Thursday 3 June 2021

A Book That Changed Me, by Harry Whitehead: "Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience," by Gitta Sereny

For her ninetieth birthday, we took my granny to visit Auschwitz. I guess that’s as far as I’ll ever invoke humour about such a subject, but the poor thing was also promised a visit to Venice. So we set off on what proved an epic driving tour. Berkshire to Krakow to Venice and home. On the journey, I read Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man and The Truce to try to comprehend the camps. I struggled for years after to get a handle on what I learned about humanity’s dark potential. Two things kept coming back to me: first, the freezing silence of Auschwitz Birkenau, the ‘extermination camp,’ until a fish leapt and plopped in the small lake that held the ashes of a million people; its banality seemed an abomination. Second, there was a town close by. What of its population? What of conscience? 

And so I came to Sereny’s celebrated work. Into That Darkness relates her series of interviews with Franz Stangl, commandant of Sobibor and Treblinka. Stangl was captured in the 1960s and given a long prison term. Granted access by Stangl and his wife, Sereny interrogates his conscience, but gently and with empathy, always seeing beyond the monster to the man. The book interviews the few survivors of Treblinka as well, many of whom speak of Stangl as just a functionary, not cruel per se. Yet here was someone who oversaw the murder of more than a million people. And, indeed, he proves a disturbingly ordinary individual, though one incapable of recognizing the enormity of his guilt. Over and over, Stangl describes his conscience as being clear, within the boundaries of the world in which he existed. He was protecting his own family; it would have meant their death to have resisted; there was no escape from the closed Nazi society. 

On and on it went, until at last, one day, he ran out of words. And Sereny, too, said nothing now, no longer offering him any help. Finally, Stangl spoke the phrase, ‘My guilt.’ He uttered a few more hesitant lines – ‘… only now, in these talks …’ Then, he said, ‘My guilt is that I am still here. That is my guilt.’

Nineteen hours later, Stangl died of a heart attack. 

Into That Darkness made me believe in the absolute justice of truth.

About the reviewer

Harry Whitehead is a novelist and Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Leicester. Before becoming an academic, he worked for many years in film and TV commercials production. 

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