Evil Efficiency: How Franz Stangl Murdered Thousands
In 1971, Gitta Sereny, a historian, successful journalist, and biographer interviewed Franz Stangl. Stangl was the Kommandant of the Nazi extermination camp Treblinka from September 1942 until shortly after the camp was destroyed in a revolt, in the summer of 1943. Prior to his posting at Treblinka he was the Kommandant of the extermination camp at Sobibor for a short period of time. During his rise up the ranks of the SS, Stangl was involved in the T4 Euthanasia program, an aggressive effort to cleanse the Germanic population of undesirable hereditary traits and diseases. As an extermination camp Kommandant, Stangl oversaw the murder of an estimated 850,000 people, approximately 800,000 of which were Jews. Stangl’s roles at Treblinka and Sobibor make him one of the most deeply implicated figures of the Holocaust.
The Holocaust was a tragic reminder of the moral frailty of humanity when given the ideal opportunity to act out their innermost evil desires. Questions will always remain about what brought about such horrific atrocities, and what prompted such seemingly normal people such as Stangl, to willingly participate. As Sereny points out, the events of one’s life do not happen in a vacuum but are formed by the external elements which surround them (p. 14). In interviewing Stangl, Sereny sought to understand not only why he participated, but what events, people, and conditions, surrounded Stangl which led him from a weavers shop in Austria to the gas chambers of Poland. What was Franz Stangl’s motivation? How could he justify such atrocities? Stangl’s motivation was not the complete genocide of the Jews, but that their murder was merely a task he was required to perform to the best of his ability. His justification: the perception that he would be punished for disobeying, and his self-imposed pressure to perform. Throughout Into That Darkness, Gitta Sereny confronts Stangl’s work ethic, and justifications which eventually bring him face to face with his guilt, only days before his death.
There are obvious moral difficulties in allowing any situation or external pressure to be used as sufficient justification for an individual to willingly participate in such a horrific genocide as the Holocaust. In spite of this, it was important for Sereny to separate her emotions, outrage, and disgust of the events, from her desire to obtain a clear view of Stangl’s motivations and justification for participating at that time (p. 13). An effort to understand how Stangl would eventually arrive in Poland must begin with an examination of his life in Austria between 1936 and 1939. The annexation of Austria by Germany, called the Anschluss, took place in 1938 after a number of years of intense public pressure and political posturing from within Austria as well as significant Nazi Germany influence. It is possible, and there is evidence to suggest, that Stangl was an illegal Nazi sympathizer prior to the Anschluss (p.34). Stangl denies any involvement with the Nazi’s prior to 1938, and explained that the evidence to the contrary was doctored after the fact to protect himself (p. 32). The doctoring of documents to support his involvement as an “illegal” with the Nazi party is important as it is the backdrop for Stangl’s initial justification for agreeing to continue to work for the Nazi’s after the occupation of Austria.
As early as 1938 Stangl claimed to fear for his life if he did not comply with the wishes of his Nazi superiors (p. 35). Stangl used his fear of death or physical reprisal as his justification for working for the police and eventually the Gestapo in Austria after the Anschluss (p. 37), as well as his justification for continuing in his position at Sobibor, even after being fully aware of the activities taking place there (p. 134). Stangl also believed that if he did not comply with the wishes of his superiors, his family would be in danger (p. 134). It is early on in 1939 that Stangl later acknowledges he should have quit or killed himself (p. 39), yet he did not, and continued to progress through the ranks as a result of his exceptional work ethic and job performance. Stangl’s work ethic is directly related to the second significant explanation he provides for his crimes: his need to perform his duty to the best of his ability. Stangl was recognized as one of the finest camp commanders in Poland and had developed a reputation for a high level of job performance; this was confirmed many times at his trial (p. 228). Treblinka’s efficiency at killing Jews can be directly attributed to Stangl’s need to do his job, whatever that job may be, to the very best of his ability. When Sereny discusses with Stangl his work ethic, and the possibility that he could have not worked as hard in an effort to spare lives, Stangl replied “I had to do as well as I could. That is how I am.” (p.229) His insistence that he perform this assignment: the task of overseeing the extermination of thousands of people to the absolute best of his ability because that is “how he was” is one of the most chilling aspects of Stangl’s personality. Treblinka exterminated Jews with an evil efficiency that was unrivalled in the Third Reich, and Franz Stangl, in spite of his alleged disgust, continued to ensure that Treblinka operated as effectively as possible. It is this conflict between what Stangl describes after the fact and what actually occurred which causes Sereny to continuously question Stangl’s true motives and justifications.
The fundamental key to the way Sereny approached her talks with Franz Stangl is her desire to consistently challenge him for the truth, clarification or a deeper insight that goes beyond the simple retelling of events. These challenges seek to draw Stangl to face his crimes, which cannot be negated simply because his alleged intent was not sinister (p. 364). Sereny made attempts throughout their talks to have Stangl speak clearly about the people he killed, something he could not do, instead referring to their extermination only as “work” (p. 170) and “cargo” (p. 201). This treatment of the Jews as product by Stangl was a common trait in Nazi Germany which was made easier by the fact that by the time they arrived at Treblinka or Sobibor they were already in an incredibly impoverished and emaciated state. Thousands of Jews starved to death in the ghettos of Polish cities. If they were not nearly dead when beginning their trip to the camp, they were certainly exhausted to the point of near death as a result of the often brutal voyage in cramped cargo trains with no windows in similar fashion to cattle. It was essential for the people performing the difficult tasks involved in killing another human being to subconsciously de-humanize the Jews so they were no longer people.
