admirable person) by the careful decency and humanity that pervaded his works. It's true that individual characters tend to be either rather good or rather bad (they are usually not complex or ambiguous), but whether they are good or bad depends more on their individual deeds and character, rather than on their racial or ethnic origin. (The one exception to this, which annoyed me somewhat even then, and would probably annoy me even more now if I were so rash as to attempt re-reading the books, was the fact that the first-person narrator of his novels tends to encounter fellow Germans unusually frequently (regardless of whether the story is taking place in North or in South America, or even in the Near East), and among these Germans there is perhaps a statistically unusually high proportion of remarkably positive characters. But then I suppose we should forgive the author for that; he was writing, if I remember correctly, in the late 19th century and for German family-oriented magazines, and given this milieu his patriotism is in fact remarkably sane and moderate.) Among Indians, Africans, Arabs — people that were often thought of as inferior or savage by May's contemporaries — we often find positive and admirable characters; in particular, the author's positive portrayal of Indians is remarkable and well-known. The first-person narrator himself is, on the whole, a remarkably kind, decent, reasonable, humane person; at some point in one of the books, a sworn enemy happens to come into the narrator's hands, and the narrator has him bastinadoed (or something along these lines; I forgot the details long ago), and then promptly apologizes to the reader for this uncharacteristic and un-Christian outburst of violence towards that villain. Perhaps the translations I read were expurgated in some sense, but I doubt it; all in all, I would say that as far as adventure stories for young readers go (especially adventure stories written in the jingoism- and imperialism-ridden late 19th century), few can be said to be so generally benign and harmless as those of Karl May. Nor did they appeal only to the Nazi period or indeed to the Germans alone; they had a huge popularity throughout central and eastern Europe and during the whole of the 20th century. Perhaps in the last 10 or 15 years or so has their popularity waned somewhat; I don't really know but I vaguely remember reading at some point that children nowadays (holy shit! I'm starting to write like a decrepit old man) prefer more complex works dealing with more serious problems from the modern world, problems of the sort that they might also themselves encounter while they are growing up. It's possible, I guess; simplistic escapist adventure stories may be going out of favour; ah well, yet another way in which I, a naive simpleton inordinately fond of all forms of escapism, am out of touch with the contemporary world. But anyway, I'll always have fond memories of Karl May's adventure stories, and much gratitude to the man himself for having written them. And I don't think he should be treated quite so severely only because, out of the millions of readers who loved his books when they were young, a handful went on to grow up into Nazi war criminals.

There are several chapters with short presentations of various interesting persons, such as the film director Hans Jürgen Syberberg (ch. 11); François Genoud, a Swiss businessman, editor, Nazi sympathizer and owner of the copyrights of Hitler, Bormann and Goebbels (ch. 12); Leni Riefenstahl (ch. 13; it seems that her autobiography, Sieve of Time, contains much falsehood but might make for interesting reading nevertheless; p. 235); Kurt Waldheim (ch. 14; the uproar about his supposed Nazi past was apparently much exaggerated); Hans Münch, a rare example that proves it was sometimes possible to refuse participating in war crimes (he worked as an SS doctor in Auschwitz for over a year and refused to take part in selections or unethical medical experiments; ch. 15); and Traudl Junge, Hitler's last secretary (ch. 19).

Chapter 16 is on Albert Speer and, as far as I see, doesn't contain anything that hasn't appeared in Sereny's excellent biography of Speer.

Chapter 17 is about children of prominent Nazis. There's a curious anecdote on p. 299, where Martin Bormann jr. recounts being shown (by one Frau Pothast, Himmler's secretary and mistress) instances of furniture made of human bones and a copy of Mein Kampf bound in human skin. (The notorious human-skin lampshades aren't mentioned in this passage, however.) I'm not entirely sure how to react to this story. Apparently one is supposed to think of this as somehow exceedingly sick and horrible. However, let's be reasonable. If you manage to plan and execute the murder of six million people, does it really make a difference how you treat the corpses? I mean, would the whole genocide thing have been any less horrible if the six million corpses had been given a reverent burial rather than being converted into soap and fertilizer (and, in a few instances, furniture and fine bindings)? Sure, I agree that human-bone furniture and human-skin bindings are a ridiculous idea; whoever comes up with something like that is evidently suffering from a regrettable form of fetishism; but then we already know that Himmler was a seriously kooky person with a fondness for all kinds of absurdities (e.g. occultism), so this is hardly big news. Frankly, if you go about murdering people by the millions, this is a problem of such a magnitude that your subsequent method of corpse disposal is utterly irrelevant relative to it.

An anecdote about advertising for Ian Kershaw's excellent biography of Hitler: “Because it is illegal in Germany now to reproduce Hitler's image in a public place, to Kershaw's considerable surprise, the photograph on the buses was that of the author of the book rather than its subject.” (P. 287.) I must admit that I personally sometimes wish that the English-language publishers (or rather their marketing departments) didn't feel compelled to stamp a big fat swastika on the cover of every single book that has anything whatsoever to do with the Nazi Germany. Although I doubt that we have any laws on the matter, I sometimes do feel a bit uncomfortable walking about with a book like that (e.g. to read it on the bus).

Chapter 18 deals with the story of John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian-American who was suspected of having been the same person as a ‘Ivan the Terrible’, a notorious guard at the Treblinka extermination camp. He was extradited to Israel and initially found guilty by the court and sentenced to death; however, on appeal he was eventually acquitted, partly based on new evidence from Russian sources discovered by Sereny. This is not to say that Demjanjuk had not in fact been a guard at an extermination camp, but he had not been the one he was suspected of being. The trial had several problematic aspects: initially the court relied too strongly on the testimony of camp survivors, which was later found to be unreliable; and later the court dragged its feet in all possible ways, being loath to acquit him as they knew he couldn't be tried again (p. 355). I very much agree with the case made here by the author, namely that such trials should be made in front of an international court (p. 357) rather than in any particular country such as Israel.

The book also includes two sections of plates with some interesting photos. There is a photo of Sereny at age 15 in an evening dress; she looks very pretty. At the end there's a photo of her from “the early 1970s”, when she must have been about 50; even here she doesn't look bad for her age.


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