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Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience

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Based on seventy hours of interviews with Franz Stangl, commandant of Treblinka (the largest of the Nazi extermination camps), Sereny's book bares the soul of a man who continually found ways to rationalize his role in Hitler's final solution.

379 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1974

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About the author

Gitta Sereny

18 books122 followers
Gitta Sereny was an Austrian born journalist, biographer and historian. She passed away in England aged 91, following a long illness.

Gitta attributed her fascination with evil to her own experiences of Nazism as a child of central Europe in the early 20th century. Hers was not a happy childhood. She was born in Vienna, the daughter of a beautiful Austrian actress, whom she later described as "without moral opinions", and a wealthy Hungarian landowner. Her father, Gyula, died when she was a child; her elder brother left home at 18 and disappeared from her life; Gitta herself was sent to Stonar House boarding school in Sandwich, Kent, an experience she remembered with some affection.

In 1934, while changing trains in Nuremberg on a journey home from school, she witnessed the Nuremberg Rally and was profoundly moved by the beauty of the spectacle, joining in the crowd's ecstatic cheering. These favourable impressions of the Nazis survived both a reading of Mein Kampf and the 1938 Anschluss, when Hitler annexed a quiescent Austria. The grim realities of Nazism, however, soon began to affect her life in Vienna where she was, by then, a drama student.

She later described seeing a Jewish doctor she knew well being forced to clean pavements with a toothbrush; the terror became more personal after her mother, Margit, with whom Gitta had a poor relationship, became engaged to Ludwig von Mises, the Jewish economist. Von Mises had left Austria for Switzerland, but a German friend tipped Margit off that the authorities planned to arrest her to oblige him to return. Margit promptly fled to Switzerland with her daughter.

In Switzerland, Gitta was sent to a finishing school. Never accommodating to her mother's plans, she promptly absconded, first to London then to Paris. Margit and von Mises moved to the US. Gitta, eventually, was also obliged to flee, first across the Pyrenees to Spain, then to the US.

She returned to Paris four months after the war ended, to join the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, working with orphans in a ravaged Europe. The framework of what was to be her life's work – the exploration of childhood trauma and the nature of evil – was in place. It was in postwar Paris, in 1948, that she met and married the photographer Don Honeyman, with whom she was to have a son and a daughter. Don, who died last year, was to prove a good humoured and profoundly supportive companion who accompanied Gitta through the long and painstaking research that became a hallmark of her work.

She also reported on the trials in Germany of Third Reich functionaries, including concentration camp staff, such as Franz Stangl, the former commandant of Sobibor and Treblinka. . Her book on Stangl, Into That Darkness (1974), remains one of the best books on the Third Reich and established Gitta's reputation as an authority on the history of the period.

Furthermore, her book ‘Albert Speer, His Battle With Truth’ (1995), later dramatised by David Edgar at the National Theatre, repeatedly challenges Speer's contention that he too was ignorant of the fate of the Jews under the regime he had served so faithfully.

Gitta was frequently embattled, but rarely daunted. She fought a 20-year battle with the historian David Irving and was often targeted with fascist hate mail. Despite the grim nature of her subjects, Gitta was a warm and generous friend with a ready sense of humour, and she and Honeyman entertained frequently at their home in Chelsea, London. Despite her relentless psychological exploration of her subjects, she resisted all invitations to write her own autobiography, but in her late 70s she published a partial memoir in The German Trauma: Experiences and Reflections 1938-2001 (2001). She was appointed honorary CBE in 2003, for services to journalism.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 188 reviews
Profile Image for Orsodimondo.
2,102 reviews1,594 followers
July 29, 2021

Il memoriale di Treblinka.

Naturalmente, nessuno sapeva che cosa volesse dire un ‘campo di sterminio’. Voglio dire, era al di là…non dico semplicemente dell’esperienza, ma dell’immaginazione, no?

Sono le parole di Franciszek Zabecki, capo movimento della stazione di Treblinka, nonché informatore della Resistenza polacca, in servizio per tutto il periodo di attività del campo di sterminio, che di nascosto, giornalmente, annotava il numero di convogli, di vagoni e di prigionieri (alla fine, per addizione, è arrivato alla somma complessiva di un milione duecentomila vittime).

Modellino in scala del campo di concentramento di Treblinka.

È un libro importante, questo di Gitta Sereny, che porta luce “in quelle tenebre” (anche se, per quanta luce si possa gettare, per quanti studi e ricerche si possano fare, quelle tenebre rimangono oscure più del neropece): un libro che ho trovato citato poche volte, mentre mi sembra si ritagli uno spazio tutto suo, e non da poco.

Sereny incontra in carcere Franz Stangl, che fu il Kommandant di Treblinka per quasi tutto il periodo di “attività” del campo, e prima, dal marzo all’agosto 1942, il comandante di un altro campo di sterminio, Sobibor, e andando ancora indietro, coinvolto in prima persona nel Programma Eutanasia.
Una carriera davvero ‘illuminante’.
Lo incontra in carcere e lo intervista per ore e giorni e settimane.
Poi verifica le sue risposte incontrando la moglie di Stangl in Brasile, altri testimoni in parti diverse dell’Europa, consultando documenti e fonti. Una ricerca durata anni.

Un momento delle interviste di Gitta Sereny a Franz Stangl.

È veramente straordinario come la memoria della gente che è passata attraverso l’inferno è rimasta intatta, mentre quella di altri infinitamente meno esposti è svanita.

A questo proposito, Sereny mette a confronto i racconti e i ricordi di Richard Glazer, ebreo cèco, sopravvissuto a Treblinka, proprio con quelli del personaggio principale del suo studio: i primi lucidi, dettagliati, privi di retorica, elaborati, pregnanti – l’altro, invece, si contraddice, cambia versione, indora la pillola, a se stesso e all’ascoltatrice.

Modellino del campo di concentramento di Sobibor.

Un’opera mai banale come mai “banale” è questo argomento.
Peccato nel finale lasci aperta la porta a una ventata di retorica sentimentale: ma il timone rimane ugualmente saldo nelle mani di Sereny che conduce il lettore verso orizzonti che meritano tutte le esplorazioni possibili.

Mappa dei lager nazisti in Polonia.
Profile Image for Paul Bryant.
2,162 reviews9,042 followers
August 7, 2014
I don't want to keep writing obituaries, but I have to say something here. Gitta Sereny died this week at the age of 91, she was another hero of mine. She was an intellectually tough woman who spent a good part of her long life staring evil right in the eyes - take a look at her main books :

Into That Darkness - an account of the life of Fritz Stangl, commandant of Treblinka, who escaped after the war and was arrested in Brazil in 1967, and became the only commandant of a death camp ever to have been interviewed by a journalist. Stangl died in 1971 of a heart attack, the day after Gitta Sereny had done her final interview, in which he had for the first time admitted some measure of guilt about his actions.

Albert Speer - His Battle with the Truth. Again based on hours of interviews.

The Case of Mary Bell. Mary was an eleven year old girl in northern England who in 1968 strangled two little boys to death (aged 3 and 4). It was, as you imagine, a huge case in Britain.

Cries Unheard. The follow-up to the previous one. After Mary was released Gitta was able to (again) do some very extensive interviews with her - she was 40 by then. So this is at once an examination of how children become violent, how society (the judicial system, the public, the press) reacts to such extreme cases, and how a human being grows up with the notion that they are evil.

The German Trauma. Essays and autobiography about Germany. Gitta was Hungarian and grew up in Vienna saw Hitler at a Nuremberg rally in 1938 at the age of 11. So that was when she began looking evil in the face.

A very remarkable series of books. She got some stick for being perceived to be "sympathetic" to her subjects, especially Mary Bell. She paid Mary for her time spent being interviewed in the 1990s and when that fact became public the press, as you may imagine, began frothing at the mouth. The government also began frothing, and tried to get a law cobbled together to "prevent murderers from being able to profit financially from their crimes". It got nowhere.

Into That Darkness is an essential read for those interested in the Holocaust, but I think all the rest of Gitta Sereney's books are pretty essential too.

Profile Image for Nika.
117 reviews115 followers
November 12, 2022
Gitta Sereny interviewed the perpetrators, witnesses, and survivors of gruesome events connected with Sobibor and Treblinka. She calls them the people who speak.
The author directs her efforts at investigating the personality of Franz Stangl with whom she spoke in Düsseldorf prison where he was awaiting the result of his appeal against a life sentence.

The career of Franz Stangl is made up of terrible pages. He served as Superintendent of the Euthanasia Institute, which means that he supervised the euthanasia program - the killing of the mentally ill and handicapped between 1939 and 1941 in Germany. The program caused disaffection within Germany and was brought to an end.

