Gitta Sereny

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Gitta Sereny , CBE (born March 13, 1921 in Vienna , Austria ; † June 14, 2012 in Cambridge , England ) was a British biographer , historian and freelance journalist with German - Hungarian roots. She became known for her profound examination of the psyche of violent and Holocaust perpetrators. In extensive interviews, Sereny researched the biographies of the child murderer Mary Bell and the Nazi perpetrators Franz Stangl and Albert Speer . In 2004 she was awarded the title of Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her journalistic achievements .


Childhood and youth

Gitta Sereny was the daughter of the Hungarian nobleman Ferdinand Sereny († 1923) and his German wife Margit (Grete) Herzfeld (* July 2, 1890; † June 25, 1993), an actress from Hamburg with Jewish ancestors. She had an older brother, Guido Sereny. Sereny spent most of her childhood in Austria and England. Her Anglophile father died when she was two years old. This decreed that his children should be educated at an English school. As a young girl, Sereny therefore attended Stonar House boarding school in Sandwich ( Kent ), where she learned English.

In 1934, when she was on the train ride back to the boarding school from where she lived in Vienna, the train came to a halt in Nuremberg due to a breakdown. There the young Sereny witnessed a party rally . She described the event in a school essay as the happiest day of her vacation. Then she received the English translation of " Mein Kampf " from her teacher and read it. Thus Sereny came into conscious contact with National Socialism for the first time, and he fascinated her, but “... without transforming her into a supporter of the Nazi regime. Rather, the experience was rooted in her urge to trace the fascination of evil. ”At that time, Sereny did not know that Albert Speer, whose biography she would later analyze, was also present at this congress.

She also attended the Realgymnasium and Lyzeum Luithlen in Vienna. Sereny left school at the age of fourteen and took acting classes at the Max Reinhardt Seminar in Vienna to follow in her mother's footsteps. In addition to acting lessons, she also had fencing and dance lessons there.

Sereny's mother became engaged to the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises shortly before the annexation of Austria to the German Reich and married him in 1938. Mises was of Jewish descent and lived in Geneva . Sereny's mother received threats because of her husband's Jewish origins, whereupon she and Sereny fled to live with him in Switzerland. There Sereny attended boarding school near Lausanne. She was dissatisfied with this situation and decided to leave Geneva without the consent of her mother and stepfather and go to London. Sereny applied for a place at the Old Vic Theater School and auditioned for the Hungarian-British film producer Alexander Korda . Both were unsuccessful.


After the failures in London, Sereny went to Paris in 1938. She attended courses at the Sorbonne University in Paris and became a student of the French actress Madeleine Milhaud . Sereny developed a great passion for France. After the invasion of the Wehrmacht in 1940 in France Sereny worked until 1941 at a Catholic charity and took care of parentless children in Paris and the Loire region. During this time she lived in a castle in Villandry , together with the children and other helpers. In France, Sereny also had contacts with members of the Resistance and, thanks to a warning from a German soldier, was able to flee to Paris, then across the Pyrenees to Spain and then to the USA .


Sereny lived in the USA for the next three years. For the first year and a half she worked on war reconnaissance projects. She traveled through the USA and educated school and university students about the war in Europe. Shortly before the end of the war, Sereny returned to Germany. From 1945 she worked for the UNRRA (aid and rehabilitation organization of the United Nations) as a child welfare worker in “displaced persons” camps in southern Germany. For two weeks, she looked after children who had been imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp . Looking back, Sereny remembered: "The desire, yes the need to find out how all this could happen, grew stronger day by day."

In 1947 Sereny returned to France and lived in Paris. There she met her future husband, the American photographer Don Honeyman, who worked for Vogue and is best known today for his famous Che Guevara poster. In 1949 the couple married. Because of Honeyman's work as a Vogue photographer, the couple moved several times. So they moved from France to London and in 1952 to New York City , where Sereny wrote her first book, The Medallion , a novel. The Serenys had lived in London with their two children, Christopher and Amanda Honeyman, since the early 1960s. During this time, Gitta Sereny worked on other novels and did not become a professional journalist until 1966. In the years that followed, Sereny began analyzing biographies. It dealt primarily with two topics: Violent children and Nazi perpetrators. In the last few years of her life, Sereny wrote an autobiography that she never finished. After a protracted illness, she died on June 14, 2012 at the age of 91 in Cambridge.

