Into the Darkness

My interest in the 1930-ies and in World War II was developed many years ago during my school time. At that time I read Grimbergen World History and Denmark's History over and over again. Moreover, my father had over the years built upp a worthy library containing volumes of military literature. - Maybe not directly what you would claim a healthy reading for a young girl. Nevertheless, I swallowed all these books with great enthusiasm.

My father's an excuse to fill the bookshelves with military literature, was his professional life in the Royal Danish Army. He was sent to the military academy and when finishing this he then climbed further up the B-line officers degrees, until his retirement a few years ago as a Major.

I was in my younger days a frequent visitor at the local library. When I later on earned money enough to actually be able to save a few quit, I invested those savings in books. A very large proportion of the books that I buy is about people who have been influencing or affected the historical evolution of Europe from 1914 until 1989 when Europe was reunited into one continent again. And a large number of these people worked actively in some form in the period 1933-1945.

One of my absolute favorite authors is Gitta Sereny, born March 13, 1921 in Vienna, Austria as the daughter of a Hungarian father and a German mother.

Gitta Serenys writings cover the topics child abuse and Holocoust. Both topics are her vocation and she has a tremendous knowledge of them. Gitta Sereny saw Hitler in Nuremberg in 1934. During World War II, she worked with refugee children in France. After the war she was employed by the UN attempting to bring home some of the millions of children who'd been kidnapped by the Nazis and taken away from the occupied countries in Eastern Europe. Gitta Sereny was present during 4 days of the Nuremberg process in 1945. It is these experiences that founds her writings and her work as a journalist.

Whenever we discuss World War II, it is extremely difficult to avoid the topic 'the Jewish extermination'. The very idea was developed in some high positioned, very intellegente human brains, but the final plan was brought to the execution by people at a much lower level. Gitta Sereny spent 3 years on research while writing the book 'Into the Darkness'. She managed to get permission to speak with one of the people who made it possible for Heydrichs and Himmlers ideas to be executed, namely Franz Stangl, Commandant of the 2 death camps Sobibor and Treblinka.

Before we proceed, it is important to explain the difference between a concentration / labor camp and a death camp.

The Nazis developed 4 death camps - Belzec, Treblinka, Sobibor and Chelmno - all located in Poland. The death camps were created as factories producing murder. The victims arrived at 9 and less than 2 hours later they were dead.

Concentration camps were used to hold detainees for subsequent transport to the death camps. The concentration camps even contained areas reserved for prisoners of war. Furthermore a large number of the prisoners in the camps were utilized as slave workers in the German industry and inside the companies founded by the SS. Auswitz is often refered to as a death camp, but this is wrong. It is true that Auswitz had a 'sister' camp - Birkenau, where people were murdered, but Auswitz was primarily a labor- and concentration camp. Many of those detained in Auswitz were forced to slave at IG Farbens large industrial plant just nearby. Nevertheless Many detainees died in Auswitz due starvation and hard labor. And many were executed - a large number of the executions were in the gas chambers.

Auswitz is also in Poland and it is significant to the Nazi thinking that all camps representing a threat for people to be sent to the gas chambers were located outside the actual borders of Germany.

The concentration and labor camps that were on German territory were not constructed with the aim to kill. They were intended as mere detention and 'educational establishments' with the duty for all prisoners to work.

Concentration and labor camps were being established in connection with the Nazis taking over power in Germany in 1933. Here all dissidents landed, homosexuals, intellectuals, Protestant pastors (because Hitler did not have the same need to be on good terms with the Protestant Church, unlike the Catholic Church which he needed), Communists, ordinary criminals, etc.

Only after the breakout of World War II plans were developed for the creation of the actual extermination camps.

Franz Stangl was Austrian, born in 1908. Originally he was a trained weaver, but in 1932 he sought admission of the police and was accepted. He was employed by the Austrian Crime Forces when the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938. - Or as the Nazis prefered to put it - 'brought Austria heim am reich'.

Franz Stangl was not a Nazi. However, he was a faithful Catholic. In connection with 'Anschluss' in 1938, he had to - in writing - renounce his faith in order to keep his employment in the police force. This was required by the Nazis for anyone working in a government office.