Stangl 'crowned' a career by becoming commandant of Sobibor (March 1942 – September 1942) and later commandant of Treblinka (September 1942 – August 1943). The Sobibor Death Camp was the second extermination camp built by the Nazis. The third camp was Treblinka. Both were located in occupied Poland. A great number of people perished in those camps.

As Gitta Sereny writes in her other book:
"Obsession overshadows and indeed obliterates rational thought and morality."
However, Stangl was not a fanatic. He sought, according to his own confessions, to do his job as it should be done. Stangl wants to convince the author that he did not have another choice. The former commandant attempts to shift the blame onto Globocnik, who was his superior and had been responsible for the murder of around three million men, women, and children. Stangl seems to have thought that Globocnik would not allow him to get out. If he had rejected his appointment as commandant of the extermination camps he would have been arrested or even killed. But the truth is no one can say what could have happened to Franz Stangl had he firmly refused to do what he did.

The author does not spare the reader the details as to how the arrival of victims, who arrived mostly by trains, and preliminary stages before those victims entered a gas chamber were organized. It often took one day to 'deal' with 'transport' that arrived almost every day by the railway tracks.
Stangl's responsibilities were to make sure that everything was done 'correctly' and in time.

One of the witnesses reports:
Stangl did improve things,” Suchomel said later. “He alleviated it a bit for people, but he could have done more, especially from Christmas 1942; he could have stopped the whipping post, the ‘races’, ‘sport’, and what Franz did with that dog, Bari – he was Stangl’s dog originally. He could have stopped all that without any trouble for himself. [The dog, originally harmless, had been trained to attack people, and specifically their genital regions, on command.] He had the power to do that – and he didn’t. I don’t think he cared – all he did was look after the death camp, the burning and all that; there everything had to run just so because the whole camp organization depended on it. I think what he really cared about was to have the place run like clockwork.

The author tries to comprehend how this man, who is sitting in front of her and looks absolutely normal, ended up committing crimes against humanity.
Franz Stangl attempts to find different rational explanations to brush off the feeling of guilt. He talks about some of the ways he devised to take his mind off and keep the reality at bay. A glass of brandy before going to sleep helped to avoid thinking of all that happened during the day.
There was another factor that made it easier for Stangl to go on with his 'duties'.
He tries to evade the question, but finally confides that he considered people who arrived at the camp and were to be killed as ‘cargo.’ This helped him to carry on with his 'job' to which he had gotten accustomed.
As Gitta Sereny learns more about his life she discovers that this man was a loving husband and father who wanted to protect his wife from the brutal reality. She finally learned about what was happening in Sobibor almost by accident.

Reading this book sent a chill down my spine. The horrible story serves as a reminder of the atrocities humans are capable of. Hannah Arendt with her thesis about the banality of evil comes to mind.
Stangl’s case shows once again that the most terrible things are often done by ordinary men. The first reaction is horror. However, we may conclude that certain circumstances, starting with the Nazi invasion of Austria (Stangl was originally from Austria), led him to become what he became, but this fact does not diminish his responsibility and his involvement.

After the war Stangl managed to escape to Brazil where he lived under his own name. He was found by Wiesenthal - the famous Nazi hunter - in 1967.

The author notes:
"There have been conflicting reports of the number of people who were killed in Treblinka. The Polish authorities finally adopted the figure of 750,000. The West Germans raised their official estimate in early 1971 when new evidence emerged, to 900,000; and Stangl was sentenced on the basis of this new figure. Franciszek Zabecki has insisted from the very beginning that the numbers were much higher. I myself have always felt that the deeds and the numbers were so monstrous, the figures have become almost irrelevant: however many there were, each individual represents equally the crime, and the loss. But, even so, for the record I feel we should allow the last word to the man who is the only one still amongst us who was there from the very first day to the last."
Profile Image for Violet wells.
433 reviews2,897 followers
October 29, 2018
Perhaps the definition of a worthy book about the Holocaust is that it leaves you asking more questions than it answers. That, ultimately, it is unsatisfactory. Satisfaction, after all, allows one to move on.

The author of Into the Darkness conducts a series of interviews with Franz Stangl, the kommandant of Treblinka and various people who knew him, including one Jewish man who survived the death camp. Before the Anschluss Stangl was a policeman in Austria. When the Germans arrived he was on a Gestapo hitlist for his part in the arrest of an influential Austrian Nazi. Unlike a couple of his fellow policemen on the list who were murdered he escaped by dubiously being backdated as a Nazi member. His wife, when she found out he had joined the Nazi party, didn't talk to him for weeks. Hardly the most suitable CV for a death camp commandant. It remains a mystery why he was chosen for the post. How he managed to escape trial until 1967 Is another mystery. He was living in Brazil, registered under his real name with the Austrian embassy and the Brazilian authorities. Anyone could have found him in twenty four hours. From 1945 to 1961 he enjoyed what his wife called the best years of his life.

As the book progressed I found I was becoming much more interested in what Stangl's wife was saying than Stangl himself who on the whole was resorting to the usual smokescreening tactics of a guilty conscience under attack. She, though patently an ambitious woman, was less of a Nazi than most of her neighbours and her sister married a Jew after the war. She was also more honest in her answers to the author's questions than her husband. There's an especially moving moment when the author asks her if she believes her husband would have quit his job had she had made a moral stand.

Both husband and wife attributed the establishment of the state of Israel to the Holocaust. Of course, there's some truth in this notion, the most tragically extreme exoneration of the old adage that every cloud has a silver lining, but it was perhaps the voicing of this idea as a kind of fabric softener which brought home how easily both husband and wife were able to take shelter in insensitivity. You could imagine the husband coming up with similar outrageously callow justifications as he watched the trains arrive at Treblinka.

The book also studies the role the Vatican played in helping former Nazis to escape. Mostly German priests. This is how Stangl escaped.

By all accounts (few survive) including his own, Stangl never once physically harmed a Jew; he doesn't appear to even have abused or raised his voice. It's as if he was at Treblinka to provide an aesthetic, like the painted clock on the film set station. His conscience thus had two get out clauses - that he never physically harmed anyone (perhaps true) and that there was nothing he could do to escape his fate without putting at risk the lives of his family (probably untrue: there's no evidence Nazis were ever killed for requesting a transfer).

What's riveting about this book is that Stangl is an everyman. He hasn't been brainwashed by Nazi bile, he's irritable rather than evil; he's essentially a man of modest ambition who respects (or is cowed by) authority. Perhaps the most horrifying conclusion one draws from reading this is that, yes, the Holocaust could happen again because fundamentally decent people in normal times can be persuaded to do unthinkably grotesque things in times of madness. I've just watched a documentary about Assad and his wife which contains further evidence of this disturbing phenomenon. A mild mannered eye surgeon and his sophisticated British wife with Princess Diana aspirations become under stress a mass murderer and his supportive female consort.
Profile Image for Beverly.
775 reviews266 followers
March 23, 2019
I didn't realize there were 4 "extermination" camps set up solely for murder, Chelmno, Belsec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. All of them in Poland and all of which lasted for under 2 years and then were shut down when their work was complete. Only 87 people survived the four, no children. The killing process also included torture before their speedy deaths, I had heard or seen in movies or videos all of the indignities they were subjected to, but I hadn't known of the internal searches for hidden valuables.

I also hadn't realized that there was a revolt and escape from Treblinka, just as from Sobibor. Treblinka's revolt happened in August of 1943; Sobibor's was in October of the same year. As the Nazis were done with their killing and were closing Sobibor, about 500 people, men and women escaped, but only 32 survived.

Sereny also brings out information about how all the major countries knew about the murder camps, but chose to do nothing. The allies focused on ending the war as soon as possible, but at the same time cutting back on letting Jews and other displaced persons enter the country.

Franz Stangl, Kommandant of Treblinka and Sobibor and also Police Superintendent of the Euthanasia Institute, Scloss Hartheim, is the focus of Sereny's study. He agreed to be interviewed by her while awaiting the result of an appeal against a life sentence. In the 70 hours of interviews, he revealed how his earlier euthanasia killings of the insane, handicapped and physically sick Germans (including children, but not where Stangl was) at Schloss Hartheim, made him a top pick for the head job at Sobibor and Treblinka, as he was already used to murdering the innocent. He doesn't admit this, but the author places the facts before us, many of the same men in charge at Hartheim, ended up at Sobibor and Treblinka. Stangl says it was all happenstance.

Sereny also interviews Frau Stangl in Brazil where they ran to and stayed after the war, with a short stay in Syria. Frau Stangl's pride in her husband's swift ascent is still in her voice when she recalls how fast he moved up. Ambition is not seen, even in the 1970s when the Stangls were interviewed, as a failing in 1930s Berlin.

