“Into That Darkness”

The first book I read this year was Gitta Sereny’s ‘Into That Darkness’ which tells the tale of Franz Stangl, one of only 4 men who commanded Nazi Extermination camps, Sobibor and Treblinka in his case. Gitta Sereny conducted a series of interviews with him while he was incarcerated in a Dusseldorf prison in 1971. She suffuses her narrative with many other interviews (with both survivors and perpetrators) and historical research, to create as rich and relevant context to Franz Stangl’s story as possible. It has been a fascinating and at the same time a shocking read.. As was expected, Stangl had created many rationalisations for his behaviour, but in the end Gitta Sereny managed to get him to get him to talk more honestly about his own role:

Perhaps in the end it was easier for her husband to tell the truth because, I think, he knew he would die when he had told it. The last day I spent with Stangl was Sunday, June 27, 1971. (…)

As my time for these talks was running out and I only intended coming back once more — the following Tuesday for an hour or two, to recapitulate on anything important before flying back to London — the prison governor had said I could stay later than usual this Sunday. We spend four hours that afternoon, going back over many questions we had discussed before. (…)

“Do you think”, I finally asked — it had become very late — “that that time in Poland taught you anything?”
“Yes,” he said, his voice once again calm and pensive — the increasing abruptness of these metamorphoses becoming ever more disconcerting. “That everything human has its origins in human weakness.”
“You said before that you thought perhaps the Jews were ‘meant’ to have this ‘enormous jolt’: when you say ‘meant to’ — are you speaking of God?”
“What is God?”
“God is everything higher which I cannot understand but only believe.”
The awful distortion in his thinking had shown up time after time as we had talked. And now here it was again, as we came to the end of these talks.
“Was God in Treblinka?”
“Yes,” he said. “Otherwise, how could it have happened?”
“But isn’t God good?”
“No,” he said slowly, “I wouldn’t say that. He is good and bad. But then, laws are made by men; and faith in God too depends on men — so that doesn’t prove much of anything, does it? The only thing is, there are things which are inexplicable by science, so there must be something beyond man. Tell me though, if a man has a goal he calls God, what can he do to achieve it? Do you know?”
“Don’t you think it differs for each man? In your case, could it be to seek truth?”
“Well, to face up to yourself? Perhaps as a start, just about what you have been trying to do in these past weeks?”
His immediate response was automatic, and automatically unyielding. “My conscience is clear about what I did, myself,” he said, in the same stiffly spoken words het had used countless times at his trial, and in the past weeks, when we had always come back to this subject, over and over again. But this time I said nothing. He paused and waited, but the room remained silent.
“I have never intentionally hurt anyone, myself,” he said, with a different, less incisive emphasis, and waited again — for a long time. 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 and tired 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…. Because my 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.”
“Still here?”
“I should have died. That was my guilt.”
“Do you mean you should have died, or you should have had the courage to die?”
“You can put it like that,” he said, vaguely, sounding tired now.
“Well, you say that now. But then?”
“That is true,” he said slowly, perhaps deliberately misinterpreting my question. “I did have another twenty years — twenty good years. But believe me, now I would have preferred to die rather than this…” He looked around the little prison room. “I have no more hope,” he said then, in a factual tone of voice; and continued, just as quietly: “And anyway — it is enough now. I want to carry through these talks we are having and then — let it be finished. Let there be an end.”

(…) Stangl died nineteen hours later, just afternoon the next day, Monday, of heart failure. He had seen no one since I left him except a prison officer who had taken the food trolley around.

It is fascinating (and terrible…) to contrast Stangl’s hopelessness, when his past had finally caught up with him, and he had realised he would die in prison and he would never return to the life he had with his family in Brazil, even if he would have gotten out of prison had he lived, to just one example of hopelessness of a Treblinka victim. Hans Freund, who died in the Treblinka Uprising of August 2nd, 1943, as recalled by survivor Richard Glazar:

And suddenly Hans Freund said, ‘We aren’t human beings anymore …..’ It was something we had ceased to — or never did — think about. Certainly we had never talked about it; regret for the loss of one’s sensitivity and compassion was something one just couldn’t afford, just as one couldn’t afford remembering those we had loved. But that night was different…

“‘I can only think of my wife and boy,’ said Hans, who had never, with a word, spoken of his young wife and small boy from the day he arrived. ‘I never felt anything that first night after we had come. There they were — on the other side of that wall — dead, but I felt nothing. Only the next morning, my brain and stomach began to burn, like acid; I remember hearing about people who could feel everything inside but couldn’t move; that was what I felt. My little boy had curly hair and soft skin — soft on his cheeks like on his bottom — that same smooth soft skin. When we got off the train, he said he was cold, and I said to his mother, “I hope he won’t catch a cold.” A cold. When they separated us he waved to me….'”

‘Into that Darkness’ has been a fascinating read. Excerpts of this book are quoted in many of the historical books on the holocaust. To get into the mind (rationalizations and all) of someone who supervised the execution of about 900,000 people in Treblinka alone (according to conservative estimates..) and afterwards was able to to live a normal family life (according to his children and his wife, he was a good father and husband), is terrifying to think about, I think.

In the words of Alexandr Solzhenitsyn (from his masterpiece ‘The Gulag Archipelago’):

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

During the life of any heart this line keeps changing place; sometimes it is squeezed one way by exuberant evil and sometimes it shifts to allow enough space for good to flourish. One and the same human being is, at various ages, under various circumstances, a totally different human being. At times he is close to being a devil, at times to sainthood. But his name doesn’t change, and to that name we ascribe the whole lot, good and evil.

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