Redefining Evil: The Legacy of Gitta Sereny

Posted: June 20, 2012 in Behaviour, Ethics, Evil, Politics, Psychology
Tags: , ,

The Austrian born biographer, historian and investigative journalist Gitta Sereny died recently leaving behind an enduring legacy; her insights into evil have resonated with a diverse audience eager to understand why seemingly ordinary people commit heinous crimes.

From her earliest experiences as a welfare officer looking after concentration camp survivors, Gitta Sereny wrestled with the human dynamics of the Holocaust and the nature of those who engineered, and took part in, systematic genocide. From that transformative experience, Sereny went on to write the brilliant “Into That Darkness”, a book based on her conversations with Franz Stangl, the commandant of Treblinka extermination camp, and later wrote a stunningly insightful biography of Hitler’s armaments chief, architect and close confidante, Albert Speer.

In the following short interview, Sereny talks about the banality of evil, among other topics.  Focusing on Stangl, Sereny describes a man who was simple, dedicated to duty and driven by the pursuit of power and influence.  Perhaps surprisingly, she claims that there was nothing overtly evil about Stangl as a person. And that is Sereny’s most chilling conclusion, that Stangle was ostensibly an ordinary individual.  Nonetheless it is one that fits with Hannah Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’ thesis and forces us to look much deeper into the topic of evil than we might otherwise be comfortable with.

Here is the short interview with Sereny:

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