The most nauseating stories that Franz Stangl and his wife tell is how "they" suffered after the war when they were on the run and he was imprisoned. He describes how he didn't have a bunk or a blanket and wasn't allowed packages. Oh that poor man, my heart bleeds for him. She too suffered with her children; they were hungry and had little money. The nerve of these people astounds me. They had their lives. He gave no thought to those who were cold, starved, tortured and murdered under his watch.

The final sickening part that I want to mention here is that Sereny discusses the failure of Pope Plus XII speaking out against the destruction of the Jews. She believes that his failure to do this conditioned Catholics like the Stangls to accept what was happening to an easier degree than they already did. As Sereny so aptly states, "The very first failure to say 'No" was fatal, each succeeding step merely confirming the original and basic moral flaw. "
Profile Image for Dimitri.
764 reviews191 followers
November 6, 2019
How do you examine the conscience of an ordinary man who doesn't really want to be examined? For beneath the Austrian courtesies Franz Stangl suffers from a wir haben's nicht gewusst type of selective amnesia, until he dies of heart failure a few days after Sereny makes her farewell. You cast the net wider, over his wife in Brazil and smaller fish such as former camp guards, either pensioned off into respectable anonymity or presently incarcerated.

Together with a handful of former inmates this book offers a reconstruction of life and death in the Treblinka camp, which in four phases becomes 'more manageable' as some SS saw the tide turn in the East and realized the possible post-war dividends of small leniency. It sits uncomfortably with the total eradication of the camp's physical remains after the uprising, complete with a Ukrainian farmer housed in the Gas chambers ("I've lived in this brick farm for many years ! Look at all the adult trees planted around it !").

Sereny does not stop there. Extermination camp, uprising. Inevitably she adds interviews with survivors of Sobibor. Add to that the fact that Stangl worked for the T4 program and that he made it to Brazil thanks to some help of a certain Roman cardinal and the whole book evolves into a razor-sharp mythbuster of the entire Holocaust and the adjunct "Odessa" escape network. Spoiler alert: you had to make your own Odessa, mostly. And apparently you can be recruited into T4 without the slightest inkling of what it entails.

Plus, pride comes before the fall (p. 30) :
"This is something, you know, the world has never understood. How perfect the machine was. It was only lack of transport because of the Germans' war requirements that prevented them from dealing with vaster numbers than they did. Treblinka alone could've dealt with the 6.000.000 Jews and more besides. Given adequate rail transport, the German extermination camps in Poland could've killed all the Poles, Russians and other East Europeans the Nazis eventually planned to kill.
Profile Image for Mara.
400 reviews274 followers
February 10, 2017
This is one of the most incredible Holocaust books I have come across to date. It is about so much more than author Gitta Sereny's conversations with Franz Stangl ( Commandant of Treblinka ). These conversations (conducted while Stangl was in Düsseldorf prison) give us a narrative around which Sereny integrates her exceptional research, outside interviews and experiences. Sereny manages to be both our guide and an appropriately impartial observer of the events described (and is open in describing what could and could not be verified).

Gitta Sereny interviewing Franz Stangl at Dusseldorf

Written in 1972, this book seeks to address facts that "have become blurred" and the claims of "chroniclers...who will have us believe that the extermination of the Jews was almost an accidental development, somehow forced upon the Nazi's by circumstance" (p.93). Similarly, she disambiguates two sets of terms that have been conflated over time: concentration vs. extermination camps , and War Crimes vs. Nazi Crimes.

Stangl's retelling of his own story, I think, can best be summed up in a quote from Carl Jung:
“People will do anything, no matter how absurd, to avoid facing their own souls.”

Stangl's justifications for his role at Treblinka are remarkably similar to the findings of behavioral economists regarding the "trolley problem" wherein (pardon my terrible summary) participants seem infinitely more comfortably with hitting a switch to divert a trolley headed for five people, but that would, then kill one person than they would if they had to physically push that one person in front of the trolley in order to prevent the five people further down the track from getting killed.

Trolley Problem switch versus push

In Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil , author Paul Bloom describes:
...this is because the thought of touching the man, of laying your hands on him and shoving, gives rise to a powerful emotional response, much more than the thought of just throwing a switch, and this is why most people see this act as morally wrong (p.169).
This concept is illustrated time and again in Stangl's perception of his actions at Treblinka. Stangl's wife, Therese, recounts a conversation with her husband she had after he received his appointment at the Sobibor extermination camp:
I said, 'I know what you are doing in Sobibor?...What are you doing in this?'...he said...'I have nothing to do with any of this...My work is purely administrative...Oh yes, I see it. But I don't do anything to anybody.'(p.136)
This theme plays again when Stangl vehemently denies having ever fired a gun into a group of people who were, hours later, gassed en mass in an operation he was overseeing.

Sereny's work also intricately examines the role of Pope Pius XII — something I previously knew little about, so if you're into that you'll enjoy that part as well.

Hopefully these passages will give you just a glimpse of myriad accounts gathered through Sereny's persistent research and access to survivors, witnesses and prisoners alike. In the time since finishing it, I have found myself referencing this book constantly, and recommend it highly.
Profile Image for Mikey B..
962 reviews349 followers
March 3, 2022
These interviews by Gitta Sereny with Franz Stangl took place in April and June of 1971. She spoke with him for some 70 hours. Franz Stangl was the commandant of two Nazi death camps – Sobibor, and then Treblinka. To be explicit in these camps thousands of mostly Jewish people (man, women and their children) would arrive by train from across Europe, ordered to undress, herded into a gas chamber, and then their bodies burnt in a pit.

The purpose of Gitta Sereny was to investigate, to probe into the mind-set of this man.

She does succeed in exposing some of his inner demons. She also spoke extensively to his wife who came to know through a third party (another SS man) what was really going on at Sobibor. His wife never went to the death camps, they would see each other at a villa, miles from the camps.

Gitta Sereny also spoke with the few survivors of Sobibor and Treblinka. It should be noted that these survivors do have some form of guilt complex. They were selected as being the healthiest males and females from the arriving trains – they survived from the clothing, the goods (jewelry, clothing…), and especially the food they confiscated from those soon to be murdered.

Page 131 (my book)

“I never saw Stangl hurt anyone” Stan Szmajzner [Sobibor survivor] said, “What was special about him was his arrogance. And his enormous pleasure in his work and his situation. None of the others – although they were, in different ways so much worse than he – showed this to such an extent. He had this perpetual smile on his face… No, I don’t think it was a nervous smile, it was just that he was happy.”

Page 129

It became clear that what he was most concerned about were what one might call the lesser manifestations of moral corruption in himself; what he did rather than what he was. It was his “deeds” – his relatively mild deeds – he was at great pains to deny or rationalize rather than his total personality change.

All who lived within a few miles of the death camps knew what was going on. There were the trains and the smells. The people who worked the trains across Poland and throughout Europe, saw and heard the crowded and anguishing railroad cars filled with the starving and dying.

Page 178 Richard Glazer (Treblinka survivor)

“Really, when one wants to evaluate how they [the guards] behaved and what they were, one must not forget their incredible power, their autonomy within their narrow and yet, as far as we were concerned, unlimited field.”

From this reading, one gets various glimpses into the complicated personality of Franz Stangl. He was very devoted to his wife and children. But outside of them there was obviously a contamination of his moral center. It was like, as the author states, he was blinded and consumed by the apparatus of Sobibor and Treblinka. He acknowledged on a number of occasions that he had a job to do and wanted to do it well. He would focus on the trivial rather than everything. He would obfuscate to his wife what was going on at the camps. It was like both were afraid to approach his role there for fear of destroying their relationship. Franz Stangl died of a heart attack a few days after the interviews with Gita Sereny were over.

I have to admit that I am somewhat captivated by the inner life of evil doers. There are piles of books on survivors, but it is the motivation, the why of the perpetrators that intrigues me. Gitta Sereny penetrates this world.

Obviously, this book is not easy reading, now I am in need of something more life-affirming!
Profile Image for Richard Burger.
18 reviews7 followers
February 23, 2012
Gitta Sereny is perhaps the most thorough, meticulous interviewer I've ever read. As if she's unpeeling an onion layer by layer, she leads us into the life and mind of her subject, the former Kommandant of Treblinka, Franz Stangl, and makes us feel, whether we want to or not, as if we know him and understand him. And that is a huge accomplishment, because it isn't easy to understand what motivated a man like Stangl, what kept him loyal to and even proud of his "work," and how he (and his family) lived with the knowledge of what he was part of.

