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Gitta Sereny

Writer who spent her life interviewing Nazis and child killers in an effort to understand the nature and cause of evil

GITTA Sereny, the author who died on June 14 aged 91, was celebrated for her detailed studies of iniquity. She chose for her subject the sort of perpetrators of "evil" other writers feared to touch -- child murderer Mary Bell and the killers of James Bulger, Nazi architect Albert Speer and Treblinka commandant Franz Stangl.

Her attempts to explain why such people committed monstrous acts led some to accuse her of being more sympathetic to the villains than to their victims. Others took issue with her rejection of the concept of evil, and her claim that the root causes of terrible acts can usually be found in childhood trauma.

Her book on Albert Speer, though widely acclaimed, caused some to say she must be a Nazi sympathiser. But it was with the events surrounding the publication of Cries Unheard (1998), about child murderer Mary Bell, that public opinion became most frenzied. In 1972, Gitta Sereny had published The Case Of Mary Bell, which chronicled the trial of the 11-year-old Tyneside girl convicted in 1968 for the murder of two boys, aged three and four. Over the years, she remained in touch with Mary Bell's relatives, monitoring her life throughout her 12 years in secret homes and prisons, and the freedom that followed.

But Gitta Sereny's admission that Mary Bell was paid about £50,000 (€61,900) for her collaboration caused an outcry, as did what many considered to be the author's sympathy for the woman and her acceptance of Mary Bell's uncorroborated claims that she had been sexually abused by her prostitute mother and her mother's clients, and her contention that this abuse was irrefutably the causal basis of Bell's homicidal behaviour.

The controversy focused on the author, who found herself accused of threatening to destroy what rehabilitation Bell had achieved, wreck Bell's daughter's life, and re-open the wounds inflicted on the families of the murdered boys. What had hitherto been seen as the heroic pertinacity of a writer who had spent much of her life uncovering the facts about individuals associated with the Holocaust began to be presented as mere ghoulishness and opportunism.

This was, in a sense, the paradox that lay at the heart of Gitta Sereny's life and her self-proclaimed mission to uncover the 'why' of seemingly senseless atrocities. For her ability to empathise with her subjects and her insistence on the need for understanding grew from the ambivalence of her own youthful response to events in Europe during the Second World War.

Gitta Sereny was born on March 13, 1921 in Vienna into a family of Anglophile, Protestant Hungarian landowners. Her father died when she was two and it appears that young Gitta had a difficult relationship with her actress mother.

She attended Stonar House, a boarding school in Kent. It was there, extraordinarily, that she read Mein Kampf. In 1934, travelling home to Vienna, her train broke down in Nuremberg and, at the age of only 13, courtesy of the German Red Cross, she found herself taken to see the Nazi Party Congress.

She was swept away by its pageantry: "One moment I was enraptured, glued to my seat; the next, I was standing up, shouting with joy along with thousands of others."

Four years later, she was studying in Vienna when the Nazis arrived. She heard Hitler speak and joined "the mindless chorus" that welcomed him. The euphoria apparently died the following day when she noticed "men in brown uniforms, wearing swastika armbands" surrounded by a laughing crowd. In the middle of the crowd, a dozen men and women were on their knees, scrubbing the pavement with toothbrushes. One of them was the Jewish doctor who had saved her life when she was four and had diphtheria. Although only 17, Gitta remonstrated with the brownshirts. In the longer term, it did little good: the doctor was gassed at Sobibor in 1943.

When war broke out, she was in France where she worked as a volunteer nurse, looking after refugee children and hiding "a couple of shot-down British airmen". One night a German officer warned her she was about to be arrested. She fled across the Pyrenees. At the end of the war, she went to Germany as a child welfare officer working for the United Nations: her first assignment was the care of child prisoners from Dachau. Back in Paris, she fell in love with Donald Honeyman, an American photographer with Vogue magazine. They married in 1948 and, after stints in New York and Paris, they moved to London in 1958.

She was already working as a writer. A novel, The Medallion, was published in 1957 and she freelanced for papers and magazines, acquiring a reputation for persistence in pursuit of a good story; Her great strength was her ability to get people to tell her things they would tell no one else.

In the late Sixties and early Seventies, she spent several months attending the trials of Nazi concentration camp personnel and found herself looking for someone who might help her towards an understanding of how individuals could be brought to commit such terrible acts. Her choice fell on Franz Stangl, commandant of Treblinka, whose story became her book Into That Darkness (1974).

The book won acclaim for the light it threw on the bureaucratic, careerist character of a minor player in the Nazi machine, but Stangl himself was the one subject who exhausted Gitta's sympathy.

Of the 900,000 people for whose deaths he had been held responsible, Stangl said: "It is all a matter of accommodating oneself to one's situation."

She adopted a different approach to the subject of Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth (1995). In 1945, she had attended the Nuremberg war trials, where she caught her first glimpse of Hitler's all-powerful armaments minister in the dock, but it was Speer who first contacted Sereny in 1977.

Despite suggestions that the handsome Speer had charmed her out of her customary objectivity, her book was only superficially sympathetic: importantly, it proved for the first time that Speer had known about the plan to exterminate the Jews as early as 1943, but went along with it because of his love for Hitler, an admission she secured after weeks of dogged questioning.

As well as her books about Mary Bell, Gitta Sereny wrote Invisible Children (1984), a study of child prostitution, and wrote extensively about the murder by two boys of the Liverpool toddler James Bulger, her articles forming an appendix to a reissued new edition of her 1972 book about Mary Bell. Her last book, The German Trauma (2001), was a collection of essays, some autobiographical, about Hitler's Germany and its legacy. She was appointed an honourary CBE in 2003.

By her marriage to Don Honeyman, Gitta Sereny had a son and a daughter.

Sunday Independent