The facts about what the Nazis did, all of which can be obtained elsewhere, are not what makes reading this book so essential, nor is it some kind of horrific fascination in learning of the psychological profile of a man who oversaw the deaths of somewhere between 750,000 and 1,200,000 almost exclusively Jewish people (chilling when you think the estimated death toll - horrific whichever number is correct - might be out by nearly half a million!). Sereny doesn’t seem to be solely interested in Stangl’s psychology; I believe she was actually attempting to give us a glimpse, some insight, into the man’s soul. He initially trained as a weaver before joining the police force in his native Austria. There is some argument about whether as a policeman, Stangl was an ‘illegal Nazi’ - he himself always denied it, but his wife and colleagues seem to believe he was very likely a Nazi member before the Anschluss. There seems to have existed a powerful drive in Stangl, not only to be good and efficient at his job, but also to ‘be someone’. Were these the character traits the Nazis looked for when they sought to enlist the ‘right’ man, at first to be an administrator at Hartheim where the Nazis began killing those who were physically and mentally impaired, then Sobibor extermination camp, and finally to run what was essentially a human abbatoir at Treblinka? There is nothing to suggest that Stangl was a sadistic monster; there were a number of such types at Treblinka, as testified to by the very few slave prisoners who survived the camp, but there is no evidence to implicate Stangl in personal acts of cruelty; he was it seems a loyal husband and loving father. Yet, he was also the man in charge of this highly-efficient conveyor-belt that delivered death on a previously unprecedented scale.
It is hard to imagine the efficiency of the extermination programme. Every morning trains would roll into Treblinka station, which had been mocked-up to look like a real train station with flower boxes and a fake painted station clock with hands that never moved (Stangl’s idea) to lull the new arrivals into a sense of calm - they probably imagined upon seeing it, that nothing bad was going to happen to them, that they were simply going to be processed and then assigned some work. They were divided according to gender, asked to strip naked but told to keep their valuables and papers with them (again creating a false sense of security), they were then led into the ‘shower block’, where they were subsequently gassed with monoxide provided by diesel engines. The elderly and infirm were taken to the hospital - an entirely fake building complete with a red cross. Here they were ordered to strip, told to sit on a wall above a constantly burning pit, and shot. Two hours, and every single human being who had arrived on the morning transports was dead. Generally, by midday, all the killing was done, the remainder of the day was then dedicated to the disposal of corpses in open-air crematoria known as ‘roasts’. At least, this was the scenario for days delivering only western Jews to Treblinka; those arriving from the east in cattle trucks were herded viciously by sadistic guards who beat and whipped them into hysteria and ferociously drove them like animals through their final terror-stricken hours. One can only assume this difference in treatment was part of some sick Nazi ideology, whereby German Jews had, at the very least, been subjected to the improving influence of western civilisation, and were therefore far superior to those from the uncivilised east.
Franz Stangl, Kommandant of Treblinka, was, I believe, the only Nazi in charge of such an institution to be interviewed in this way. It therefore stands as a unique record. Sereny interviewed him for a total of seventy hours between April 2 and June 27, 1971, in Dusseldorf prison. He died only nineteen hours after her final interview. To the very last Stangl maintained, “My conscience is clear about what I did, myself ... I have never intentionally hurt anyone, myself.”
Sereny however, who was, after all, there in the room with Stangl, suggests that something had fundamentally changed in him during the course of the interviews:
For the first time, in all these many days, I had given him no help. There was no more time. He gripped the table with both hands as if he was holding on to it. “But I was there,” he said then, in a curiously dry tone of resignation. These few sentences had taken almost half an hour to pronounce. “So yes,” he said finally, very quietly, “In reality I share the guilt ... my guilt ... only now in these talks ... now that I have talked about it all for the first time ...” he stopped.
He had pronounced the words “my guilt”: but more than the words, the finality of it was in the sagging of his body, and on his face.
After more than a minute he started again, a half-hearted attempt, in a dull voice. “My guilt,” he said, “is that I am still here. That is my guilt.”
Whilst I was reading this book, I attended the funeral of a friend, and couldn’t help imagining, as I looked at the fifty-odd people standing there at the graveside, that every morning at Treblinka, at least a hundred times that number had perished. The effort involved in disposing of that many corpses simply stuns my mental faculties. Yet, for me, it is not good enough to consign this episode to the past and to label those who took part as evil men with a heavy line drawn underneath; if we fail to let the mistakes of the past guide us, we shall forever be in danger of repeating them. When politicians start to whip up division and hatred; when corporate employees allow themselves to carry out the wishes of their boards of directors at the expense, life and livelihood of the poor and disenfranchised, or allow misinformation to masquerade as the truth; then we must all be very careful. Moral integrity, it seems, can so easily be compromised