"The German Trauma"
Back to Table of Contents >

‘Halali’ is the German hunter’s traditional signal to announce the end of gaming. Josef von Eichendorff’s poems and Carl Maria von Weber’s lyrics are full of ‘Halalis’, some boastful, some mourning.

Until only a few years ago, ‘Halali’ was the name of a restaurant in Munich’s Schoenfeldstrasse – a narrow little road linking the Consulate General of the USA, opposite the Englishergarten, to the Feldherrenhalle.

If you were so inclined, you could in those years, at a given hour and day of the month, meet here a group of mainly elderly ladies – having coffee, cakes and later Enzian, Himbeergeist or kindred spirits. Drunk by kindred spirits – the group might include the widow of Baldur von Schirach, the daughter of a Gauleiter from Nuremberg, one of Hitler’s former secretaries, the aide-de-camp of an SS-General now in Latin America. In short, some of the repenting and less repenting leftover brass – or scrap – of the Third Reich’s Wahlverwandschaften, whose relationships were forged in the late Twenties and Thirties and tested over the war years and beyond.

The meetings mostly started in a subdued mood, picked up speed, and often ended on an almost metallic note of conflict. For instance, shortly before her death, Winifred Wagner accused Frau von Schirach of having weakened in the worship of their common idol.

Winifred Wagner, daughter-in-law of the composer, wasn’t a regular attendant. She’d send the odd letter though. And she’d sign it – as she signed all letters to her more intimate circle of friends – with the three capital letters ‘U’, ‘S’, and ‘A’. Which stood for ‘Unser Seliger Adolf’ (Our Blessed Adolf).

These goings-on in Schoenfeldstrasse would be scenes after the heart, or at least the curiosity of Gitta Sereny – born in Vienna in 1923 and the author of (among others) Cries Unheard (1998), Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth (1995) and Into That Darkness (1974).

Since 1966, she has been leading us into the pandemonium of concentration and extermination camps during the Third Reich. Her dramatis personae are – to mention only a few – monsters like Odilo Globocnik, who conducted the programme for the extermination of the Jews in Poland; Franz Stangl, Kommandant first of the camp in Sobibor, later in Treblinka; and demi-gods of the Reich like Albert Speer. Mrs Sereny has also kept a watchful eye on fellow-travellers and turncoats, on fortune hunters and guilty bystanders, also virtuosi of suppressed memory like Kurt Waldheim, former President of Austria. (The standard Waldheim joke: he did not recollect having been himself a young member of a cavalry unit of the SA, but conceded that his horse might have been.)

The nineteen essays of this collection have all been published before. Gitta Sereny has revised them and added forewords and afterthoughts. Resisting the temptation of hindsight, she has, I think, left her original texts intact – with one notable exception. This is generous and highly commendable. It allows us to follow an intellectual and emotional development – and even keeps some of the author’s minor misconceptions of the time fresh and alive. The exception concerns her role in publishing the Hitler ‘diaries’ by The Sunday Times in the early 80s. Gitta Sereny accepts not even a part of the blame for failing to see through the cunning of the forgers. And she seeks to refocus our attention onto the wider context of the scam. The scam was masterminded, she tells us, by a ‘Mr X’, who ran a General Gun Store in Karlsruhe. He also belonged to an Indianer (Red Indian) club. He was interested in Underwater Exploration. He recruited his minions in a particular Karlsruhe bar. So much for Mr X’s anonymity: in my text at one point, he is named. The entire plot, we learn, was concocted by the HIAG organisation, a kind of old age pension and relief fund for former members of the NSDAP.

So what? Everyone in these transactions knew where the money would end up – or they knew nothing about the market for militaria, one of the euphemisms for Third Reich memorabilia.

Why didn’t Gitta Sereny simply admit that the whole episode was just another instance of greed triumphing over reason? Had the ‘Diaries’ really been authentic, why the haste? Why the competition over deadlines? Why deny that Hitler has always been one of the hottest commodities in publishing?

There are a few more blind spots in The German Trauma, more apparent perhaps to the German reader: the more or less American-style protest movements in the later 60s are events she hardly notices, preoccupied as she is with the authoritarian features of German society. Yet, in all western Europe, it was Berlin that – to borrow a metaphor from Leni Riefensthal – took over the torch from Berkeley. The famous May ’68 in France did not precede the demonstrations in Germany. Les évènements followed. And who would accuse the French of being authoritarian? But you can’t keep tabs on every social movement.

The German Trauma is thus an extremely readable autobiography raisonnée – a tribute to Gitta Sereny as a splendid and courageous investigator, a person who can listen to what is being said and to what is left unsaid. She is a person, furthermore, who can make people talk about things they’ve never wanted to talk about before. Her interview records of the bizarre moral arguments deployed by Franz Stangl and the like will be exemplary for historians, criminologists or their colleagues in the Department of Ethics teaching courses on The Variety of Moral Discourse.

