Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education

Front Page



UK Politics







Talking Point
On Air
Low Graphics

Thursday, April 30, 1998 Published at 13:45 GMT 14:45 UK


Gitta Sereny: biographer with bite

One enemy likened her to "a shrivelled little prune"

Gitta Sereny, the veteran author who has caused an outcry by paying the child killer Mary Bell to cooperate on a book about her crimes, is no stranger to difficult subjects.

At the heart of her work lies an obsession with explaining evil and discovering what makes people commit monstrous acts.

This is a theme she has pursued in her two books about Mary Bell as well as her highly-acclaimed biographies of Hitler's friend and architect Albert Speer and the commandant of the Nazis' Treblinka death camp, Franz Stangl.

The 74-year-old writer is known for being a meticulous researcher whose compassion for her often unappealing subjects is matched by an unwavering drive to get to the truth.

Prior to Ms Sereny's latest book, Cries Unheard, it was her work on the Third Reich for which she was best known.

Knowing the Nazis

Born a Hungarian in Austria, Ms Sereny read Hitler's Mein Kampf aged 11. Four years later, she heard him address the Viennese in person.

[ image: Sereny: personal experience of Nazism]
Sereny: personal experience of Nazism
In 1945, she briefly attended the Nuremberg war crime trials where she caught her first glimpse of Speer - her future subject - in the dock.

Half a century later, Ms Sereny befriended Speer and his wife to try to find out exactly how much he had known about the Holocaust while he was working for Hitler.

Ms Sereny admitted to liking the former Nazi despite his delusions of innocence. But in her book, Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth, she presented a damning portrait of a man who knew about the plan to exterminate the Jews but went along with it because of his love for Hitler.

Methods queried

As with Cries Unheard critics asked what exactly was the nature of the author's relationship with her subject and if it had tainted her work.

In a radio interview Ms Sereny said: "'Did she get to be too close to him?' I think of this question very seriously, you know. But what is 'too close'?"

Despite the qualms about her methods, Ms Sereny's anti-Nazi credentials were never in doubt. This was particularly true after she produced a detailed rebuttal of right-wing historian David Irving's book which claimed that Hitler did not know about the Nazis' genocidal policies.

Mr Irving was so enraged by his adversary that he described her as looking like "a shrivelled little prune".

Children who kill children

In recent years Sereny has also written extensively about the murder by two boys of the Liverpool toddler Jamie Bulger.

The theme - what leads children to kill children - was one she had explored earlier in her 1972 book The Case of Mary Bell.

What has aroused the current furore is not so much her decision to return to the Bell case but her payments to the child killer for her help and recollections.

Ms Sereny has defended herself in an open letter to the mother of one Bell's victims.

The purpose of the book she explained "was not to re-live these terrible crimes, but to find some understanding of how they could happen".

She said she had given the money in order not to contribute to the cycle of abuse and exploitation, which she claimed had dogged Bell's life.

"If I hadn't done so, I would have made myself guilty of doing what has been done to her virtually since she was born: to USE her," she wrote.

Advanced options | Search tips

Back to top | BBC News Home | BBC Homepage | ©

UK Contents

Northern Ireland
Relevant Stories

29 Apr 98 | UK
Child killer Bell: 'I was abused'

30 Apr 98 | UK
Press leads the hunt for Bell

30 Apr 98 | UK
Child killer under police protection

Internet Links

Gitta Sereny radio intereview on her work about Nazism - in sound and text

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites.

In this section

Next steps for peace

Blairs' surprise over baby

Bowled over by Lord's

Beef row 'compromise' under fire

Hamilton 'would sell mother'

Industry misses new trains target

From Sport
Quins fightback shocks Cardiff

From Business
Vodafone takeover battle heats up

IRA ceasefire challenge rejected

Thousands celebrate Asian culture

From Sport
Christie could get two-year ban

From Entertainment
Colleagues remember Compo

Mother pleads for baby's return

Toys withdrawn in E.coli health scare

From Health
Nurses role set to expand

Israeli PM's plane in accident

More lottery cash for grassroots

Pro-lifers plan shock launch

Double killer gets life

From Health
Cold 'cure' comes one step closer

From UK Politics
Straw on trial over jury reform

Tatchell calls for rights probe into Mugabe

Ex-spy stays out in the cold

From UK Politics
Blair warns Livingstone

From Health
Smear equipment `misses cancers'

From Entertainment
Boyzone star gets in Christmas spirit

Fake bubbly warning

Murder jury hears dead girl's diary

From UK Politics
Germ warfare fiasco revealed

Blair babe triggers tabloid frenzy

Tourists shot by mistake

A new look for News Online