In 1940 he was ordered to Berlin for the highly secret branch T-4. The department was named after its addres: a villa situated on Tiergartenstrasse 4 in Berlin-Charlottenburg. T-4 reported directly to the Führer Chancellery and administrated the top-secret Euthanasia Program (the General Foundation for Welfare and Institutional Care - in German Gemeinnützige Stiftung für Heilkunde-und Anstaltspflege).

The program based on the Nazi theories to 'keep the Arian body free of all hereditary diseases' began in 1939 and was responsible for removing individuals from the German society who were physically or mentally disabled. Since the regime was aware that the program could encounter resistance especially from the Catholic Church - which prescribes that all life is sacred - Hitler as early as in the beginning of 1939 ordered to investigate if the Catholic Church would be able to accept euthanasia. A representative of T-4 contacted Professor Joseph Mayer, who taught in theological ethics at the Catholic University of Paderborn.

The outcome of the report was based on the Jesuits moral system concerning probability (summarized by Thomas of Aquino), which states that "there are few moral decisions that are unambiguously good or evil. Moral position is ambiguous. Whether what these ambiguous decisions are reasonable grounds and reasonable authority that supports a personal opinion, then this personal view can be decisive, even if there are other reasonable reasons and authorities which contradict it. " The professor concluded that since there were reasonable grounds and authorities both pro and against euthanasia, one could defend it.

Hitler then signed the regulation allowing the Euthanasia Program in the autumn of 1939 and the regulation was immediately effected.

The actual killing of patients was done at more than a dussin of institutes with exotic names. To be able to transfer patients from the institutions and hospitals where they stayed to the euthanasia institutes, relatives had to sign statements which permitted the patient to undergow further medical examinations. The patients were most of the time killed by an injection. The death certificate signed by doctors, and the cause of death was mainly different heart disseases.

Stangl was sent to Institute C - Schloss Hartheim. His task was to monitor that the effects belonging to the disseased were handed over to the relatives and that nothing was stolen. Stangl did not have anything to do with the killings. His duties were police assignments.

During the period Euthanasia Program was active (1939-1941) 139,000 physically or mentally disabled people were murdered.

In 1941 the Euthanasia Program was ended. The reason was said to be that the German bishops protested when they learned about the Euthanasia Program. - The truth is more likely to be, that by the time the program ended those who were to be murdered were allready dead. Moreover, the Battle of Russia had begun and efforts should now be concentrated on something completely different and much larger.

Those employees who worked in Euthanasia were transferred to Poland and the eradication program, also known as 'Aktion Reinhard'. The construction of the 4 murder factories Chelmno (which was the first factory), Sobibor, Belzec and Treblinka launched.

Franz Stangl was ordered to travel to The SS Headquarters in Lublin in Poland, where he was to appear before Gruppenführer (Lieutenant General) Odilo Globocnik - Himmler called him 'The Planet' - who was in charge of the destruction of the Polish Jews.

At first, Globocnik sent him to Sobibor to build and manage a camp there. Franz Stangl denied in the book any knowledge of what Sobibor was - or what it was to be. When he arrived Sobibor he saw the gas chambers that were already built and ready for use, and only then he became aware that something was not right. He recognized the gas chamber from a visit at Sonnenheim, the most well-known of the Euthanasia institutes. He drove back to Lublin and protested to Globocniks staff officer. Initially he was told to speak to Christian Wirth, Commander of Chelmno and Belzec. Stangl went to Belzec to meet with Wirth. Belzec was Stangls first meeting with an extermination factory in full operation. He was - he says - deeply shaken.

To Christian Wirth, Stangl stated that he could not carry out the task. Wirth listened, nodded and promised to convey the message to the headquarters. Moreover, he told Stangl to go back to Sobibor and continue to work with the construction of the camp there.

Stangl did as instructed. In order to ensure his readiness for coorperation, he's being granted a vacation and his family (his wife and 2 daugthers) were allowed to visit him in Poland. During the familys stay (they're vacationing appr 5 km. from Sobibor), Stangl is reached by an order to see Globocnik again, this time at his Headquarters i Warszaw. Here he receives new orders to travel to Treblinka and serve as its Camp Commandant.

In one of his many interviews with Gitta Sereny Stangl claims, that he could not refuse because he did not know what 'they' would do with his family. So he agreed on the assignment and took command of Treblinka. The real reason for the shift was that 100,000 people at that time had already been killed in Treblinka, but Globocnik was unhappy that no values were returned from there (money, gold, clothes, etc. that the deportees left behind them when they lined up in the queue waiting to be murdered).

