Paper by David Flash for History 362G: Introduction to the Holocaust at The University of Texas at Austin, Grade: A 90/100, Mean: 82.9/100

Franz Paul Stangl oversaw the extermination of hundreds of thousands of souls as Komandant of Treblinka, the infamous Nazi death camp.[1] After being captured, tried, and sentenced to life in prison, Stangl attempts to answer for himself near the end of his life in a series of interviews with Holocaust historian Gitta Sereny. The warmth and love he held for his wife and children were obvious. That love, and fear of death, were the primary motivating factors the convicted mass-murderer cites to justify the choices he made to align with and advance in the Nazi administration once they took over Poland in the 1938 Anschluss. Prior to the Nazi invasion, he was a newlywed police officer “doing a good job” with no particular designs on evil deeds.[2] Into That Darkness, Sereny’s book derived from her research and interviews, records the former Komandant’s profession of victimhood: “I hate the Germans for what they pulled me into…”[3] But the writer suspects, and both Stangl and his beloved wife each admit at least once in interviews, that they indeed could have steered away from playing such a vital role in the holocaust. While societal forces did put his life on a deadly vector, Stangl made the deliberate decision not to alter course, to let his own soul enter into the darkness, and become a flywheel in the Nazi racial extermination machine.

In Sereny’s interviews, Stangl blames social forces larger than himself for horrific death camp murders he was convicted of perpetrating. He blames the Nazi invasion of his country. He blames the Eagle Award earned as a police officer before Anschluss, for fighting Nazi subversives. He tells Sereny he needed to claim that he had been a subversive Nazi prior to their takeover, as to avert death at the hands of the invaders.[4] Others who had been awarded the Eagle for rooting out Nazis in pre-Anschluss Poland were summarily shot after the Blitzkrieg.[5] He believes until the end that he acted from noble motives to provide for his family, to survive. The former Eagle Award winning Nazi-fighter’s survival tactic of posing as a Nazi himself ultimately places him in a position to thrive in the Nazi regime.[6] Once he realized the fast track was lined with horror and death, he tried to quit, he said. But alas he could not maneuver from his career path as a death camp executive as long as Poland remained under the power of Nazi Germany.

While Stangl claimed he couldn’t leave the gruesome roles he played in dealing death as a Nazi sanitarium and concentration administrator, his wife had at least some doubt. During her oral interviews at her home in Brazil, Theresa Stangl was asked if her husband would have quit the Nazi SS had she threatened to leave him. She claims to have lacked awareness of his exact role as the Komandant, or senior onsite administrator. Police officers the world over are known not to talk too much shop at home. Stangl, his wife claimed was no exception. The horrors her husband oversaw at the sanitarium where he worked prior to Treblinka only came into her awareness, she says, due to the drunken disclosures of one of her husband’s distraught colleagues. She was horrified at what she heard, to the point where she couldn’t act affectionately or even normally around her husband for a time. She begged Franz Paul to leave his role, even run away if he must.[7] But she never threatened to leave Shangl if he persisted in his gruesome career path. However, Theresa admitted (though she later contacted Sereny attempted to walk her admission back) that had she threatened to run away with the kids and leave him, he would have ultimately found the will and courage to divert from his dark career path.[8]

Sereny’s interviews with both Franz Paul and Theresa Stangl affirmed to the interviewer’s satisfaction that the Treblinks Komandant’s love for his spouse was deep and genuine. That his actions partially [9]motivated by true love for his wife, in addition to fear for his life, does not serve to even partially absolve Stang. In fact, his declared and demonstrated ability to love deeply increases his moral culpability for the hundreds of thousands slaughtered at the death factory he ran.  As he saw families separated, he was observing with the eyes of one who truly understood familial love. His own deep love for his wife and kids meant that he could quite literally imagine if his own wife or children were ripped from his arms en route to their deaths. Stangl, perhaps more than a cold-hearted, solitary soul would be capable of understood the pain those separations and deaths inflicted. He knew what it was to love others. He knew who he was killing, not just vermin, families like his that loved like his: husbands, fathers, wives, mothers, sons, and daughters.

In another era or another place, Stangl would likely have lived a relatively innocuous life, doting on his wife and kids and keeping the streets safe. But for Anschluss and the decisions he was forced to make in the wake of that pivotal event, he would have quite possibly lived a life that harmed no one. Nazi German society and even the Catholic Church provided Stangl explicit and implicit social approval and pressure to continue in his SS role.[10] The choices were hard and fraught with peril.  That fact, however, does not excuse the choices he made to preserve his life and family participating in the destruction of thousands of families just live his own. While Franz Paul Stangl’s life’s work would not have been possible without conditions beyond his control, he is ultimately accountable for his actions and their results in the place and time he lived.

[1] Gitta Sereny, Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience (New York: Vintage, 1995), 111.

[2] Ibid. 29.

[3] Ibid., 39.

[4] Ibid., 37.

[5] Ibid., 38.

[6] Ibid., 28.

[7] Ibid., 233.

[8] Ibid., 361.

[9] Ibid., 240.

[10] Ibid., 66.