With infinite patience, Sereny investigates everything he says, cross-checking each assertion with other witnesses and/or family members, determined to arrive at the truth. And by telling Stangl's story, she sheds new light on what the Holocaust was and how it was carried out by "ordinary men." It is to her credit that after countless hours of interviewing she finally got Stangl, at the very end, to acknowledge his guilt. It is no surprise that 19 hours after his admission to Sereny, Stangl feel dead of heart failure.

In what readers will probably find the most controversial aspect of the book Sereny makes quite clear that she believes Pope Pius XXII knew about what was going on in Poland and did next to nothing to help. The Vatican is part of the story, as it was the Vatican that helped Stangl (and many other Nazis) to flee Germany and settle in Brazil. While the section on the Vatican is long, it's also intriguing. I'll leave it to others to decide what the Pope could or should have done. It's clear, however, that Sereny believes he failed humanity.

My only issue with the book is that Sereny tries a bit too hard to footnote and (over)explain every detail that arises. Some of her sentences are so thick with parenthetical phrases they're hard to read, and she sometimes dwells on small things. But that is a tiny criticism. This is absolutely required reading for anyone interested in the Holocaust in general and Treblinka in particular. Her profiles of the death camp's survivors such as Richard Glazar are especially vivid and unforgettable. A superb, important book.
Profile Image for Maureen.
726 reviews85 followers
September 15, 2009
When confronted with the idea of the Holocaust, I find the scope of the atrocities perpetrated against Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals,and others whom the Reich considered as "undesirables" is inconceivable. At Treblinka, where Fritz Stangl was Kommandant, one million and two hundred thousand people were put to death. Once the trains reached the pretty little fake railway station, with its flower-filled window boxes and faux clock tower, the passengers in the cattle cars had approximately one hour to live. The trains arrived in the morning, and the killing was finished by noon. The rest of the day was spent disposing of the bodies - first in lime pits, then in great metal racks called "the roasts" where the bodies were burned.

Sixty five Jews survived Treblinka. Some because they had skills that were useful to the Nazis; a very few others escaped in the revolt of August 1943 when the camp was set on fire. Transports to Treblinka were beginning to wind down by that time anyway, because the Nazis were running out of people to kill.
The final tally of one million two hundred thousand deaths comes from the stationmaster, Franciszek Zabecki, who was also a member of the Resistance. He kept a tally of every train and the number of people in every boxcar from the day of the arrival of the first Jews until August 18, 1943, when the final transports pulled into the station.

Fritz Stangl presided over this whole operation from the construction of the camp buildings and charnel houses to the final dismantling the gas chambers and dispersal of the troops to other sites. Stangl started out his career as an Austrian police officer who loved his wife and family. He was also ambitious. His first step down the slippery slope was transferring to the political division of the CID in Wels, which was a hotbed of of illegal political activities by Communists, Socialists, and Nazis in 1935. During this period, Stangl may have become an "llegal" Nazi, as did many others in his unit.

After the Anschluss (annexation of Austria by Germany in 1938), Stangl eventually became an SS man in December of 1942. He was handpicked to work in the Tiergartenstrasse 4 division. T4 was in charge of the Euthanasia Programme and the extermination camps. Through a combination of intimidation, opportunity for advancement and assurances that his only job was to keep law and order, Stangl agreed to go to Schloss Hartheim, one of the Euthanasia Institutes, where people with mental and physical infirmities were put to death. From the outside, it looked like a hospital. On the inside, the "patients" were being either gassed or dying by lethal injection. The bodies were cremated, and the ashes given to their relations.

Many of the people who went on to work in the death camps got their start in the euthanasia program. Psychologically, they were inured to the idea of murdering innocent people as being their job. Pressure was exerted from above to keep officers and guards in their places. Stangl was moved from Hartheim to Sobibor, where he made the leap from running a euthanasia clinic to a death camp. One of the most fascinating aspects to me was that there were certain moments when Stangl could have refused to cooperate without sacrificing himself or his family. He chose not to do that, but rather to go along with the program.

In over seventy hours of interviews with Stangl, as well as in interviews with death camp survivors, guards, officers, priests, and with Stangl's family, Gitta Sereny manages to hang on to her objectivity. Until her very last interview with Stangl, he admitted to his guilt on only one occasion. The last day, he finally broke down for a few seconds and allowed himself, as Sereny put it, "to become the man he could have been."

This is a book of psychology - not Holocaust vignettes. Still, with only a few graphic examples, images are seared into my brain that I will never forget. Stangl considered the people he was killing to be "cargo" - so much baggage to be processed through the system. In his evasion of responsibility and unwillingness to stand up and be counted, he has unwittingly given the rest of us a paradigm of how NOT to act, and underlined the critical role we all play in the lives of others. We are responsible for the welfare of our fellow human beings. Each and every one of us. Every One.
Profile Image for Ned.
292 reviews120 followers
December 27, 2021
Hard to summarize this mighty work, I feel unworthy. People I love have hinted that I’m obsessed with 1939-1945 Germany and the holocaust. I’m marked for sure, by my upbringing, when as a young boy I saw images of concentration camps on old black and whites in school, bodies moved by earth movers – images I couldn’t (and still can’t truly) process. Later I was enthralled by Cori Ten Boom’s movie The Hiding Place, one of the few films my conservative culture would allow us to watch. Then I recall my father reading Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, and he answered some of my many questions. Incongruously, between the first semesters of college I took a course called Literature of the Holocaust – during a particularly cold and snowy January in Kansas. I’m surprised that I can recall the instructors’ name (Arlie Peck) and we read Wiesel, Schwarz & had some lively discussions in class. What I recall most, though, is Arlie’s quavering voice as he read a package, and then awkwardly breaking down in tears in front of the class. That will stick with me forever. The inhumanity and the horror is just too much for a truly human being. Shortly thereafter, in the beginning of my intense rebellious phase, I saw Meryl Streep in Sophie’s Choice, with my to-be wife, and we wept together at the senselessness of it all and bemoaned the long legacy that this episode in history left on us. I read the book much later & it was even more earth shattering than that film. More recently, on a flight home from Europe I became enthralled by the movie Denial, which told the story from 1993 of a court case where the debate between a holocaust denier and an author was in court. This troubles me to this day, when so much history is being politicized. There is so much literature about the holocaust and renewed debate about who was the greater evil (Hitler’s SS, Stalin vs Mao), and the fresh face of fascism is recast again and again in Europe and the U.S. As a scientist, trained to recognize my own bias, and careful about what can be known to be true or false, honest scholarship can be hard to come by. This brings me to the subject of this review, the book, which I selected after reading a bit about the author, her proclivities, background and personality.

Gitta Sereny is described as a biographer, investigative journalist and historian from what I can glean from public sources. She was raised in Austria, spent the second world war in occupied France (tied to the resistance), and attended the Nazi trials in Nuremburg. I could not detect any dishonesty in her writing, she is careful to notify the reader when she is opining or extrapolating. The fact that this is done only sparingly was significant for me – she wants to get to the truth. And the truth in this case needs no embellishment to keep the reader’s interest, it is shockingly garish and fits that old cliché to a tee (truth being stranger than fiction).

Sereny was in the unique position of having lived through the war and the attended the trials, she was able to secure a series of interviews with one of the defendants in 1972, one Franz Stangl, commander of the largest death camp in Poland, Treblinka. Independently she interviewed his widow (Stangl died in prison shortly after the interviews) Frau (Resl) Stangl, as well as innumerable acquaintances – friends before the war, fellow officers at the camps, Catholic clergy aplenty (this was a big feature in the book), even prisoners from the camp who escaped. This gave the account gravitas, as different memories and accounts could be compared and contrasted, and the truth distilled from time to time. What is incontrovertible is that nearly a million (mostly) Jews were exterminated in about 3 years, mostly from the Warsaw ghetto, arriving in daily trainloads of cattle cars. Women, children, the elderly were stripped, run down a shoot and gassed as fast as possible, often within 20 minutes of arrival. The book goes into great detail about how the facilities and operations were designed and with fiendish efficiency. The jewish workers were selected early on, and managed largely by Ukranian guards and SS men (surprisingly only 20-40 Nazi SS men were on site). They were happy to see the trains from the richer western areas (e.g. Warsaw) because of the money, jewelry, clothing and (especially) all the food that they could select from and enjoy (or trade with the local Polish folks at the perimeter, who benefitted). It was widespread theft and murder, and all under the eye of the commandant Franz Stangl, dressed in all white with a riding crop, like a southern plantation owner who rarely got his hands dirty. I won’t get into the body pits that were later dug up for incarceration, other than to say the grisly reality was nauseating and shocking in the extreme.

