Despite having a swastika on the cover, this was a very tame book. If you want a book about the history of concentration camps - this isn’t the right book for you*. If you want character study of one of the men who enabled the extermination of humans to continue in Nazi Germany, this is the book you’re looking for.
Gitta Sereny interviews a key character, Franz Stangl, who is a part of the extermination camps. He actually becomes the Commandant of Treblinka. She talks to him while he was in prison. She doesn’t have an aggressive style of questioning. She’s not interrogating him to find out ‘if he did it’ because he’s already in prison for ‘doing it’. She instead wants to find out what went on in his mind. How did he justify being a part of the death camps? How did it happen? Was it a conscious choice? What was it like working in that environment? How did that make him feel? Would he have done things differently if he could? How did he escape from Germany after the war?
Along with long interviews with Stangl, the author also interweaves interviews with Stangl’s wife, other family members, and other SS soldiers. Sometimes these other people definitely show that Stangl is lying but other times it just shows how other people interpreted and found different ways to cope with the awful war.
At the end of the book, you don’t want to say your empathize with Stangl, but you can understand how he got into some of this and how it’s difficult for us who didn’t live through it all to judge him. You do get a sense that Stangl does really care for his wife and children. He also really was conscious of how they saw him. He knew deep down he was doing terrible things, but didn’t take a stand. It also makes you wonder, if one Stangl did refuse to do his duty, would’ve they just kept on killing with another Commandant? How many people would’ve it taken to refuse to do the work for something to change?
A wholly fascinating side journey that he author takes us through is how much the Pope and the Vatican knew about the killings in Poland. Why didn’t they speak up? There were a few brave priests who tried to do something but the Pope was almost wholly silent on the matter. She brings forth some pretty damning evidence of this.
This also leads to the end of the book where the author asks about how Stangl escaped Europe with the help of some Catholic priests from the Vatican. It seems the Vatican knew, or looked the other way, while Nazi war criminals were being spirited out to South America.
I don’t know how I feel about this book but it does give a sense of how an SS officer moved through the ranks, and lived through World War 2. It showed me how weak the Vatican was in standing up to Hitler. It also revealed more about the euthanasia program, the killing of cripples and mentally handicapped people, as a ’test’ for full-blown death camps.
Some have criticized this book for not exploring the death camps in greater detail but that isn’t the focus of this book. This book is focused on one man and his conscience. For more about the gruesome concentration camp you should certainly read KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps by Nikolaus Wachsmann*.
Book #39 in my 2022 Reading Challenge