Journalistic activity

Although Sereny had no journalistic training, she wrote for various newspapers and magazines from the mid- 1960s . She wrote her first professional article in 1966 for the Daily Telegraph Magazine . A year later, Sereny was commissioned by the magazine's editor-in-chief to write a series of articles on the Nazi trials , which she accompanied journalistically from 1967 to 1970. For a short time she was also present as an observer at the Nuremberg trials . Since then she has dealt with the psyche of the Nazi perpetrators. During the trials, Sereny came into contact with Franz Stangl , the camp commandant of the Treblinka extermination camp , whose biography she later examined. In 1971 her first report on him appeared in the Daily Telegraph Magazine. In 1977 she received the offer to write freelance for the Sunday Times and accepted it. She has also written for The Times , The Independent , Die Zeit and Le Nouvel Observateur magazine .

Working with violent criminals

The Mary Bell case

Sereny wrote her first psychogram on child murderer Mary Bell , who was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of two boys at the age of eleven . In December 1968 she attended the trial of Mary Bell in Newcastle on the Tyne and reported on it in the Daily Telegraph Magazine. Sereny not only saw the cruelty of the crime, but was primarily interested in its background and causes. As in her later analyzes, she “sought a conversation with the perpetrators and questioned them with inquisitorial accuracy, without evaluating their deeds and crimes.”

Sereny began researching Mary Bell's biography a few months after the trial. She observed them for years and interviewed officials, neighbors and relatives of Mary Bell about the case. In 1972 Sereny published the book The case of Mary Bell: A Portrait of a Child Who Murdered , which was published in 1978 under the title “The Case of Mary Bell. Ein Kind Mordet ”was translated into German. Years later, her book Cries Unheard followed , in which she expanded her original publication to include interviews with Mary Bell, who has since been released from prison. The book caused quite a stir in the English media.

The Franz Stangl case

Similar to when writing Mary Bell's biography, Sereny also proceeded with regard to the Nazi perpetrator Franz Stangl , who was convicted of aiding and abetting the murder of 900,000 people. She had her first conversation with Stangl in 1971, when he was already in prison. In total, Sereny spoke to the former camp commandant for over seventy hours, spread over nine weeks. In addition to the interviews with Stangl, she had conversations with former SS guards, with survivors of the extermination camps in Sobibor and Treblinka , where Stangl worked as a camp commandant, and with other contemporary witnesses and relatives of Stangl. In 1979 Sereny published the biography Am Abgrund. A conscience research (Into that Darkness) in German version. Stangl died of a heart attack nineteen hours after the last interview with Sereny.

The Albert Speer case

In 1995, Sereny published Albert Speer's biography , The Wrestling with Truth. Albert Speer and the German trauma. Sereny first met Speer at the Nuremberg Trials in 1946 . Decades later, in 1977, long after serving his sentence, Speer got in touch with Sereny through a letter. He thanked Sereny for an article in the Sunday Times . The article dealt with the assertions of British revisionist David Irving that Hitler knew nothing about the extermination of the Jews. In a second letter, Speer invited Sereny to stay with him. In 1978 Sereny finally began writing a portrait of Speer for the Sunday Times. From then on, Sereny and Speer stayed in contact until his death in 1981. The biography Albert Speer emerged from countless conversations in 1995 : His battle with truth. According to the current state of knowledge, this biography must be viewed critically. In 2017 the Munich historian Magnus Brechtken published his biography of Albert Speer: "Albert Speer, a German career". Brechtken is the first historian who has worked intensively in archives on Speer and has thus been able to uncover his lies piece by piece. He certifies (p. 547) Sereny to have worked on the basis of a confirmation bias , i. H. To have left out everything that didn't fit into her preconceived positive spear image.