Thus comes the subject of our book, where the relentless Sereny asks Stangl about his childhood, i.e. how he got caught up in this racket & (mostly) how was it possible to rationalize such behavior. It is a slow process, where the gentlemanly Nazi explains that he had no choice but was doing what he was ordered to do – that familiar refrain that so many others used in their defense. But Gitta gets under the skin, she will not let him get off the hook, and is clever in her subtle approach, knowing when to back off and when to push (like any great investigative reporter or interrogator). This can’t help but humanize the man, especially as we hear from his loving wife (mostly kept in the dark till the end, or such is her story), as he patiently played with his two young daughters on his rare time away from “work”. Interesting to me was that the camp (Treblinka) was not liberated: Essentially it was decommissioned when the steady supply of “cargo” from the trains slowed (shocking this means the Jews of Poland were nearly annihilated). The camp was destroyed, and evidence removed as much as possible, before end of the war (Sereny claims a Polish famer was installed and paid to say he had been there for years and no camp existed). The other surprise to me was the ease by which Nazi’s could escape – after WW2 there were so many thousands of refugees, it was nearly impossible to know who was who. Anyone with decently forged papers could move about freely. Stangl essentially walked out of a camp and went to Syria for 3 years, then Brazil, with his wife and family and wasn’t picked up till Wiesenthal (the “Nazi Hunter” as he called himself) finally found him in 1969 (14 years after the war) living under his own name! It is shocking that he wasn’t found sooner. The author discounts any secret organization that helped Nazi’s escape, as has been popularized. The truth is the horrors at Treblinka were not well known, and largely suppressed, till well after the war.

Finally, the author, a Catholic herself, spends a great deal of time discussing the culpability of the church, especially the Vatican, during the war. She also unearths a great deal about what was known about the euthanasia of their own citizens being practiced by the Nazi’s early in the war. The whole eugenics thing was popular and the “strengthening” of the Aryan race began at home, with the orderly murder of all sorts of “mental defectives” and anyone else seen as a burden to the state and taking up needed hospital beds and resources. This paved the way for the genocide to come, as they hone the craft of killing and destruction of bodies. Sereny shows a lengthy evaluation was done by catholic clergy, but essentially buried by the leaders of the church, who were afraid to upset the Nazi’s. There was a great deal of “resistance” after the war, and defense of positions, but our author posits that the church, and the pope, were complicit. They were more fearful of the godless Bolsheviks at the door & unwilling to take strong measures against the news of the Jewish holocaust (many other governments as well, as we now know, but Sereny goes into great depth about the church in this account).

The scholarship in this story is impressive – the author read voraciously on all sides of the issues & pursued her own dogged interrogations with as many living witnesses as could be found. I have to give this top billing (5 stars) for the heroic accomplishment this novel represents & the contribution to our understanding of history, about as “true” as we can hope for in this age of misinformation. Should be required reading for this generation (says this old codger) lest we repeat these sins again too soon. It doesn’t make me hopeful for our future, for sure, since I see the hatred of the “other” and thinking of entire groups of people (race, ethnicity) as less desirable across the political spectrum. It’s the state of man, and I fear we will cycle again and again, if we are not careful to remember what is possible and what a civilized nation or state can so easily succumb to.
Profile Image for Ruby Tuesday.
100 reviews17 followers
November 30, 2013
I've read countless books about the Holocaust and recently I started to question what my fascination is with the subject. I came to the conclusion that it's the psychology of what leads a country towards genocide and the mentality that enables individuals to carry out such terrible crimes against humanity. Whilst undoubtedly some individuals were sadistic what is apparent in so many books that I've read is how un extraordinary most of the perpetrators were, it's this aspect that I find the most disturbing.

This book is based on a series of interviews carried out by Gitta Sereny with Franz Stangl who was the Kommandant of Treblinka one of the most notorious death camps of which there were only a handful of survivors. I found it chilling when he described his normal working day at Treblinka, the paperwork that he completed in his office while a few metres away Men, women and children from all over Europe were being gassed in the gas chambers. The author also interviewed his wife and what was apparent is how both she and her husband mentally glossed over his work .The author asked him how he felt when he saw for example a beautiful child being sent to the gas chambers to which he responded that he never thought about it. This total lack of empathy and lack of thinking really conveys the "banality of evil". How could he not have thought about it? When I read any books on this subject I am always thinking, what would I have done if I was one of those mothers being led to the gas chambers with my children? What would I have done if I was put in a position where I was playing a part in the mass murder of millions? It's chilling to think that this never crossed his mind. Or probably it did, but the reality of his guilt was too horrible to bare.

In any other period in time ,it's clear to me that Franz Stangl would have been a very average individual and quite unremarkable. That is the most frightening thing of all. When bigotry and scapegoating take hold and the moral veneer of society is chipped away evil takes over.
Profile Image for Massimiliano.
239 reviews46 followers
November 10, 2021
Una lettura complessa, ma non direi pesante.
Non lo è perchè l'autrice riporta fatti e documentazioni senza lasciarsi andare a divagazioni e interpretazioni (notevole è anzi la bibliografia che lei stessa ha consultato per la stesura del libro).

Non conoscevo il caso Stangl in particolare - ha ovviamente qualcosa in comune col ben più famoso processo ad Eichmann - nè che effettivamente fosse stato l'unico comandante di campo di sterminio catturato vivo e processato.

Non intenderei però questo saggio volto alla ricerca della banalità del male, quanto più una notevole analisi della psicologia di un uomo che alla fine si rivela molto sempicemente normale, e per questo motivo inquietante.
Nella storia di Franz Stangl si vede come una persona normale, all'interno di un certo contesto, possa ritrovarsi a osservar compiersi il male assoluto sotto i suoi occhi senza muovere un dito, nell'indifferenza e poi nell'apatia.
Più volte nel libro Stangl afferma che uscire da quel sistema era impossibile, veniva minacciata la sua famiglia, veniva minacciato lui stesso, ecc....; è interessante la domanda che l'autrice si pone: fino a che punto uno deve sottostare e non rischiare la propria incolumità, mentre migliaia di persone vengono uccise, ed un solo gesto di disobbedienza civile potrebbe salvarne un numero notevole?

Una lettura complessa ed inquietante, per la vicinanza che ci si ritrova ad avere, sembra quasi di sentirlo sulla propria pella, con le fabbriche di morte naziste.

Profile Image for Linda.
331 reviews30 followers
November 25, 2015
For a swedish review, look further down!

This is about a man who became a monster. A wife that refused to acknowledge the truth. About certain people that became victims. Others who lost their loved ones. And those who became determined to escape and to spread the truth. This story is terrible as well as incredibly fascinating. Gitta Sereny was a truly magnificent author that revealed man's inner core. The soul.

I felt so sick when reading this book that I sometimes had to put it away for a while. The fact that people treated other people this way is difficult to understand. It is interesting that Stangl was a respectable, polite, good husband and father, and at the same time the commendant of Treblinka. His moral was slowly dissolving and neglect and indifference took its place, and grew inside him from his work in the T4 program in Hartheim, followed by Sobibor, and continued to form the monster within him when he was transferred to Treblinka.

Another theme throughout the book is the Vatican's part in the holocaust. If it weren't for the church's cold-hearted passivity, perhaps Hitler would have ended the concentration-camps. It is a small possibility, but one never-the-less. I understand that the church was afraid to lose power and perhaps be doomed as well, but it comes down to a matter of faith, something the church is very good at practicing otherwise.

This book is an invaluable source of information. Witnesses tell a horrible story of human nature and what can happen if we forget who we are and what we are capable of. We had better read stories like this one, to be reminded of what might happen if we're not very critical, well-read and insightful.


Bland flyktingarna i den mörkaste av världar fanns en ung Gitta Sereny. På grund av sina kontakter med den franska motståndsrörelsen lämnade hon det ockuperade Frankrike och har ägnat en stor del av sitt liv åt att söka ondskans kärna. Sereny avled sommaren 2012 och lämnar i "Vid avgrunden" efter sig ett omfattande grävande efter orsaksmekanismer som föder ett monster.

En kärleksfull småbarnspappa lämnade hemmet för att bakom "den slutgiltiga lösningens" ridåer bli en hänsynslös kommendant. Förintelsens maskineri drevs av mänskliga kuggar. Franz Stangl var en dem. Samtidigt som 900 000 människors liv släcktes iklädde han sig emellanåt rollen som god make och familjefar.