This was the real reason for the the establishment of the murder factories, many believe. - Even Franz Stangl. SS wanted to get their hands on the many values that the prisoners brought with him. There has been attempts to do a calculation of the amount of money the murder factories generated for the SS and an estimated figure landed at approx. 173 million German Reichmark - which may seem like a relatively small amount.

The amount of people murdered by the Nazis in the 4 murder factories is difficult to calculate. The Nazi mentality usually was to document everything, but unlike this usual behavior, no documentation exists from the 4 camps. However the Polish government gives an estimated figure of 900,000 deaths in Treblikna. Against this speaks the local station master (who was manouvered into that position by the Polish resistanse movement). He claims that everytime a train arrived, he added the numbers written with white chalk on each and every wagon, and according to his calculation all in all 1,200,000 people were killed in Treblinka. It's believed that a maximum of 88 people survived Treblinka.

When Stangl arrived Treblinka, he found a camp split asunder. Nothing worked. Corpses gone into decay were everywhere in and outside the camp. People walked in money and goods. His task was to clean up and make sure the camp functioned effectively. He did as pledged.

At the Treblinka trial after the war (where Stangl wasn't present) and at the trial against Stangl in 1970 (were he was sentenced to life), those few who survived Treblinka all witnessed, that Franz Stangl never personally put hands on any prisoner. To the contrary he was rather 'nice'. But he was the Commander, and by that he held the final responsibility for the murders, for the abuse, and it was his responsibility that the murder factory could continue to function. Death penalty had been abolished for at long time in Germany when Stangls case was taken to court. Had he been present at the Treblinka trial after the war ended, he would undoubtedly had been sentenced to death. During the trial against him in 1970 the court failed to include files involving Sobibor for administrative reasons.

Stangls assignment was - according to himself - police-related. To ensure that everything worked accordingly and that noone inriched himself. He inspected the camp several times a day - seated on horseback. Including the area of the camp containing the gas chambers and where the bodies were burned.

When Gitta Sereny asks him, how he was able to handle this mentally - because Franz Stangl is not an evil sadistic man - on the contrary - he claims he stopped thinking of the victims as human beings. In his mind they became packages. And his responsibility was to ensure that these packages were transported from A to B (from the moment they arrived by train until they went up in smoke). That he was working in the tranportations and logistics business.

You might want to call it the century's displacement of reality, but what you always must bear in mind when reading this book is, that the plans to eliminate 'all the Jews in Europe' - hatched in Reinhard Heydrich cold, calculating brain, surpassed what even your wildest imagination is able to conceive. Franz Stangl could be used in this plan because he was weak and because he never objected to an order. He did not have the ability for taking the initiative. That was what his superior officers had learned during his time working for T-4. And that was why he was handpicked to work in Sobibor and Treblinka.

Treblinka had a very small permanent staff of employees. Only about 90 people. The rest of the 'staff' (during 'high season' reaching nearly 1,500 people) were picked among the incoming prisoners. They were physically strong young men. Only a very small number of young women were 'lucky' to be selected to live on for a while. Prisoners were used to sort the huge values of money, gold and gems and clothing. Everything was packed and sent back to Germany, the German National Bank and the SS. The murder plants were part of the SS's vast business empire.

The prisoners of Sobibor and Treblinka revolted. In Treblinka, the uprising took place August 2, 1943. The uprisings in both Treblinka and in Sobibor were ofcourse fought down and only a small number of prisoners managed to escape. August 20, 1943 Treblinka was closed and all traces of its existence removed. Sobibor as well were closed later on during the autumn of that year.

Franz Stangl and the rest of the T-4 staff were ordered to Trieste in Italy, where they stayed until the end of war. Their task was to combat enemy tanks. When the war ended Stangl went home, but was arrested and interned by the Americans.

After the war, the allies were facing tremendous problems identifying members of the SS and war criminals.

There was lack of trained staff, and it was fairly easy for those who wanted to hide to escape justice. Franz Stangl is not an exception.

