Gitta Sereny, CBE (13 March 1921 – 14 June 2012) was an Austrian-British biographer, historian, and investigative journalist who came to be known for her interviews and profiles of controversial figures, including Mary Bell, who was convicted in 1968 of killing two children when she herself was a child, and Franz Stangl, the commandant of the Treblinka extermination camp.
|Born||13 March 1921|
|Died||14 June 2012 (aged 91)|
Cambridge, England, UK
|Occupation||Writer, historian, journalist|
|Subject||The Holocaust, child abuse, society|
|Notable works||The Case of Mary Bell: A Portrait of a Child Who Murdered (1972) |
Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth (1995)
|Notable awards||Duff Cooper Prize (1995) |
James Tait Black Memorial Prize (1995)
Stig Dagerman Prize (2002)
|Spouse||Don Honeyman (1948–2011)|
|Relatives||Ludwig von Mises (stepfather)|
Born and initially raised in Austria, she was the author of five books, including The Case of Mary Bell: A Portrait of a Child Who Murdered (1972) and Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth (1995).
Sereny was awarded the Duff Cooper Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for her book on Albert Speer in 1995, and the Stig Dagerman Prize in 2002. She was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2004 for services to journalism.
Sereny was born in Vienna, Austria in 1921. Her father was a Hungarian Protestant aristocrat, Ferdinand Serény, who died when she was two. Her mother was a former actress from Hamburg, Margit Herzfeld, of German background. Her stepfather was the economist Ludwig von Mises.
When she was thirteen, her train journey to a boarding school in the United Kingdom was delayed in Nuremberg where she attended one of the annual Nuremberg rallies. After writing about the rally for a class assignment she was given Mein Kampf to read by her teacher so she might be able to understand what she saw there. After the Nazi takeover of Austria in 1938, she moved to France, where she worked with orphans during the German occupation until she had to flee the country because of her connection to the French Resistance.
After World War II, she worked for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration with refugees in Allied-occupied Germany. Among her tasks was reuniting with their biological families children who had been kidnapped by the Nazis to be raised as "Aryans". This could be a traumatic experience because the children did not always remember their original family, but when she accompanied a train-load of such children back to Poland she saw the delight of the original family members at the restoration of the children.
She attended the Nuremberg Trials for four days in 1945 as an observer and it was here that she first saw Albert Speer about whom she would later write the book Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth. It was for this book that she was awarded the 1995 James Tait Black Memorial Prize. The book was also later adapted by David Edgar as the play Albert Speer and directed by Trevor Nunn at the National Theatre in 2000. The book even won the admiration of David Irving (see below), who wrote, "Minor flaws aside (I sent her eight pages of errors from prison), her biography of Albert Speer was brilliant. It was sent to me in that Austrian prison, and I could not put it down."
She married Don Honeyman in 1948 and moved to London where they raised their two children. Don Honeyman (who died 1 June 2011) was a photographer, who worked for Vogue, The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Times, among other publications. The poster of Che Guevara on a red background (1968) is one of his best known creations.
From the mid-sixties and throughout the 1970s she wrote extensively for The Daily Telegraph Magazine under the editorship of John Anstey. These articles were often about young people, the social services, children and their relationships with their parents and society. This led to her covering the trial of eleven-year-old Mary Bell (found guilty of murdering two children) and would further lead to her first investigative book on this case.
The Case of Mary Bell was first published in 1972 following Mary Bell's trial; in it Sereny interviewed her family, friends and the professionals involved in looking after Mary during her trial. This book was edited by Diana Athill who would also edit Sereny's Into That Darkness.
Into That Darkness (also following an initial article for the Telegraph magazine) was an examination of the guilt of Franz Stangl, the commandant of the Treblinka and Sobibor extermination camps. She spent 70 hours interviewing him in prison for the article and when she had finished he finally admitted his guilt; he died of a heart attack nineteen hours later.
Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth (1995) is a biographical work on Albert Speer, German minister of Armaments during World War II. In it, Sereny explores how much Speer knew about the Holocaust. During the Nuremberg trials, Speer had avoided a death sentence, claiming all the while that he knew nothing of the Holocaust. However, Sereny concludes that Speer must have known based on a letter he wrote to the Jewish community in South Africa (after the war), and the fact that his closest assistant attended the Wannsee Conference (where the details of the genocide of the Jews were worked out) who could not have failed to inform him about the proceedings.
