Gitta Sereny’s probing of the minds of killers took feminine qualities of intuition and empathy
Gitta Sereny: she understood and how terrible circumstances can create terrible people Photo: Jeff Gilbert
For many years, a woman friend and I near neighbours were plagued by her ex-partner, who stalked us at evenings and weekends. We were taken aback by the different advice from friends who were concerned that we felt threatened. “Hire someone to break his legs” was, honestly, the most common male response. “What’s going on in his head and how can he be reasoned into stopping?” was what women wanted to know. Neither of us is a peacenik, but we knew rotten advice when we heard it, and so we followed the female route.
Gitta Sereny, who died last Thursday, wanted to know why people committed evil acts in the hope that such understanding would help societies to tackle the conditions that produced such people. Unflinchingly and doggedly, she determined to get inside the minds of Franz Stangl, commandant of Treblinka, Hitler’s friend Albert Speer, and, in England, child-killers Robert Thompson and Jon Venables (murderers of James Bulger) and Mary Bell.
To do this as well as she did required her to possess toughness of mind, intellectual rigour and two traditionally female characteristics: intuition and intelligent empathy. She also needed enormous moral courage to face squarely people whom the world saw as the embodiment of evil, to dig deep, to find out what made them who they were, and to put up with the abuse that followed from those critics who regarded understanding as condoning.
She was never one of the “we-are-all-guilty” school, but she understood human fragility and how terrible circumstances can create terrible people. It is insights like this that help us to rise above the instincts of screaming mobs and show compassion to those warped by childhood trauma. It is some sign of progress that today we see the child soldiers of Africa, forced to kill or be killed, as victims not perpetrators.
Hannah Arendt, in her coverage of the trial of Adolf Eichmann efficient implementer of the Final Solution also sought to comprehend what revolted her and gave us the haunting truth of “the banality of evil”. It would be comfortable to believe that Eichmann was some kind of Lord Voldemort figure, but she saw him not as a psychopath, but as an amoral bureaucrat who went with the herd and followed orders dutifully. Like Gitta Sereny, she was unfairly assailed for what was seen as a lack of sympathy for victims.
Women intelligence officers such as Milicent Bagot (whom John Le Carré immortalised as Connie Sachs) spent their lives getting inside the heads of the enemy and were until recently underestimated and ignored. But MI5 has had two female director generals since 1992. Female war correspondents have recently proliferated, too. In this generation they have the confidence to do the job the way they want, rather than follow in the footsteps of male predecessors. As Chris Cramer, former president of CNN International, put it: “Female journalists have a different take on war and conflict. Unlike many of their male counterparts, they are unimpressed by the whiz-bang of war, the so-called precision weapons. They know far too well that 'collateral damage’ means men, women and frequently children.”
As a biographer, I have used what one might call female traits to try to see the world through my subjects’ eyes. My proudest moment was when Paul Foot looked aghast when I mentioned I was a conservative. “You can’t be,” he said. “Your biography of Victor Gollancz was sympathetic. You must be a socialist.” I have had the same problem with people who class me as a turncoat because although I was brought up a Roman Catholic in the Irish Republic, I have tried to see and explain the point of view of Northern Protestants and even the Orange Order. I have spent decades opposing Irish and, more recently, Islamic terrorism, but trying to understand how idealistic young people are seduced into committing appalling acts. “There but for the grace of God go I” is a better guide to understanding human nature than tunnel-vision moral triumphalism.
When researching my most recent book (Aftermath: the Omagh Bombing and the Families’ Pursuit of Justice), I forced myself to read all the inquest reports on the 29 victims (and the two unborn) and then describe in detail exactly what bombs did to the individuals I was writing about. Women have an important part to play in taking the romance out of violence.
We are moving beyond the gender wars, towards an acceptance that men and women are different but complementary. At a time when the spectre of social unrest is frightening Europe, and because of women like Gitta Sereny and Hannah Arendt, we know how easily the veneer of civilisation can be stripped away. Breaking the legs of the EU leadership who travelled mindlessly with the herd to get us into this mess is tempting, but helping them confront and deal with their irrational behaviour is the more female, and better, approach.