Awards and honors

1995: The Duff Cooper Prize for Albert Speer: His battle with truth

2002: Stig Dagerman Prize

2004: Commander of the Order of the British Empire in recognition of her contribution to German-British relations.

Journalistic work

Literary work



  • In the abyss. A conscience research. Conversations with Franz Stangl, Commandant of Treblinka, a. a. Ullstein, Frankfurt am Main / Berlin 1979, ISBN 3-548-34024-5 .
  • In the abyss. Conversations with the executioner. Revised new edition. Piper, Munich 1995, ISBN 3-492-11867-4 .
  • The German trauma. A healing wound. Autobiography, translated from English by Rudolf Hermstein. Bertelsmann, Munich 2002, ISBN 3-570-00558-5 . (Review:)
  • Wrestling with the truth. Albert Speer and the German trauma. Translated from English by Helmut Dierlamm, Kindler, Munich 1995, ISBN 3-463-40258-0 .
  • A child murders. The Mary Bell case. Fischer-Taschenbuch-Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1980, ISBN 3-596-26721-8 .
  • Children murder children. The Mary Bell case. Extended and edited new edition. Rowohlt, Reinbek near Hamburg 1995, ISBN 3-499-19699-9 .
  • Screams that nobody hears. The life story of Mary Bell who killed as a child. Bechtermünz, Augsburg 2001, ISBN 3-8289-6970-4 .


Sereny's book Am Abgrund served the playwright Robert David MacDonald as the basis for his play The Last Judgment .

Literature on Gitta Sereny

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. a b c d Gitta Sereny b. 13 March 1921 , Rodovid, free, multilingual genealogy
  2. a b Barry Neild: Gitta Sereny dies at 91 , The Guardian , June 18, 2012.
  3. ^ Jörg Guido Hülsmann: The Valentine Story of Ludwig and Margit von Mises. Mises Institute , April 2, 2008, accessed June 13, 2020 (excerpted from chapters 12 and 14 of " Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism ").
  4. Margit Herzfeld , Rodovid
  5. a b Aleks Sierz: My best teacher. In: Times Educational Supplement - TES Magazine. October 20, 2000, accessed June 12, 2020 .
  6. a b c Jacques Schuster : The woman who exposed the essence of Albert Speer. In: The world . June 20, 2012.
  7. Sereny, Das deutsche Trauma , 2002, p. 25.
  8. Margit Herzfeld , Rodovid
  9. Sereny 2002, p. 33ff.
  10. Sereny 2002, p. 33 ff.
  11. ^ "Gitta Sereny," The Telegraph, June 18, 2012.
  12. Sereny 2002, p. 32f.
  13. Sereny 2002, p. 34.
  14. Sereny 2002, p. 37ff.
  15. Serey 2002, p. 48 f.
  16. Sereny 2002, p. 50.
  17. a b c Sereny, Das deutsche Trauma , 2002, p. 87.
  18. Don Honeyman's Biography , Flickr
  19. a b c Sereny, Das deutsche Trauma , 2002, p. 88
  20. ^ Cahal Milmo: Veteran journalist Gitta Sereny dies age 91. In: The Independent . June 18, 2012.
  21. Sereny 1995, pp. 9f.
  22. Sereny 2002, p. 93.
  23. Sereny 1980, p. 11.
  24. Sereny 1980, pp. 14f.
  25. Sereny 1980, pp. 14f.
  26. "Review of 1998. April: Gitta Sereny," BBC News, December 22, 1998.
  27. Sereny 1995, p. 11.
  28. Sereny 1995, p. 14f.
  29. Sereny 2002, pp. 356 ff.
  30. Sereny 2002, pp. 359f.
  31. ^ The Duff Cooper Prize
  32. ^ Stig Dagerman Prize
  33. Review of Gitta Sereny: “Das deutsche Trauma. A healing wound ” , Hans Schulz, May 2002.
  34. Felix Bloch heirs