In 1998, she was embroiled in a controversy in the British press when her second book on Mary Bell, Cries Unheard was published and she announced that she was sharing the publishing fee, from Macmillan Publishers, with Mary Bell for collaborating on the book. Sereny was initially criticized in the British press and by the British government, though the book quickly became, and remains, a standard text for professionals working with problem children.
Sereny wrote of her final book, The German Trauma (2002): "The nineteen chapters in this book, all intimately concerned with Germany before, during and since the end of the Third Reich, describe more or less sequentially what I saw and learned from 1938 to 1999, thus almost over a lifetime."
David Irving libel suitEdit
British Holocaust denier David Irving initiated a libel case against Sereny and the Guardian Media Group for two reviews in The Observer where she asserted he deliberately falsified the historical record in an attempt to rehabilitate the Nazis. Irving maintained a personal animosity for Sereny, whom he calls "that shriveled Nazi hunter", for successfully refuting his claims since the publication of his book Hitler's War. When, in 1977, Sereny cross-checked the source he cited for his assertion that Hitler knew nothing about the Final Solution, and therefore could not have ordered it, she found he had excised a caveat which would have contradicted his claim. "I know many of the same people as he does who were of Hitler's circle," Sereny said. "That is scary for him. He says we jostle at the same trough. The difference is that he loves that trough, and I don't... There is, I think, [for him] despair in all of this." Although the case did not go to court, the cost to the Guardian Media Group of preparing its legal defence amounted to £800,000.
Gitta Sereny died on 14 June 2012 at age 91 while in Addenbrooke's Hospital, Cambridge, after a long illness.
Her writings include:
- The Case of Mary Bell. Volume 158 of Pimlico (Series). United Kingdom: Random House. 13 February 1995. ISBN 9780712662970.
- Into That Darkness: from Mercy Killing to Mass Murder, a study of Franz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka (1974, second edition 1995)
- The Invisible Children: Child Prostitution in America, West Germany and Great Britain (1984)
- Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth (1995, 1996 paperback)
- Cries Unheard: The Story of Mary Bell (1998)
- The German Trauma: Experiences and Reflections, 1938-2001 (2002)
The second edition of The Case of Mary Bell contains an appendix on the murder of James Bulger.
- "Gitta Sereny". Telegraph. 18 Jun 2012. Retrieved 2012-06-18.
- My Life with Ludwig von Mises by Margit von Mises
- The legacy of Ludwig Von Mises by Peter J. Boettke, Peter T. Leeson, p. xiv
- Lynn H. Nicholas, Cruel World: The Children of Europe in the Nazi Web p 511 ISBN 0-679-77663-X
- "Albert Speer - Productions". National Theatre. Archived from the original on 16 June 2012. Retrieved 18 June 2012.
- Real History, and a Radical's Diary Entry for Monday, 18 June 2012, fpp.co.uk, accessed 25-08-14
- Mandy Honeyman. "Don Honeyman with the 1st Che poster he created | Flickr - Photo Sharing!". Flickr. Retrieved 2012-06-18.
- Neild, Barry. "Gitta Sereny dies at 91", The Guardian, 18 June 2012.
- Sereny, G. (1983). Into that darkness. 1st ed. New York: Vintage Books, p.14.
- "Newsmakers | April: Gitta Sereny". BBC News. 1998-12-22. Retrieved 2012-06-24.
- The German Trauma pp xi Introduction by Gitta Sereny
- Tim Adams (24 February 2002). "Memories are made of this". The Observer. Retrieved 28 September 2010.
- Cahal Milmo (2012-04-30). "Veteran journalist Gitta Sereny dies age 91 - News - People". The Independent. Retrieved 2012-06-18.
- Sereny, Gitta (2002). The healing wound : experience and reflections, Germany, 1938-2001 (Reprint ed.). New York, N.Y.: W.W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-32382-X.
- BBC biography
- Interview in Spike Magazine
- Stolen Children by Gitta Sereny
- Review of Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth in Foreign Affairs
- Two half-hour ABC interviews with Sereny about Speer and Mary Bell
- 1998 Interview with Gitta Sereny In the Psychiatrist's Chair, BBC, 21 June 2014
- My Years with Ludwig von Mises, Margit von Mises. Arlington House Publishers, NY. 1976 5 August 2014