Historian and writer;
Born: March 13, 1921; Died: June 14, 2012.
Gitta Sereny, who has died aged 91, was a controversial historian, biographer and journalist, who probably did as much as anyone in the 20th century to investigate and try to understand the nature of what society brands as "evil" and "evil people".
She wrote extensively about the Nazis. But in this country the greatest furore surrounded Cries Unheard (1998), her second book about Mary Bell, who killed two small boys in Tyneside in the 1960s when she herself was just a child. It transpired that Bell received £50,000 to co-operate.
Noted for both her compassion and her meticulous research, Sereny eschewed easy answers and tried hard to get inside the minds of her subjects, including Bell, who was the daughter of a Glasgow prostitute and allegedly grew up in a world of violence and abuse.
Sereny rejected simplistic arguments that some people were born "evil", arguing that horrendous acts were often rooted in the perpetrators' own traumatic childhood experiences. She also wrote about the James Bulger killers.
Sereny was accused of becoming too close to her subjects, including both Bell and Albert Speer, the man who was dubbed "Hitler's architect" and who narrowly escaped the death penalty at Nuremberg.
As a teenager Sereny heard Hitler speak and she would later befriend Speer, after he made contact with her. But as an adult she had no sympathy for the doctrines they espoused. She was involved in what amounted to a long-running feud with the right-wing historian David Irving.
In his book Hitler's War (1977), Irving suggested Hitler knew nothing of the Final Solution and cited a lot of evidence to support his case. But Sereny went back to original sources and argued that Irving had been very selective in what he had used.
Sereny said: "I know many of the same people as he does who were of Hitler's circle - He says we jostle at the same trough. The difference is that he loves that trough, and I don't." Irving resorted to name-calling and said she looked like "a shrivelled little prune".
Oddly, for a woman who was so thorough in ascertaining the facts, there seemed to be some elements of doubt in the details of her own life, but possibly nothing more sinister than an old woman knocking a few years off her age and a little exaggeration in stories about her early adventures.
Despite her interest in the Holocaust, she was not Jewish. She was born into an aristocratic Hungarian family in Vienna in 1921. She attended boarding school in England, where she reputedly read Hitler's autobiographical volume Mein Kampf.
She also seemingly attended one of the Nuremberg rallies and was swept up in the pageantry and spectacle of it, but a few years later was disgusted when she came upon Nazi thugs abusing a Jewish doctor who had once treated her and she intervened to save him.
After studying drama in Vienna, she tried to pursue an acting career in London without success. She was in France when the Nazis invaded, worked as a nurse and helped hide British airmen. As a welfare worker after the war she worked with survivors of the concentration camps.
She married Don Honeyman, an American photographer, who took the photograph of Che Guevara that would later be turned into one of the most famous posters of all time. They settled in London and Sereny began to make a name for herself as a journalist.
The Case of Mary Bell was published in 1972. But it was Cries Unheard that provoked the greatest controversy.
By this time Bell had been released from prison. There was the issue over the cash payment and Sereny was accused of being too ready to believe Bell's accounts of terrible childhood abuse and of sympathising more with Bell than with her victims, who were aged just three and four when she strangled them.
The publicity around the case also led to revelations about Bell's new life and her whereabouts. She had a daughter, who learned about her mother's terrible past for the first time.
Sereny was appointed an honorary CBE in 2003. Her husband died last year. She is survived by their two children.
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