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Seriously, Read a Book!

Thoughts on books, often interpreted through the high-brow prism of cartoon (read: Archer) references. Wait! I had something for this...

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Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience

Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience - Gitta Sereny

Read in December of 2013, just updated to Booklikes-i-ness (and added pictures).


This is one of the most incredible Holocaust books I have come across to date. It is about so much more than author Gitta Sereny's conversations with Franz Stangl (Commandant of Treblinka). These conversations (conducted while Stangl was in Düsseldorf prison) give us a narrative around which Sereny integrates her exceptional research, outside interviews and experiences. Sereny manages to be both our guide and an appropriately impartial observer of the events described (and is open in describing what could and could not be verified).


Gitta Sereny interviewing Franz Stangl at Dusseldorf


Written in 1972, this book seeks to address facts that "have become blurred" and the claims of "chroniclers...who will have us believe that the extermination of the Jews was almost an accidental development, somehow forced upon the Nazi's by circumstance" (p.93). Similarly, she disambiguates two sets of terms that have been conflated over time: concentration vs. extermination camps, and War Crimes vs. Nazi Crimes.

Stangl's retelling of his own story, I think, can best be summed up in a quote from Carl Jung:

“People will do anything, no matter how absurd, to avoid facing their own souls.”

Stangl's justifications for his role at Treblinka are remarkably similar to the findings of behavioral economists regarding the "trolley problem" wherein (pardon my terrible summary) participants seem infinitely more comfortably with hitting a switch to divert a trolley headed for five people, but that would, then kill one person than they would if they had to physically push that one person in front of the trolley in order to prevent the five people further down the track from getting killed.


Trolley Problem switch versus push


In Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, author Paul Bloom describes:

...this is because the thought of touching the man, of laying your hands on him and shoving, gives rise to a powerful emotional response, much more than the thought of just throwing a switch, and this is why most people see this act as morally wrong (p.169).

This concept is illustrated time and again in Stangl's perception of his actions at Treblinka. Stangl's wife, Therese, recounts a conversation with her husband she had after he received his appointment at the Sobibor extermination camp:

I said, 'I know what you are doing in Sobibor?...What are you doing in this?'...he said...'I have nothing to do with any of this...My work is purely administrative...Oh yes, I see it. But I don't do anything to anybody.'(p.136)

This theme plays again when Stangl vehemently denies having ever fired a gun into a group of people who were, hours later, gassed en mass in an operation he was overseeing.


Sereny's work also intricately examines the role of Pope Pius XII — something I previously knew little about, so if you're into that you'll enjoy that part as well. 


Hopefully these passages will give you just a glimpse of myriad accounts gathered through Sereny's persistent research and access to survivors, witnesses and prisoners alike. In the time since finishing it, I have found myself referencing this book constantly, and recommend it highly.