Sereny inleder elegant med att beskriva första samtalet med den livstidsdömde Stangl, hans bakgrund och klättrande yrkeskarriär. Läsaren förflyttas bakåt i tiden och anländer till Treblinka tillsammans med den rekryterade kommendanten. När tågen rullade in mottogs de av en idylliskt grönskande miljö, en tågstation med stor klocka och tidtabeller. Ingen tittade lite extra och lade märke att visarna inte rörde sig. I Treblinka stannade tiden för alltid. När maskineriet fungerade optimalt slukade lägret 20 000 människor varje dag. Från sin plats på en höjd såg en propert klädd Stangl hur människorna reducerades till ”en naken massa av kött” - vid det stadiet var familjefadern som bortblåst och kommendanten stod rak i ryggen på dagen och dövade den moraliska kollapsen på natten. Likgiltigt iakttog han den långsamma kön till gaskammaren. Under vintern fick mödrar slita loss sina fastfrusna barn från marken. En liten stund senare spreds de med vinden i form av svarta snöflingor som färgade världen. Himmelsfärdsvägen är fortfarande smärtsamt svart av minnen, trettio år senare, när Gitta Sereny vandrar längs den.

Sereny fördjupar sig i Stangls snedvridna verklighetsuppfattning, förnekande attityd och uppbyggda fasad och skalar av lager efter lager för att slutligen avslöja den innersta kärnan. Var i processen han slutligen tappade fotfästet om verkligheten och sin egen moral. Var i processen han upphörde att vara människa. Hon kartlägger och ställer olika vittnesskildringar mot varandra. Likt ett fotografi i mörkrummet framträder de skuggor av minnen som utgör en bild av vad som en gång var. Små småningom blir skuggorna allt djupare, konturerna allt tydligare, kontrasterna allt skarpare och den gåtfulla mannen i centrum allt mer levande. Gestalten formas snart till en mänsklig varelse. Eller till ett monster. Stangl jämför Treblinka med Dantes inferno, som ”att stiga ner i en avgrund där orden förlorar sin mening”. Inte förrän det sista samtalet bryter sanningen igenom den före detta kommendantens illusion och han inser vem han var i helvetets avgrund. Sereny fångar bilden och med den fångar hon läsaren.

Språket är rått och naket och når ända fram, likgiltigt inför det känslosvall som sköljer över läsaren, som droppar på blad efter blad. Den frustration och förtvivlan som fräter som saltsyra i magen komprimeras gradvis till en hårdnande, molande metallklump som lämnar ett ärr. Ett ärr som värker när Stangl, i kapitlet som rörde tiden efter kriget, helt enkelt promenerade ut från fängelset i Linz. Den hjälpande hand som räcktes ut tillhörde Vatikanen. Sereny försöker förhålla sig objektiv när hon beskriver Vatikanstatens utdelning av Röda korset-pass till förklädda nazister.

Vid avgrunden är en ovärderlig källa av sammanvävda minnen som snart saknar vittnen.
Många år av research lägger en stabil grund till reportaget och Gitta bygger mästerligt upp levande scener. Man förskräcks och förfäras samtidigt som man fascineras och förundras. När läsaren sluter sina ögon har bilder etsat sig fast. Bilden av den fläckfritt vitklädda gestalten som överblickade Treblinkas övre läger. De dödsdömda själarna som vandrade mot den tysta evigheten. Den lilla judiska pojken som tack vare sitt medtagna dragspel drog vinsten i livslotteriet. Pappan som upprepade gånger försökte rädda sina döttrar, men misslyckades. Och till sist, den svarta vägen av aska som Sereny själv beträder, och som än idag vittnar om att mardrömmen, hur ofattbar den än förefaller, en gång var verklig.
Profile Image for Kulturna.
148 reviews2 followers
July 12, 2018
Ovo je knjiga koju sam najduže čitala. Ujedno je bila i najteža za čitanje.
Sve je započelo programom eutanazije u koji su bile uključene mentalno bolesne osobe. Iako se o tome moglo čuti, nitko se nije potrudio detaljno objasniti. Postavljeni cilj tog programa bio je navodno olakšanje, ali stvarna svrha zapravo je bilo masovno ubijanje pod krinkom eutanazije. Nakon što je dovršen ovaj pogram pojavili su se logori istrjebljenja.
Moram priznati da je bilo frustrirajuće čitati intervjue jer sam si često postavljala pitanje: Je li to bilo stvarno tako, je li ovo sada ublaženo sjećanje, nedostatno pamćenje ili su neke stvari namjerno izvrnute? Kao velikom ljubitelju povijesti i Drugog svjetskog rata,sjajno je što ova knjiga detaljno opisuje razliku između logora istrjebljenja i konclogora. Većina ljudi misli kako je Auschwitz služio isključivo kao logor za istrjebljenje, ali ti ljudi nisu pročitali ovu knjigu.
Obećala sam samoj sebi kako ću ovu knjigu još jednom pročitati i napisati poprilično detaljnu recenziju u kojoj ću obuhvatiti i ulogu Crkve u ovoj crnoj povijesti 20. stoljeća.
Profile Image for Jennifer Mencarini.
35 reviews6 followers
April 6, 2012
It is really difficult to give this book five stars because its content is so repugnant and disturbing. A quote from a review by Elie Wiesel on the rear cover perfectly sums it up - "Most often one is sick to one's soul. Yes, that is the word that is needed ... one is gripped by a profound existential nausea." And I did feel sick to my stomach while reading much of this book - but it is important precisely because it serves as a most necessary reminder that each and every one of us is capable of deep good and profound evil. It is our work in this life to face up to this truth and do our best to work toward the former and away from the latter. This requires an understanding of how evil is allowed to persist. Gitta Sereny does a masterful job of cross-examining both her subject, Franz Stangl, and his friends and family members about their support for and participation in mass murder and torture, and the psychological mechanism of deep denial. For any student of human rights, the Holocaust, or genocide, this is difficult, but essential reading.
Profile Image for John Woltjer.
30 reviews94 followers
July 13, 2012
This book reminded me of Hannah Ahrendt's phrase about "the banality of evil." it is chilling to read the story of a man, in normal times just like any other average man, whose life leads him inexorably and incrementally into a situation in service of pure evil. it is also an example of how individuals can train their vision to ignore horrific events at their doorstep while practicing the little niceties and carrying out the routine tasks of a normal day. It is not hard to understand how this can happen. Dark forces can seize control and can become institutionalized to the degree where a normal human being can feel the utter futility of standing up to what appear to be insurmountable odds, so one resigns oneself to becoming a bureaucrat in service to unimaginable evil and destructiveness. This is a story that reminds us to be vigilant as human beings about staying conscious of the forces of bigotry and hatred and scapegoating that allow what are once small stirrings in everyone's psyche to becoming cogs on the wheels of the machinery of incomprehensible brutality and evil.
Profile Image for Joe.
178 reviews93 followers
June 9, 2021
Franz Stangl served as commandant at the Treblinka extermination camp during World War II; he oversaw the murder of over 700,000 people. After the war, he fled to Brazil with his family and escaped justice for over a decade despite making little effort to hide himself. He never even took on an assumed name.

When Stangl was finally caught and brought to trial, he accepted no guilt, stubbornly insisting that he was just a man who had done his duty. The court convicted Stangl of war crimes and sentenced him to life in prison.

Decades later, biographer Gitta Sereny interviewed Stangl and challenged him to describe his life and crimes in his own words. And after 60 hours of interviews spanning several sessions, the previously resolute Stangl finally broke down. The strain of describing the horrors he facilitated proved too much for him. "In reality I share the guilt" he finally admitted. "Because my guilt... my guilt... only now in these talks... now that I have talked about it all for the first time." He even went so far as to say "I should have died, that was my guilt."

Within hours of this last interview, Stangl was dead. Suicide was suspected, but the postmortem evidence pointed to heart-failure. The implication was clear; Stangl had been crushed by the culpability he had denied for so many years.

What scares me most about Stangl's story is that he was clearly no monster. In the interviews, Stangl comes across as polite, sensitive, and intelligent. He never indicates hatred or antisemitism and appears sincere in his affection for the camp victims he remembers. The guards at his prison describe Stangl as "one of the good ones" and even camp survivors (few as they are) claim Stangl never showed a cruel side and was "no sadist, unlike some of the others." Stangl's defense that he performed his duties out of fear for himself and his family is plausible, even as that does nothing to ameliorate his crimes.

Stangl's ability to contribute to mass-inhumanity was fueled not by cruelty but by self-deception; he never attended the murders; never even inspected the gas-chambers. He even showed small kindnesses to many prisoners despite knowing that the machine he ran doomed them all.

This need to distance himself from the horror showed during the interviews. Stangl would slip into "the popular vernacular of his childhood whenever he had to deal with questions he found difficult to answer", a habit Sereny attributes to Stangl subconsciously seeking refuge in more comfortable language. Sereny asked Stangl several times about the fate of prisoners whom he'd spoken about with affection. His response each time: "I don't know," though he surely could have guessed.