Sereny has made it abundantly clear that Stangl’s perception of the events surrounding his circumstances, in particular his fear of death or reprisal for backing down from duty, are inaccurate. In speaking with other people close to the events discussed and by conducting extensive research Sereny showed that Stangl clearly altered the re-telling of events or situations to accommodate his need to repress the awareness of his guilt or at the very least to rationalize it (p. 134). Many times throughout their talks Sereny identifies moments in which Stangl is not entirely truthful, his re-creation of his arrival at Sobibor is one such moment. These events were told on two separate occasions and noted to be different both times. Sereny believes that Stangl clearly has memories of his work in the T4 program and his arrival in Poland which he either had supressed or at the very least evaded re-telling (p. 109). We will never know why Stangl felt the need to evade the truth about his arrival in Poland. His deception regarding Sobibor casts doubt on the depth of Stangl’s involvement in the camps construction and development. His claims to be unaware of the purpose of the camps until later becomes less plausible as a result.
Sereny notes Stangl’s inability to connect his actions and activities with how they might have been perceived, especially after the fact, considering his contention that he was merely doing his job. One such moment is when Sereny questions Stangl wearing a white riding outfit and observing from horseback while people were being offloaded from train cars:
This completely blank attitude about something so clearly offensive is one of the most telling indications that Stangl is certainly not who he claims to be. It is in these small moments in Sereny’s talks that the evil of Stangl is revealed. In the end it is this point that Sereny challenges Stangl to face: that he should have been willing at some point to be a martyr than continue to carry out his work. If Franz Stangl was truly working against his will, and if he was honest in his claims that he consistently made attempts to remove himself from his positions at Sobibor and Treblinka and failed, he should have been expected to be willing to sacrifice himself so he was no longer involved in this horror (p. 134). In challenging Stangl, Sereny draws upon some of the most essential questions of life, humanity, human nature, and morality.
The brilliance of Gitta Sereny was that she was able to lead Franz Stangl through the re-telling of his life, while casting doubts on his explanations and decisions, forcing him to draw his own conclusion about his involvement in the Holocaust. It is also with incredible resilience that she continued to talk to Stangl, in spite of the sheer coldness with which he spoke of such horrifying situations. There were moments, Sereny wrote, in which she came very close to stopping the conversations. Yet in these moments of Stangl’s coldness Sereny realized that he had simply begun to tell the truth, revealing the true nature of his personality, and expressing in the only way he could, as twisted as it may be, his guilt (p. 208). Throughout the book we watch as Stangl continuously used de-humanizing phrasing to refer to his victims. He used his family and his doubts as to their safety as his justification for murdering millions, and his desire to perform his duty as his motivation. Throughout all of this, there were but a few moments in their talks that Stangl showed any sense that he had thought he had done something wrong. Stangl does recognize the moment where he could have, and should have, made the choice to not comply:
This statement comes when recalling the interrogation of a man he clearly had looked up to prior to the Anschluss. Here was a rare moment where Stangl put a human view on a victim of Nazi violence. This dramatic statement showed that Stangl had realized that he was lumped into the same category as the very people who committed crimes against the people he had admired and respected.
As both were aware that their conversation was drawing to a close, Sereny finally had to push Stangl for that redemptive moment of self-realization she had been seeking of him. She could no longer lead him to a conclusion; the time to see if Stangl could face himself was upon them. Sereny challenged that Stangl was attempting to draw the truth from himself by participating in the talks (p. 364). Stangl, while attempting to muster the same level of confidence in his innocence as he had done so many times before, is unable to do so and finally acknowledges the guilt of his presence and work in the extermination camps:
Sereny observed at this pivotal moment of Stangl’s admission of guilt that he changed dramatically. Stangl’s body sagged and facial expressions told the story: he could no longer cope under the draining weight of his illusions (p. 364).
Franz Stangl lived the majority of his life with the knowledge that he was intimately involved in the murder of nearly one million men, women, and children. Sereny notes that Stangl built up his lies, illusions, and justifications in an effort to avoid such unimaginable guilt. No man could admit to so much destruction and “consent to remain alive” (p. 39). It is with this in mind that it is no surprise that a mere 19 hours after Stangl was finally able to admit that he was guilty, he passed away. Franz Stangl may have died of heart failure in 1971, but he died only after he had finally come to terms with himself, and his own evil after living with it for over thirty years. Understanding Stangl provides key insight into human morality and the basic weaknesses we all share in varying degrees. His life raises questions in all of us about where our personal “moral line” is drawn. We are not all the same, and each of us will make different choices in the same situations. The difference between the choices Franz Stangl made, and the choices we make day to day are not all that dissimilar. Sereny’s work is important because it focuses on those small choices Stangl made which led him from Austria to Poland. It is from these revelations that we can learn how to avoid following a similar path. From the mind of a monster Sereny was able to help us understand more clearly how one becomes a monster.