Guilty secrets

The German Trauma: experiences and reflections 1938-2000

Gitta Sereny <em>Allen Lane, The Penguin

Growing up half German in Britain, barely a generation after the Second World War, made for a sly childhood. The false alibi of an English name kept my Teutonic heritage a guilty secret, as I helped my schoolfriends shoot down playground Germans. Only when my dad gave me an Action Man did my deep cover finally dissolve. Today, being a closet kraut is much easier. I need only nod and smile when my fellow Brits sneer at humourless Huns who steal our sun-loungers, and although these insults sting, I bite my lip, because deep down, I believe such petty slights are the very least that I deserve. After all, if the sins of my fatherland are merely repaid by the casual contempt of Little Englanders who saved my father's family from themselves, then we've all escaped lightly. Gitta Sereny understands my trivial German trauma, and its far graver versions, too. So for me, her brave but sensitive journalistic memoir is a gift. I only wish I had read it when I was growing up.

Sereny was Hungarian bred and Vienna born, but educated in England, where she eventually settled. And when her train home from boarding-school broke down in Nuremberg, she watched her first Nazi rally. After she wrote an essay on this, the happiest day of her holiday, her teacher told her to read Mein Kampf. Half a century later, she discussed Hitler's rally and his book with his Faustian accomplice, Albert Speer. Between her Nuremberg essay and her seminal Speer biography, she has returned, again and again, to the riddle of what transformed a cradle of our civilisation into a psychotic tyranny. Much of what is written here has been published before, some of it in this magazine. Yet this is far more than a collection of recycled cuttings, as it is shaped by a defining question: what made apparently normal men commit state- sanctioned violence?

Sereny does not spare herself from this dark interrogation, as she recalls the animal thrill that swayed her when she heard Hitler greet his enthusiastic fellow Austrians after the Anschluss. Next day, she met the Jewish paediatrician who had saved her infant life. He was scrubbing the street with a toothbrush. Driven by the rashness of youth, she protested, and his Nazi persecutors dispersed. Five years later, they gassed him. Yet the girl he saved survived to bear witness to his murder, and to millions more.

Sereny's own life is worthy of a book all of its own. During the war, she nursed displaced children in occupied France, escaping across the Pyrenees after a German officer warned her that she faced arrest for helping an escaped British airman. From Spain, she went to the US, where she promoted the Allied cause through broadcasting anti-Nazi bulletins to Germany. After the war, in Germany, she endured the harrowing task of trying to reunite stolen children with their eastern European parents.

Sereny is a brilliant interviewer. She never absolves evildoers, but lets us hear them, so that we may share her need to know and comprehend. The rewards of her sleuthing include revealing interviews with the former Austrian president Kurt Waldheim, and with the propagandist film-maker Leni Riefenstahl. There is an intriguing new twist to the Hitler diaries scam. Most haunting of all is her prison-cell profile of Franz Stangl, commandant of the Treblinka death-camp. Sereny's "Colloquy with a Conscience" was the genesis for her later book, Into That Darkness. Stangl died of heart failure the day after their last encounter.

Reading Sereny, you understand that countries, like people, can change for the better; that the truly repentant are capable of a sort of redemption. Through painful recognition of its past crimes, Germany, damaged but now intrinsically decent, has reclaimed its proper place at the heart of Europe: not as its ruler, but as its cultural centre - and its conscience, too.