Stangl lived with what he'd done for decades. The walls he built within himself were strong enough to withstand years facilitating mass-murder, a decade living free as a war-criminal, and a damning trial exposing the scope of his culpability. What ultimately brought Stangl's psychological fortress down was simply being asked to tell his life story in his own words.

Edited 6/9/2021
Profile Image for Judith Johnson.
Author 1 book87 followers
February 2, 2022
Only four men commanded Nazi extermination (as opposed to concentration) camps. Franz Stangl was one of them; he commanded Treblinka and was found guilty of co-responsibility for the slaughter there of at least 900,000 people. Aiming to discover how human beings were turned into instruments of such overwhelming evil, Gitta Sereny investigates Stangl's mind, and the influences which shaped him. Having talked to him for weeks and conducted months of research, she portrays the man as he saw himself and as he was seen by others, including his wife.

A hugely important work, which I can highly recommend for every single one of us.
Profile Image for M.J. Johnson.
Author 3 books227 followers
March 1, 2018
The facts about what the Nazis did, all of which can be obtained elsewhere, are not what makes reading this book so essential, nor is it some kind of horrific fascination in learning of the psychological profile of a man who oversaw the deaths of somewhere between 750,000 and 1,200,000 almost exclusively Jewish people (chilling when you think the estimated death toll - horrific whichever number is correct - might be out by nearly half a million!). Sereny doesn’t seem to be solely interested in Stangl’s psychology; I believe she was actually attempting to give us a glimpse, some insight, into the man’s soul. He initially trained as a weaver before joining the police force in his native Austria. There is some argument about whether as a policeman, Stangl was an ‘illegal Nazi’ - he himself always denied it, but his wife and colleagues seem to believe he was very likely a Nazi member before the Anschluss. There seems to have existed a powerful drive in Stangl, not only to be good and efficient at his job, but also to ‘be someone’. Were these the character traits the Nazis looked for when they sought to enlist the ‘right’ man, at first to be an administrator at Hartheim where the Nazis began killing those who were physically and mentally impaired, then Sobibor extermination camp, and finally to run what was essentially a human abbatoir at Treblinka? There is nothing to suggest that Stangl was a sadistic monster; there were a number of such types at Treblinka, as testified to by the very few slave prisoners who survived the camp, but there is no evidence to implicate Stangl in personal acts of cruelty; he was it seems a loyal husband and loving father. Yet, he was also the man in charge of this highly-efficient conveyor-belt that delivered death on a previously unprecedented scale.

It is hard to imagine the efficiency of the extermination programme. Every morning trains would roll into Treblinka station, which had been mocked-up to look like a real train station with flower boxes and a fake painted station clock with hands that never moved (Stangl’s idea) to lull the new arrivals into a sense of calm - they probably imagined upon seeing it, that nothing bad was going to happen to them, that they were simply going to be processed and then assigned some work. They were divided according to gender, asked to strip naked but told to keep their valuables and papers with them (again creating a false sense of security), they were then led into the ‘shower block’, where they were subsequently gassed with monoxide provided by diesel engines. The elderly and infirm were taken to the hospital - an entirely fake building complete with a red cross. Here they were ordered to strip, told to sit on a wall above a constantly burning pit, and shot. Two hours, and every single human being who had arrived on the morning transports was dead. Generally, by midday, all the killing was done, the remainder of the day was then dedicated to the disposal of corpses in open-air crematoria known as ‘roasts’. At least, this was the scenario for days delivering only western Jews to Treblinka; those arriving from the east in cattle trucks were herded viciously by sadistic guards who beat and whipped them into hysteria and ferociously drove them like animals through their final terror-stricken hours. One can only assume this difference in treatment was part of some sick Nazi ideology, whereby German Jews had, at the very least, been subjected to the improving influence of western civilisation, and were therefore far superior to those from the uncivilised east.

Franz Stangl, Kommandant of Treblinka, was, I believe, the only Nazi in charge of such an institution to be interviewed in this way. It therefore stands as a unique record. Sereny interviewed him for a total of seventy hours between April 2 and June 27, 1971, in Dusseldorf prison. He died only nineteen hours after her final interview. To the very last Stangl maintained, “My conscience is clear about what I did, myself ... I have never intentionally hurt anyone, myself.”

Sereny however, who was, after all, there in the room with Stangl, suggests that something had fundamentally changed in him during the course of the interviews:

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 was holding on to it. “But I was there,” he said then, in a curiously dry tone of resignation. These few sentences had taken almost half an hour to pronounce. “So yes,” he said finally, very quietly, “In reality I share the 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 in the sagging of his body, and on his face.

After more than a minute he started again, a half-hearted attempt, in a dull voice. “My guilt,” he said, “is that I am still here. That is my guilt.”
2 reviews
May 22, 2012
In interviewing Franz Stangl, who was sentenced to life imprisonment for the co-responsibility in the murder of 900,000 people while Kommandent of the Treblinka death camp, Gitta Sereny asked him about his signing a paper certifying that he was prepared to give up his religion. The paper signified that he was a believer in God but agreed to break his affiliation tho the (Catholic) Church. Stangl acknowledged that he was not a 'regular' church goer but always went on Easter and Christmas. He said he didn't like signing the paper but as she questioned him, "So signing this document wasn't really all that difficult, was it?" Stangl saw this as a compromise he had to make to keep his job and more-to keep his life. This starts is part of the slide into that darkness of being willing to kill those deemed unacceptable by the Nazi regime.
Later Stangl relates an encounter with a Catholic nun, a Mother Superior, and a priest. They discuss a 16 yr. old patient in an institution for severely handicapped children run by nuns. "But they rejected him.' [The nun was referring to the medical commission.] 'How could they not accept him?' she said. And the priest who stood next to her nodded fervently. 'Just look at him,' she went on. 'No good to himself or anyone else. How could they refuse to deliver him from this miserable life?' This really shook me," said Stangl. "Here was a Catholic nun, a Mother Superior, and a priest. And they thought it was right. Who was I then, to doubt what was being done?" This book documents the terrible small steps that make up the inexorable slide in to accepting and doing the unthinkable and the results that inevitably ensue. More pertinent for today than ever. This book is must reading.
Profile Image for Elliot Ratzman.
516 reviews66 followers
August 28, 2012
Gitta Sereny, who recently died, was a writer who did extensive interviews with former Nazi officials. This is her classic account of the Commandant of the death camp Treblinka, Franz Stangl, who oversaw nearly a million deaths. Sereny wins his trust, and the portrait is fascinating. Not particularly anti-Semitic, not the cruelest SS officer around, the Austrian Stangl finds himself through sheer ambition and cowardice rising through the ranks, first in the Euthanasia program “T4”, then coordinating industrialized mass murder. Escaping to Brazil after the war, he lived a quiet life, in plain sight and under his own name, with his wife and daughters until he is brought back to Europe for trial. A good deal of the book is a scandalous indictment of the Catholic Church’s role in the Nazi murder programs, first with its tepid intervention against T4, the Pope’s near-silence on the murder of Europe’s Jews and finally aiding Nazis escaping Europe. A shocking reminder of the banality of evil.
Profile Image for Margaret.
972 reviews6 followers
October 15, 2014
Gitta Sereny brought to life a horrendous period of history in this account of her 70 hours of interviewing Franz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka. The author also explores the fact that the Pope and the Catholic Church had knowledge of the death camps and subsequently the lack of action. Though to be fair she does mention the numerous outcries of the Church and of other pastors throughout Europe. I hope to read her book Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth fairly soon. This is the kind of history book that I will divest my energy and time into, well worth the read.
52 reviews1 follower
January 7, 2009
If you have ever asked yourself "How did the people of Germany allow the holocaust to happen," this book explains a lot. I learned that many of the perpetrators like Stengl, the subject of this book, were average citizens who did not appear to be born with "devil horns." But the most enlightening lesson I gained from reading this is that anyone could find themselves in these circumstances and we will never know how we would react until we do find ourselves in such circumstances. And that violence harms the offender as well as the victim; it is a lose-lose situation.
12 reviews
September 1, 2011
After reading Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, I got into a bit of a WWII reading binge. First I read, Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas and then I launched into The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer. I read Into That Darkness contemporaneously with Shirer's book. I don't doubt that my reading of this book was colored by these other Summer readings.

Into That Darkness is written by Gitta Sereny who interviewed Franz Stangl (the commandant of Treblinka) while he was in prison. Stangl had escaped Germany at the end of WWII and was living in Brazil in 1967 when he was arrested outside his home, extradited to West Germany, and sentenced to life in prison for his involvement in the deaths of 900,000 people.

