Gitta Sereny   Letter 01   08-Jan-2001   Franz Stangl's confession
"But I think he died when he did because he had finally, however briefly, faced himself and told the truth; it was a monumental effort to reach that fleeting moment when he became the man he should have been." Gitta Sereny writing of Franz Stangl

       January 8, 2001

Gitta Sereny
5 Pembroke Studios
Pembroke Gardens
London  W8 6HX

Gitta Sereny:

Having read on the CBC web site that you are "recognized as one of the most informed journalists of Nazi history," that you have "researched extensively the Third Reich archives," and that your book on Franz Stangl, the Kommandant of the Treblinka death camp, is a "landmark in the field," and hearing this high evaluation of you echoed in The Plain Dealer of 14-Jan-1989 which describes you as "a British historian," and "the author of Into That Darkness, considered the standard work on Treblinka," and wishing to learn more about Treblinka, I picked up a copy of that book and had a look inside.  When I read there that you had spent 70 hours interviewing Franz Stangl, my hope that I would finally get to the bottom of what really happened in Treblinka revived.

Even before I read beyond the first few pages of your book I realize now I began implicitly to form certain expectations as to what might constitute standard practice in an interview of such historic significance as the one you conducted with Franz Stangl.  I expected, for example, that you would tape record your seventy hours with Stangl, and that your first order of priority after each day's session would be to get the tape recording transcribed.  This would be necessary so that you could more conveniently review what had been said, and use your review to ask for elaboration or clarification the following day, and generally to use it to guide future questioning.  You would also find such a taping advisable because you would appreciate that relying solely on memory, you would forget a lot, and misremember a lot, and as a historian or as a journalist, you would be motivated to be complete and accurate.  The tape recording would be essential also to establish the credibility of your account of the interviews, and to protect you from suspicions of bias or fabrication.  And the tape recording would be needed to provide the raw data which future historians might use in drawing their further conclusions.

From Stangl's direction, I expected a concern that his words might be misrepresented or that he would be misquoted, and I expected that he would welcome the creation of an unedited audiotape along with a certified transcript as a protection against any such misrepresentation or misquoting.  I would have expected Stangl to ask to be provided with a copy of each day's tapes and transcripts, and to listen to the tapes while reading along in the transcripts, so as to verify for himself that the transcripts were accurate, or to see whether he had at any time misspoken and needed to correct something, or to note on what topics he thought elaboration or clarification were called for.

In order to create and edit such transcripts, I expected that considerable clerical help would be needed, and that this help would find a place in your acknowledgements.  I expected that you would make copies of the tapes and transcripts, and distribute them among scholars, or to libraries which specialize in such materials.

I expected to read your allusions to the taping process, as for example of how Franz Stangl reacted to the prospect of being taped, or your mentions of pausing the interview in order to change tapes, or your encountering machine breakdowns, or your asking Stangl to clarify tape segments that proved inaudible or unintelligible.

In view of the fragmentation and incoherence of extemporaneous speech, I expected material that you offered as direct quotation to show some signs of this fragmentation and incoherence.

However, all of the above expectations were disappointed.  You make not the slightest allusion to tape recording or transcribing.  In your otherwise seemingly thorough and exhaustive acknowledgments, I find none for help in preparing transcripts.  You do not mention possessing an audiotape or a transcript, and you certainly do not relate distributing copies to historians or libraries.  You do not express gratitude to any tape recording or transcript for saving you from the human failing of imperfect memory.  You offer vast stretches of direct quotation, but without providing any hint as to where it comes from, or why it is smoother than a transcript of extemporaneous discourse might be expected to be.

Of your first meeting with Stangl, you say "I listened to him all morning, almost without interrupting," and add that this listening occupied two and a half hours (pp. 22-23), and I wondered if it is possible that you simply sat and watched him, trusting to a super-human memory to regurgitate his discourse when it came time to write your book.  On the first of your interviews in June 1971, Stangl talked for seven hours (p. 255), and I wondered what kind of historian deposes an eyewitness for seven hours without recognizing the indispensability of capturing the words on tape.  On your final session on 27-Jun-1971, Stangl talked for four hours (p. 363), and I wondered that you expressed no fear of forgetting or misremembering Stangl's many words.  As you did not complete your book for two years which you might reasonably have foreseen you were faced with a forgetting interval long enough that minimal prudence would have demanded the memory aid of a tape recording.

I take it that you cannot offer the corroboration of witnesses (a poor second to the authenticating power of a tape recording, but better than nothing), as you never mention the presence of third parties during your interviews (except for the single visit of a photographer), and after having been introduced to Stangl upon the first occasion, you describe him beginning his recollections "after we had been left alone" (p. 22).

Well, but in the end, I expected that my trust in your work would be warranted from the fact that an interviewee will object upon seeing himself misrepresented or misquoted, which can be counted upon to do much to keep a journalist or a historian honest but when I came to the final pages of your book, I discovered that Franz Stangl died nineteen hours after your last interview with him, and that you even credit his death to the confession that he had just made to you, in the nick of time it would seem: "But I think he died when he did because he had finally, however briefly, faced himself and told the truth; it was a monumental effort to reach that fleeting moment when he became the man he should have been" (p. 366).

Franz Stangl, then, never got to review your account in Into That Darkness of what he said in 1971, which we can infer not only from his dying shortly after your last interview, but also from your acknowledgements in the book being dated June, 1973, and from the copyright being dated 1974.

Similar comments can be made with respect to the several other people whose conversations you report in the same book.

If you failed to tape record your 70-hour interview of Franz Stangl, then it is most unfortunate, as some skeptics will inevitably seize upon this omission as a justification for denying the authenticity of your work, and for categorizing you as one of the many Jewish-holocaust fabulists who advance their careers by replacing the true story of the Jewish people during WW II with fantasies.  "How convenient," such skeptics will say, "that Stangl managed to get out his confession just before dying, and how convenient too that he died before being able to read Into That Darkness that way, he can't object to what Sereny says he said, other than by rolling over in his grave."  Such skeptics will put forward the accusation that your claim to being a historian rests entirely upon the hoax that your book faithfully reflects Franz Stangl's words.  Such skeptics will find themselves encouraged by your own admission of having incited incredulity in at least one other Stangl-contemporaneous eyewitness: "Franz Suchomel, who read my conversations with Stangl in the German newspaper Die Zeit, was highly sceptical.  He wrote me saying, 'It sounds like a fairy tale' " (p. 104).

One hopes that audiotapes and transcripts of your historically-priceless interview of Franz Stangl were created, and that you do have them in your possession, and that your error has been the less-than-fatal one of merely having overlooked the importance of informing your readers of the existence of these corrobarative materials, and of having as yet neglected to offer them to others for further analysis.

Lubomyr Prytulak