The Americans and the Russians hadn't started to collaborate, and the Americans had very little knowledge of the death camps in Poland. They therefore didn't find any reason to believe that Franz Stangl was something else than an ordinary SS-man from Waffen SS - before it was too late. He was improsened for a while, but it was an open prison, and one day he simply walked away, went to Italy - to Rome, where he visited an Austrian Catholic priest, Hudal, who was known for his willingness to help refugees with identity cards, money and whatever else they needed for their escape.

Stangls first stop was Syria, where he settled down in Damascus. His wife and now 3 daughters followed soon thereafter. A couple of years later the family travelled to Brazil for their permanent stay. At no time did the family use false identities. They lived for many years in Brazil under their own names, worked and socialized with other Germans and Austrians. Stangl and his wife, Teresa, were both even employees of German companies during these years. For years the Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal was searching for Franz Stangl, aiming to have him brought to justice. But he was never checked with the Austrian Foreign Ministry. Had he done so he would have discovered that Stangl and his family were listed as emigrated to Brazil. February 28, 1967 Stangl was arrested at his residence in Sao Paolo. He was extradited to Germany to be tried in a German court and sentenced for his role as commander primarily in Treblinka.

The day before his death in June 1971, he had his last conversation with Gitta Sereny. During this conversation Franz Stangl for the first time acknowledged his responsibility and his guilt. The responsibility and guilt having survived Treblinka.

Franz Stangl ofcourse had a conscience, but during all the years passing by from the day he came to T-4 until the day he was handed over to be prosecuted in Germany, he never spoke with anyone about what he felt or about his doings and how the part he played could be reconciled with his Christian beliefs. He renounced his faith. This he did without his wife's knowledge and consent. To Franz Stangl, his wife Teresas consent and respect was very important. He never discussed the service with his wife. His role was unknown to her. Had Teresa known his role, she would never have been able to understand him or to forgive him. I am absolutely convinced that Franz Stangl would have found it impossible to live without his wife.

He never reflected on his role. When thoughs pushed his mind, he displaced them with alcohol in very large quantities, and with strange buildings that would give the impression of Treblinka being a nice small town - not a killing factory. He created flower beds, put up decorative benches, created a zoo and so on. Anything to get something else and something more pleasant to think about.

Franz Stangl never seriously thought about breaking out. He was a man of duty. He gave up his beliefs rather than his work - even though his work went against all his personal moral values.

This book is so fascinating that this was my 5th perusal and still I find new information. It is well written - as all books Gitta Sereny writes. And it maintains with its thorough research work and its exciting interviews the reader. It is impossible to stop reading. This 5 perusal began Sunday and ended Monday.

The book critizes the Catholic Church's role in Hitler's decision to launch the Euthanasia Program. The author is also highly critical to Pope Pius XIIs unwillingness to condemn the extermination of the Jews in Poland, despite the fact that he knew about it. Similarly, there is a very interesting discussion about the help certain priests in the Catholic Church in Rome offered Nazis escaping justice at the end of the war. And last but not least, the book contains a very interesting interview with Dr. Dollmann who served as Hitlers Italian Interpreter.

Similarly, the book contains many interesting interviews with some of the few who survived Treblinka, as well as people who, like Franz Stangl, were serving in Treblinka as guards and caretakers.

What I particularly appreciate by Gitta Serenys books is that she never condemn the person she is working with. She distances herself from specific acts, but never from man, and I think this is very important.

I recommend 'Into the Darkness' to anyone who pays interest in World War II and its consequences.

Into the Darkness - af Gitta Sereny, 1974.



Christopher Raun Leth said...

This is a book I've got to get my hands on. I've never quite understood how it was possible to get ordinary and intelligent Germans to participate in these organized and pre-planned murders of millions. After the war many Germans claimed ignorance regarding the exterminations, but with so many people involved, I refuse to believe that it wasn't widely known in the broad public.

I find it a great shame of the Allied that they didn't apprehend all of these criminals in the years just after the war. At Nürnberg they got the top people, or rather some of them, but too many got away without any fuss, and some even got help from Allied nations and the Catholic Church.

I allways show the movie Schindler's List to my students in 8th or 9th grade so that they might understand the horror of this war.

Asta said...

It is a very, very interesting book. I also think the topic is important to discuss. Because you cannot forget the past. This could happen again - and it does happen actually. Yes in Rwanda, in Yugoslavia and in Cambodia where millions of people were killed.

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