The book is about the sequence of moral compromises Stangl made that resulted in his being at Treblinka. For example, Stangl was a policeman in Austria at the time of the German Anschluss and rose up through the police ranks after the German annexation. In 1940 he was assigned to the T-4 Euthanasia program where the Nazi's were systematically killing the mentally and physically handicapped. Stangl's job was to make sure the paperwork was in order and to sign the death certificates. He didn't kill anyone. What could he do? If he had resisted, it could have gotten him killed and it would not have stopped the program. What was the point of resisting? And so go the compromises.

Sereny's book weaves her conversations with Stangl with that of others that she interviewed within Stangl's orbit -- his wife, family, survivors of Treblinka, etc. She also verified various facts within the book with testimony at Stangl's and others' trials as well as with other Nazi documents.

The juxtaposition of reading about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who systematically fought the Nazi injustices, with the life of Franz Stangl, who systematically participated in the Nazi injustices, was memorable. Two people living in the same time period making radically different choices.
Profile Image for Bri.
59 reviews49 followers
July 5, 2015
I sat in the bathtub for a good twenty minutes after I finished this just thinking. It's limited in scope - conversations with Stangl, the Kommandant of Treblinka, after his capture and shortly before his death - but nevertheless manages to go wide as well as deep. This is both a wonderful and terrible mediation on humanity, the slippage that leads from normality to atrocity, the hard truths and willing self-delusions of those participants.

I read Goldensohn's Nuremberg interviews and felt sicker and sicker as they progressed. So many of his interviewees accepted no guilt at all, they denied and denied and clung to 'just following orders' and 'what could I have done?' It got monotonous, if never less than appalling - the 'banality of evil', q. Hannah Arendt. His method was to get them to talk, not to guide their conversation: he slipped a few times and called them on their bullshit, but largely just recorded it as it was.

Sereny does something very different. This is such a clear, thoughtful, balanced work. She has conversations with Stangl: he seems largely to be trying to be as honest as he can be, and she manages to find a human empathy and connection with him, but pushes hard: she asks the tough questions, the real questions, and by and large he tries to answer. She goes further: what he says is cross-checked against the historical record, eyewitness accounts from survivors, and fellow SS, and she makes careful textual note of every inaccuracy or falsehood. Large potions of the text belong to the survivors of Treblinka, and this is a counterbalance to Stangl; the horror of life there is thoroughly represented, but how he lied to himself and managed to function as Kommandant is clear too; then a third weight - historical record - is set against them both. This could have swayed too far in favour of its subject, or read as an excoriation of him from a pulpit, but what Sereny manages is much finer and more difficult and exquisitely balanced.

I'll be thinking about this book for a long time.
Profile Image for Patrick Belair.
68 reviews15 followers
April 27, 2015
This was a very interesting look at Franz Stangl,Interviewed when serving life sentence for war crimes.Many think that 800.000 thousand to 1.2 million dead should have been death for him self ( I do not believe that Germany has the death sentence)Moving along it was interesting to read interviews with him and also Frau Stangl,about this time,Including Vatican involvement, and the fact that he never was hiding always in open .for all to see and find.A very complex man and very good book,considering the subject!
Profile Image for Kazen.
1,267 reviews296 followers
November 22, 2020
I love Sereny as an interviewer - she is smart in how she goes about interviewing people, and insightful during the conversation itself. She's trying to figure out how Stangl could live with himself as the commandant of an extermination camp, and continue to live with himself after the fact. There are no clear answers, but any attempt at wrapping things up in a bow would come across as false. Too much is going on for that.

One drawback of the book is that Sereny assumes a base knowledge about Nazi Germany that I unfortunately do not have. She refers to issues and debates thinking the reader will know what's going on. There are two sections debating how complicit the Catholic church was in helping former SS members escape, and it gets into the weeds. I ended up skimming the second one because I don't care all that much, and it seemed so far removed from Strangl's own escape.

If you already have a grounding in Nazi Germany you will get a lot out of this book. I appreciate Sereny as a writer and interviewer, but not knowing the history some of her points were surely lost on me.
Profile Image for Linda.
620 reviews26 followers
November 28, 2016
It seems like everytime you turn around there is another book out about the Holocaust. Not that this is necessarily bad, but after a while you run into the fatigue syndrome. So I try to cull the number of books that I read on the subject.

This one I could not turn away. It's not "the banality of evil," it's not "evil incarnate," it's the life of a man who knew he was guilty but managed to persuade himself he was not.

Franz Stangl was the commandant of Treblinka, one of the four "extermination" camps the Nazis created in Poland. Even though I understood, somewhere under the surface, that "extermination" camps and "concentration" camps were different, the starkness of that contrast is made horribly clear in this book. Extermination camps were only there to exterminate. The only people who might survive them were young men or boys who were pulled out of the line for working in the camp. And no one walked out of them alive when they closed - it had to be by escape. And they were only used until their "purpose" was achieved.

Stangl was also involved in the Euthanasia project and at Sobibor, another of the extermination camps. Each time, even at Treblinka, he could say truthfully that he never gave an order to kill anyone. He knew what was going on, but he had been placed there (all three places actually) to organize, make things work, make sure things worked properly. At Treblinka he tried to make things "better" for the incoming trains of Jews by sprucing up the fake railway station that met them when they arrived. He put a bench out front, hung fake train schedules and even painted a fake clock on the front of the tower. Again to hide the true purpose of the camp (and this wasn't only as a "nice" part), the wire fences were covered by tree branches and other greenery that made them look like hedges rather than fences.

But this isn't the same type of interview/biography/expose/whatever as many others I've read. Sereny didn't want an interview; she wanted the man. She wanted HIM to admit his guilt, not just hear him mouth the words. So she spent many hours with him.

After a morning of hearing the same excuses that came out of all Nazi commanders' mouths, Sereny faced Stangl in the afternoon with an ultimatum. That wasn't what she wanted. She wanted his childhood, his memories, his stories about his life, how his life unfolded. And if he wasn't going to be honest with her about it, she would stop right there. After a period of reflection - where Stangl left the interview room and went back to his cell - he returned and agreed to her terms.

Stangl wasn't that much different than an average Austrian in his time period. He was a loner, lost his father young, had a step-father and step-brother both of whom he got along with. He was ambitious, but not overwhelmingly. He was educated, but not overly. He decided his best career would be the police. He found a wonderful wife whom he adored, left politics alone, until he couldn't. After the Anschluss, he managed to get his name on a list of those who had been secret Nazis all along, so that he could continue in his career. He was scared. When his wife found out, she was appalled. He had to explain to her that it wasn't true - it was a protective measure - but she was never completely sure for the rest of her life. The same became true when she discovered what he was actually doing at Treblinka. But she stayed with him.

Sereny found Stangl had an amazing memory for names - not so for dates or events. She weaves the reports of many people who either knew Stangl or knew of him or whom he mentioned around his own story. We can see how others remembered. Sometimes the accounts agree perfectly. Many times they don't. But usually there is truth in both of them. She even i
\nterviews Stangl's wife, living in Brazil - with him until he was captured and taken to Germany.

As well as simply relating words, Sereny describes the man as he talks. She watches and tells us how his face changes, how his posture changes, when he talks about certain things.

The prose is very readable. The book is over 300 pages with small type and I dreaded getting into it at first. But it reads quickly. Sereny keeps things moving and makes sure that the reader knows why everything she has added fits in.

And the marvelous thing is that she gets him to admit that he is guilty. He wasn't ordered to do something he didn't want to do. He didn't want to do it, but he didn't have the courage to stand up and say so. The realities of life - wife, three daughters - got in between him and his conscience. You don't want to blame him - he doesn't want to blame himself. But both we and he have to.

A definite must read for WWII buffs.

P.S. Interestingly, Stangl died 19 hours after his last meeting with Sereny.
Profile Image for Tejas Janet.
234 reviews33 followers
November 29, 2013
Gitta Sereny's book is a thoughtful, scrupulously researched look into the heart of darkness, providing a psychological portrait of Franz Stangl, a man responsible for managing the business of running various of Hitler's death "camps," as the Nazis perversely called their death factories, where the business of killing on a massive scale was carried out routinely with deliberate, carefully designed intent.

I struggled throughout with what time of day to read this material. Like better served over hot coffee and breakfast first thing in the morning, or later in the day perhaps with tea, or after dinner with drinks, or in the middle of the night when belief is suspended? Welcome to the absurd... the world of atrocities for breakfast, drinks and dancing after dinner.

Into the Darkness is based on extensive interviews with Franz Stangl as well as numerous other former Nazi officials as well as survivors, civilians, and religious researchers and figures. Her work reflects and extends the extant body of research and analysis on a deeply disturbing event in human history known now as the holocaust. Well worth reading in my opinion.
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