I’m also touched by her unwillingness to sacrifice some of her friends and her determination to let them remain here as symbols or tokens of her way to understand what has been going on in West Germany after 1945. But allow me to disagree in two cases: The German film-director Hans Jurgen Syberberg quite rightly receives special mention for his film on Winifred Wagner and her lifelong devotion to ‘der Wolf’, as Hitler was then called by the Wagner family in Wahnfried. Yet Syberberg, quite wrongly, also receives lavish praise for the films that preceded and followed his documentary on Siegfried’s widow. Confessions of Winifred Wagner was outstanding less for its director’s art than for its ‘camera-work’. Syberberg’s cameraman, Dietrich Lohmann, tricked Mrs Wagner into her confessions. He pretended the camera had long stopped rolling. Hence all those authentic, revealing and emetic statements about her involvement with Hitler. Secondly, Winifred Wagner’s grandson, the fiercely iconoclastic Gottfried, discovered in his father’s attic some long forgotten, tucked away rolls of documentary film of the Führer at Bayreuth. Gottfried happily allowed Syberberg to use this footage. Both actions, Gottfried’s and Lohmann’s, are morally dubious. But how lucky can you get as a director?

Syberberg’s films on Ludwig II, mad king of Bavaria, on the writer Karl May and, most of all, on Hitler were boring flops – not because, as Gitta Sereny seems inclined to believe, the critical reception was negative, nor because ‘the Germans rejected their part in Hitler’. Syberberg simply hadn’t the courage to cope with emotions. To the chagrin of his audience, he only endlessly quoted emotions. He clearly knew that a great part of the appeal of Fascism was aesthetic. By then we all knew that from reading Walter Benjamin. Benjamin was our prophet in hindsight. But for sensual confirmation we turned to artists like Visconti. He showed us the seductive force of beautifully cut uniforms, of choreographed troops, of the demonstration of brute force. And on a more local level, there was Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose plays and films were intimate portraits of a society with an almost autistic past.

This film-motif is certainly not germane to the book’s central thrust, but it allows us a glimpse of the mythmaking so vital to understanding what happened before and after 1945.

With Leni Riefenstahl, another ‘hero’ of The German Trauma, Gitta Sereny understandably takes a much harsher line. Riefenstahl, incidentally, suffered the same fate as Winifred Wagner. Not long ago, she was interviewed about her role in the aesthetic glorification of the Third Reich, particularly the Party Convention in Nuremberg. She, too, was unaware of a lens and a microphone that hadn’t been turned off. The unpleasing result, without a shred of camouflage, confirms the portrait Gitta Sereny had drawn years ago.

But when Gitta Sereny sets out to describe or explain ‘the German character’ this German reviewer began to stir a little uneasily. Not to question, belittle or even deny the degree of the crimes committed in the name of the Grossdeutsches Reich. But does it make sense to revive the concept of Nationalcharakter, first conceived as a dream in the Romantic movement at a time when Germany didn’t even exist? Can Franz Stangl, an Austrian, Albert Speer, a German, Ivan Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian, to name three of Sereny’s protagonists, be defined by a common set of cultural values? – except that they believed in strict hierarchical order and were almost entirely free of moral considerations?

Intellectuals in Germany have had embittered discussions about the uniqueness of our country’s historical guilt. On the one hand, the claim not to be unique invited loathsome relativism: the Soviet gulags were equally bad/worse/only a little less cruel than German concentration camps; ethnocide is not a German invention; more people died under communist rule, etc. Uniqueness, on the other hand, would imply that only Germans can commit certain atrocities. Or that the particular historical constellations responsible were unique and can never again converge – that those deadly Wahlverwandschaften would never be formed again. Once for all, Europe, the world, would be safe from National Socialism.

To an untrained ear these discussions can sound absurdly academic, but in certain historical moments, they gained, as Gitta Sereny’s title suggests, a profound political importance. Take the most recent case of Germany’s involvement in NATO’s air-strikes against former Yugoslavia in Serbia and Kosovo. Arguments for and against the intervention were all based on Germany’s historical guilt. ‘There’s a moral obligation for Germans to defend victims of ethnical cleansing’, cried the supporters of the war. ‘Never again shall a German soldier march on Yugoslav territory’, cried their opponents.

In her philosophical remarks, Gitta Sereny is an optimistic believer in the moral forces of education and ‘enlightenment’ by the public media. This is brave. As she knows, this project is less Kant than Candide. For most of the Neo-Nazis one meets these days, in Germany, in the US or elsewhere – and Mrs Sereny must have met more than I have – boast of Hitler and his henchmens’ despicable deeds. Denial is rare. Sceptics can turn their attention to the more outspoken Website-pages in the Interet.

But since Neonazis are only a tiny, maybe dangerous, certainly demented minority, my caveat is not an argument against enlightenment. Nor is it an argument against this book which in a formidable way defends memory against forgetting. The German Trauma does justice – in the word’s true sense – to many foes of human dignity. Much more it is a tribute to the victims and their wakeful anguish.

* * * *

The last time I heard the word ‘Halali’ was two weeks ago at an auction in Munich. Among the items in the autograph section the catalogue named an exercise book of the then twelve year old Heinrich Himmler. My neighbour, having secured the treasured object for several thousand Deutschmarks made a short entry in his shopping list – and muttered a joyful ‘Halali’.


'Arete is a journal as exquisite in its execution as in its intentions.'
John Updike

'Vous m’avez donné un grand plaisir … votre revue m’est très sympathique et proche.'
Milan Kundera