Gitta Sereny
en

Gitta Sereny

Gitta Sereny was a journalist, biographer and historian. She passed away in England aged 91, following a long illness. Gitta attributed her fascination with evil to her own experiences of Nazism as a child of central Europe in the early 20th century. Hers was not a happy childhood. She was born in Vienna, the daughter of a beautiful Austrian actress, whom she later described as "without moral opinions", and a wealthy Hungarian landowner. Her father, Gyula, died when she was a child; her elder brother left home at 18 and disappeared from her life; Gitta herself was sent to Stonar House boarding school in Sandwich, Kent, an experience she remembered with some affection.In 1934, while changing trains in Nuremberg on a journey home from school, she witnessed the Nuremberg Rally and was profoundly moved by the beauty of the spectacle, joining in the crowd's ecstatic cheering. These favourable impressions of the Nazis survived both a reading of Mein Kampf and the 1938 Anschluss, when Hitler annexed a quiescent Austria. The grim realities of Nazism, however, soon began to affect her life in Vienna where she was, by then, a drama student.She later described seeing a Jewish doctor she knew well being forced to clean pavements with a toothbrush; the terror became more personal after her mother, Margit, with whom Gitta had a poor relationship, became engaged to Ludwig von Mises, the Jewish economist. Von Mises had left Austria for Switzerland, but a German friend tipped Margit off that the authorities planned to arrest her to oblige him to return. Margit promptly fled to Switzerland with her daughter.In Switzerland, Gitta was sent to a finishing school. Never accommodating to her mother's plans, she promptly absconded, first to London then to Paris. Margit and von Mises moved to the US. Gitta, eventually, was also obliged to flee, first across the Pyrenees to Spain, then to the US.She returned to Paris four months after the war ended, to join the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, working with orphans in a ravaged Europe. The framework of what was to be her life's work – the exploration of childhood trauma and the nature of evil – was in place. It was in postwar Paris, in 1948, that she met and married the photographer Don Honeyman, with whom she was to have a son and a daughter. Don, who died last year, was to prove a good humoured and profoundly supportive companion who accompanied Gitta through the long and painstaking research that became a hallmark of her work.She also reported on the trials in Germany of Third Reich functionaries, including concentration camp staff, such as Franz Stangl, the former commandant of Sobibor and Treblinka. . Her book on Stangl, Into That Darkness (1974), remains one of the best books on the Third Reich and established Gitta's reputation as an authority on the history of the period. Furthermore, her book ‘Albert Speer, His Battle With Truth’ (1995), later dramatised by David Edgar at the National Theatre, repeatedly challenges Speer's contention that he too was ignorant of the fate of the Jews under the regime he had served so faithfully.Gitta was frequently embattled, but rarely daunted. She fought a 20-year battle with the historian David Irving and was often targeted with fascist hate mail. Despite the grim nature of her subjects, Gitta was a warm and generous friend with a ready sense of humour, and she and Honeyman entertained frequently at their home in Chelsea, London. Despite her relentless psychological exploration of her subjects, she resisted all invitations to write her own autobiography, but in her late 70s she published a partial memoir in The German Trauma: Experiences and Reflections 1938-2001 (2001). She was appointed honorary CBE in 2003, for services to journalism.

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