A witness to German cruelty makes the case that Germans are adequately confronting their past.
“Germany, always vulnerable to charges of xenophobia, has been forced by history to be Europe’s most open society,” writes journalist Sereny (Cries Unheard, 1999, etc.). This is as much a synopsis of her earlier works on various Nazis as a chronicle of growing up during WWII, and here, the author argues that Germany’s character has been forever changed—in some sense for the better—by the terrors of Hitler’s regime. Having written about Franz Stangl, commandant of Treblinka, and Albert Speer, Hitler’s minister of armaments and war production, Austria-born Sereny has come into contact with Germans of all stripes, from random teenagers to Leni Riefenstahl, the great documentary filmmaker. She’s discovered that both the young and old are grappling with the Holocaust and Germany’s role in the war, the former out of curiosity, the latter out of a sense of duty. But both groups also complain that the middle-aged have chosen to repress their nation’s history. This silence, and the critics’ reactions to it, constitutes the wound that is healing Germany by being a cause for debate. Between that silence and those who would speak openly about the past lies a string of other concerns. Sereny tells of her experiences tracking down babies kidnapped from territories conquered by Germans, for example, using those experiences to show how ordinary folks fooled themselves into thinking nothing was wrong with raising and loving stolen children. Sereny never abstracts the issue of memory and the horrors of war. Her stories are always personal: the Nazi official who can’t admit to knowing about the Final Solution, despite his superhuman grasp of government affairs; the member of the French resistance who insists Sereny have a bath before leaving France; the regular German soldiers who gladly share their meal with her as she crosses the Pyrennes.
A surprisingly novel addition to a crowded field of scholarship.