Children of catastrophe

The German Trauma: experiences and reflections 1938-2000 by Gitta Sereny Allen Lane, £20, 400pp
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The Independent Culture

In the late spring of 1945, there were said to be some 40 million people wandering around Europe: slave labourers and those released from concentration camps trying to go home, Eastern Europeans not sure they had a home to go to, adolescents who hated the Germans but did not trust the Allies, and many lost children, orphaned or separated from parents. Many were ill with typhus, typhoid and TB. In this slow-moving sea of people there were families, the elderly, ex-stormtroopers, shell-shocked survivors. Some had suitcases, some pushed wheelbarrows. A few rode horses. One family crossed the Rhineland on a camel taken from a German zoo. "Europe is on the move", wrote a correspondent to The Times. "The exiled peoples are going home."

In the late spring of 1945, there were said to be some 40 million people wandering around Europe: slave labourers and those released from concentration camps trying to go home, Eastern Europeans not sure they had a home to go to, adolescents who hated the Germans but did not trust the Allies, and many lost children, orphaned or separated from parents. Many were ill with typhus, typhoid and TB. In this slow-moving sea of people there were families, the elderly, ex-stormtroopers, shell-shocked survivors. Some had suitcases, some pushed wheelbarrows. A few rode horses. One family crossed the Rhineland on a camel taken from a German zoo. "Europe is on the move", wrote a correspondent to The Times. "The exiled peoples are going home."

One of those trying to make sense of these unhappy people was Gitta Sereny, a young girl of Hungarian parents, brought up in Vienna, who had been a volunteer in the refugee camps of Occupied France and was now a welfare officer for the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. Together with her job of caring for children liberated from Dachau, she had the task of tracing "racially valuable" children kidnapped from Polish families and given to childless German ones. Many of these no longer wanted to go home to lives they had no memory of and to parents whose language they no longer spoke. By the time the tracing process was halted by the Americans, with unseemly haste, about 40,000 of 200,000 missing Polish children had gone home. Of the rest, nothing is known.

As she worked, so Gitta Sereny became increasingly fascinated by the nature of evil; she was soon absorbed in a search for what it is that leads human beings so often and so readily to embrace violence and cruelty. She thereby embarked on a lifetime's work on Germany and the moral degeneracy of the Nazis. Contrary to popular belief, she has always insisted that the Germans born in the 1930s continued to be consumed by guilt, brought about by the fact that parents and teachers were defensively silent on the past.

The fatal combination of the capacity of tyranny to pervert human instincts from good to bad, allied to idealism, leads to what she calls the "German trauma". She has made it the title of a collection of essays, culled from articles and profiles written since the 1960s. Her 19 entries, all concerned with Germany before, during and after the Third Reich, are a kind of autobiography; she calls them "a kaleidoscope of discovery", stemming from her intense need to find things out.

Believing that young Germans would never escape this sense of trauma unless the generation who lived through the Nazi years were prepared to describe what they themselves had known and done, Sereny embarked on interviews with the awesome number of 3,500 young people, in groups and alone. During this period she made good German friends. She is a dedicated researcher, carrying her enquiries far beyond what is usual among reporters, willing to travel to any country to secure a missing detail.

Among her interviewees were a group of children of the most senior Nazis (most of whom were hanged or killed themselves at the end of the war) who grew up in families that refused to admit they knew anything at all about the slaughter of Russian civilians, or the exterminations in Poland.

These now grown-up children told her - a fact of which she is convinced, as are most historians today - that it is both historically wrong and psychologically unwise to concentrate so exclusively on the genocide of the Jews. To do so diminishes Hitler's megalomania and leaves out the many millions of others (gypsies, Russian civilians, political opponents) murdered by the Germans.

This risks, Gitta Sereny suggests, creating a new resentment against the Jews - something that, in this interdependent world, is a problem as much ours as that of the German people. Long before the idea had acquired international support, she was arguing in favour of a world court which would try all crimes against humanity.

At the heart of The German Trauma are seven profiles of figures important in the Nazi years. At this stage she felt that she needed complex individuals, with at least a trace of moral awareness, who might be able to explain their own moral failure. Two of these profiles - on Franz Stangl, sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of 900,000 people at Treblinka, and Albert Speer, Hitler's architect - she later turned into books.

Sereny's fascination with guilt and responsibility have in the past led to accusations that she was too interested in fame, and that she grew too close to the men she was writing about. "I fully believed, and loved, that feeling of guilt in him," she writes of her work with Speer. After many weeks of interviews, Stangl admitted "in reality I share the guilt"; and 19 hours later, he was dead of a heart attack.

Where there is a criticism of The German Trauma to be made, it is that Sereny has failed to update all her pieces or take into account some important current work on the Nazi years, such as Daniel Goldhagen's controversial Hitler's Willing Executioners. She does devote a short passage to the revisionist historians and apologists for Hitler, who continue to play the numbers game and insist there was no systematic genocide. And there is an excellent chapter on trying to track down the Hitler diaries. One also would have like to have heard what became of those troubled young men and women she interviewed 30 years go: there is nothing to say what middle age has brought them.

None of this should detract from an extremely interesting and personal collection, invaluable reading for any student of Germany. If The German Trauma ultimately fails to pin down the ever elusive nature of evil, Gitta Sereny has gone much further than most contemporary writers in her search for a definition.

Caroline Moorehead's biography of Iris Origo is published next month by John Murray

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