Auschwitz was not a ‘death camp’

The German Trauma: Experiences and Reflections 1938-2001

The Times


By Gitta Sereny

Penguin, £8.99; 416 pp

ISBN 0140292632

  • Gitta Sereny has spent a lifetimes exploring the worst aspects of humanity, and has faced many terrible truths. Yet she has never lost her belief in the possibility of redemption. She talks to Erica Wagner


I am not surprised that her correspondents want to talk further with her — her books are powerful in that they are dialogues not only with her subjects but with her readers and herself. If she appears to have a high opinion of herself, she has the same opinion of her readers — but her trust that they will be able to be as intelligent and thoughtful as she is has not always been justified, especially in the case of Mary Bell. Her evident sympathy with the woman Bell had become (and her publishers’ payment of Bell for her time) gained her much opprobrium. Her ruthless desire to stick to the facts — that, say, Auschwitz was not a “death camp” — has not always won her friends. She is particularly scathing about the identification of Hitler’s evil with the death of the Jews and only the Jews. She deplores the use of the word “holocaust”, she says.

I deplore it because what happened to the Jews was the worst thing that was done — but it has now become the only thing. And that is totally wrong. If one wants to be disgustingly numerical, one would have to say that Hitler killed more Christians than Jews. But we don’t want to be like that. It’s all wrong. But if we concentrate entirely on what happened to the Jews, we cannot see its parallels — and you know many in the Jewish community refuse to see such parallels because they think it diminishes their suffering. But it’s not just terrible to kill Jews — it’s terrible to kill anybody. This whole thing of the murder of the Jews — we must never forget it, it is part of history, children as long as the world lasts must know that this happened — but we badly need to accept it now as part of a terrible history, not the terrible history. I don’t want anyone to think that I diminish it, I don’t diminish it. It was the worst thing. But it was not the only thing.”

Sticking to the facts is the only way to avoid playing into the hands of people such as David Irving. “Untruth always matters,” she writes, “and not just because it is unnecessary to lie when so much terrible truth is available. Every falsification, every error, every slick rewrite job is an advantage to the neo-Nazis.” She is puzzled, too, by what she perceives as a reluctance to confront the truth by those who seem to have the most interest in it: “Why on earth have all these people who made Auschwitz into a sacred cow … why didn’t they go and look at Treblinka (which was an extermination camp)? It was possible. There were survivors alive when all this started. Nobody did. It was an almost pathological concentration on this one place. A terrible place — but it was not an extermination camp.” Then she sighs; and suddenly the fierceness leaves her. “The distinctions are important,” she says more quietly. “But — death is death.”


The German Trauma: Experiences and Reflections 1938-2001 is published on September 6