Journalist keenly probed the depraved in search of conscience

GITTA SERENY WRITER 13-3-1921 14-6-2012

GITTA SERENY

WRITER

13-3-1921 14-6-2012

GITTA Sereny, an Austrian-born British journalist whose work, which included portraits of Nazi war criminals and studies of youthful murderers, repeatedly and sometimes controversially sought to illuminate the wellsprings of evil, has died in Cambridge, England. She was 91.

Sereny was known for her tenacity and willingness to sit down with some of the most reviled figures of the era to conduct long, probing interviews sometimes spanning years that could prompt her subjects to reveal extraordinary things about themselves.

Among her best-known books are Into That Darkness (1974), about Franz Stangl, the commandant of the Sobibor and Treblinka extermination camps, who was responsible for the deaths of 900,000 people Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth (1995) and Cries Unheard: Why Children Kill, about Mary Bell, an Englishwoman who as a girl in the 1960s murdered two young boys. The book caused a furore when it was published in 1998.

Acclaimed by some reviewers and criticised by others, Sereny's books were as much psychological studies as historical. Few people if any, she often said, were born evil instead, she argued, they were made that way by traumatic conditions that could generally be located in childhood.

Throughout Sereny's writing, the questions that arose repeatedly were whether history's great malefactors were capable of genuine remorse, and whether, for them, there existed even the faint possibility of redemption.

Sereny interviewed Stangl for more than 60 hours in prison in Dusseldorf, where he was serving a life sentence. On the last day they met, Stangl, speaking of the Holocaust, told her, "In reality I share the guilt". He died less than 24 hours later.

The biography of Speer, Hitler's minister of armaments and war production, consumed Sereny for more than a decade. Over her many interviews with Speer, who had finished a 20-year sentence in Spandau Prison and was living in retirement, she grew to like him, a fact she acknowledged in her book.

However, she demonstrated that Speer, contrary to his claim that he had been ignorant of Hitler's plan for the mass extermination of Jews, knew about the Final Solution as early as 1943.

Cries Unheard was the second of two books Sereny wrote about Mary Bell. In 1968, Mary, one day shy of 11, strangled a neighbour boy aged four nine weeks later she strangled a three-year-old.

Bell's trial was a sensation in Britain. Her impassive demeanour caused the press to label her a cold-blooded incarnation of evil. Convicted of manslaughter, she spent 12 years in jail before being released in 1980. Sereny, who covered the trial for a London newspaper, wrote about the proceedings in the first of the two books, The Case of Mary Bell, published in 1972.

The second book centred on a series of interviews with Bell, who recounted prolonged childhood abuse at the hands of her mother, a prostitute, who was said to have forced the girl, from the age of four, to engage in sex acts with her clients.

Bell had long been one of the most despised people in Britain, and Sereny's book was fiercely criticised for its seemingly sympathetic portrayal of her. Sereny was also pilloried for paying Bell #50,000 by some accounts.

To critics who said she showed excessive sympathy for her subjects, she replied that her mandate was neither to condone nor condemn but simply to understand to penetrate a subject's protective carapace.

The daughter of a Hungarian father and a German mother, Sereny was born in Vienna. Her father died when she was about two, and she was reared by her mother, an actress. She was educated in England and Vienna, where she studied at the drama school founded by the noted actor and director Max Reinhardt. After Germany annexed Austria in 1938, she eventually made her way to France where she worked as a volunteer nurse with children displaced by the German occupation and later to the United States.

At war's end, Sereny returned to Europe as a welfare officer with the UN, trying to reunite child survivors of Dachau with their families. In 1948 she married Donald Honeyman, a Vogue photographer. A daughter, son and two grandchildren survive her.

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