Self-critical vigilance

Gitta Sereny led us through our own darkness

By , Tuesday 19 June 2012 10.57 EDT


“‘My conscience is clear about what I did myself,’ he said, in the same stiffly spoken words he has used countless times at his trial, and in the past weeks, when we had always come back to this subject, over and over again. But this time I said nothing. He paused and waited, but the room remained silent. ‘I have never intentionally hurt anyone, myself,’ he said, with a different, less incisive emphasis, and waited again – for a long time. For the first time, in all these many days, I had given him no help. There was no more time. He gripped the table with both hands as if he were holding on to it. ‘But I was there,’ he said then, in a curiously dry and tired tone of resignation. These few sentences has taken almost half an hour to produce. ‘So yes,’ he said finally, very quietly, ‘in reality I share the guilt … Because my guilt … my guilt … only now in these talks … now that I have talked about it all for the first time …’ He stopped. He had pronounced the words ‘my guilt’: but more than the words, the finality of it was the sagging of his body, and on his face.”

(Gitta Sereny, Into That Darkness)



Mass murderer Franz Stangl, one-time commandant of the Treblinka death camp, died of heart failure 19 hours after he spoke these words to the remarkable investigative journalist Gitta Sereny. Few people in the 20th century have done as much as her to explore the nature of moral evil. She ranks alongside Hannah Arendt, whose phrase “the banality of evil“, Sereny came to dislike.

Nonetheless, Sereny on Stangl has much in common with Arendt on Adolf Eichmann. Both resisted the easy characterisation of evil as something done by people with horns and funny accents: that is, done by people not like you and me. What is so terrifying about the work of Sereny is that she makes evil look ordinary and everyday. And in this way she shows us how close we all could be to it.

The myth she seeks to expose is that evil people are somehow qualitatively different. Stangl wasn’t much of a man, she insists. He was more concerned with the neatness of his uniform and with getting things done efficiently and decently. Stangl had no perception of the big picture. He saw himself a minor functionary, just obeying orders and doing his best. His whole identity was so bound up in this function that it was only at the very end of his life that he was able to glimpse something of his own guilt.

The sociologist Gillian Rose once challenged those who represent the Holocaust to do so in a way that doesn’t just lead to an identification with the victims, but in a way that also leads to the deeply uncomfortable identification with the perpetrators. One of the most morally transformative experiences one can have is to catch one’s own reflection in the face of the Nazi murderer. For this can prompt a sort of spiritual crisis in a person and thus act to warn us not to be so trusting of our own virtue. Evil is not done by other people. It is done by people like us.

No wonder some got so angry at her work. She was blamed for being too soft on murderers, of understanding them too much. But her writing was driven by something much deeper than soft-hearted liberal understanding. She took the reader on a journey not just into the dark soul of the Nazi guard, but also into a darkness that is our own. And no one was going to thank her for that. Except that one of the most important ways to avoid evil – or whatever one wants to call it – is by having the self-critical vigilance that such a journey can scare you into developing. Which is why her work is among the bravest and most significant literature of the century. or

Photograph of Franz Stangl in conversation with Gitta Sereny (13 March 1921 – 14 June 2012), Düsseldorf prison, by Don  Honeyman, 1970. or

Permanent link to this article:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.