Updated: Oct 23
Jessica Shattuck's novel, The Women in the Castle
How could this happen?
In college, I used to have nightmares about being in a Nazi prison camp. I have no idea why. I am a Protestant white girl from a small Midwestern city. Maybe it was my tender heart and my curious brain coming of age, merging after discussions in history and sociology classes during those university years.
I'd been reading about the Holocaust for years, starting with The Diary of Anne Frank, and I continue to read dozens of works about World War II, tormented by the big question: "How could human beings, regular people, let Hitler do what he did? How could Germans allow such atrocities?
Another even more important moral question plagues me: "If I had been a native citizen, would I be a "joiner" or a "revolutionary?"
Jessica Shattuck's 2017 novel, The Women in the Castle, delves into those questions, depicting the lives of three "ordinary" German women in the aftermath of the war: Marianne, Benita, and Ania.
Marianne was the wife of Albrecht von Lingenfels, a German aristocrat with ties to the family's old castle. Marianne's childhood friend and companion, "Connie" Fledermann is handsome and smart. Like Albrecht, Connie has a strong moral conscience. Both men plan a conspiracy to kill Hitler on July 20th, 1944.
In case you're wondering, the July 20, 1944 attempt on Hitler's life is based on a real event, led by Clause von Stauffenberg and other disgruntled German officers. They planned to bring a bomb in a briefcase to a meeting at Hitler's "Wolf's Lair" command quarters in Prussia. They did exactly as they had plotted, but at the last minute, someone moved the briefcase behind a heavy desk leg. Four people were killed, but Hitler escaped with minor injuries and was reported to have declared himself "immortal."
All the conspirators were rounded up and executed.
Shattuck's book uses that historical event as the impetus for The Women in the Castle. Marianne had been assigned the role of "commander of wives and children" if the assassination plot designed by her husband and best friend fails. She was stung by her inability to do more, but when Albrecht, Connie, and the others are executed for their role in the failed assassination attempt, she understands the weight and the importance of her responsibility.
When the war is over, Germany is inhabited by Russian soldiers. Cities and towns are in ruins. The remaining citizens are trying to rebuild, and Marianne von Lingenfels is searching for the widows and children of the conspirators.
First, she reclaims Martin, the son of Connie and his wife, Benita. He has been taken to a Nazi reeducation camp while his mother, the beautiful but vapid Benita, has become a sex slave to a Russian Army Officer in Berlin. Marianne brings the damaged family of her best friend back to the castle and tries to start over.
When an American soldier says he's located another resistance wife, Marianne brings Ania and her two sons to live with her at the castle, creating a makeshift family of widows.
Shattuck skillfully goes backward in the lives of Benita and Ania and in doing so partly answers the question of how ordinary people allowed Hitler to commit such atrocities.
In Benita's case, she was a poor, but beautiful peasant girl who got attention from her role in a Hitler youth group for young women. She cares about beauty and luxury, but not about politics or bigger questions of humanity. When she and Connie meet, she dazzles him with her beauty and her availability. Well into their marriage, Connie doesn't talk to her about issues of import, and Benita remains blissfully unaware of Connie's role as a conspirator.
When Connie dies, Benita is angry. Not only did she not know about his quest to end Hitler's reign of terror, but she also didn't care about it. Her experiences of being used and abused by Russian soldiers have irrevocably damaged her, and she is only able to exist by NOT worrying about the world around her.
Ania is a different story. She is sullen, resourceful, and hardworking. Marianne and Benita depend on her pragmatism. Ania eventually marries an older man from a nearby farm with the idea that her two sons will inherit the property after he dies, giving them a livelihood she could not otherwise have provided. When Ania's husband reappears on the scene, we realize that she is not a resistance widow at all; she's a woman trying to escape her Nazi past.
The wrong place at the wrong time?
As we read, we see that both Benita and Ania, like much of the population of Germany, were drawn in by Hitler's promises of better jobs and a better economic future. State-sponsored youth groups encouraged national pride and a sense of belonging.
In an interview with the author, Jessica Shattuck talks about her German heritage. For years, she didn't talk about it because she was ashamed. She was also aware that she loved her grandparents, both of whom had been involved in an agricultural camp program that was part of the Hitler Youth organization.
They happened to live in Germany at a time when someone came to power who promised better things, cloaking his evil in hope.
The Women in the Castle was written because Jessica Shattuck wanted to tell the story of “ordinary Germans” who fell "somewhere between the poles of victim and villain."
Shattuck says that like millions of other people - myself included - she wanted to know:
"How could the Holocaust have happened? How could ordinary people have allowed it to occur? How did they live with themselves afterwards?"
By examining the lives of these women, Shattuck paints a clearer picture of how "ordinary Germans" perceived Hitler and the war. Benita chooses to ignore politics. Ania tries to move forward by rewriting her history. Marianne fights for the refugees, the widows, the children, creating an admirable figure of the German Resistance. Years after the war, a historical writes a book about her, calling her "The Moral Compass of the Resistance."
In an ostrich-with-its-head-in-the-sand attitude, local villagers disregard rumors of atrocities. They ignore stories of people being led into the woods and shot. They believe that "claims of atrocities are fabricated." People who supported Hitler because of his hype-and-hope rhetoric were unwilling to alter their viewpoint.
Shattuck's characters illustrate the struggles of reconstructing lives after hope goes terribly awry. After bravery results in death. After a sense of belonging turns to a sense of superiority. After power contorts to abject cruelty and utter disregard for life.
Powerful scenes emanate from the pages
If you've ever been moved to tears by music, you'll understand the poignant scene of the first Christmas after the end of the war. The Women in the Castle attend an outdoor Catholic mass because, for the first time in years, the Enhrenheim orchestra is playing. After the devastation of war, the townspeople hear Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
Years later, Martin recalls that
"It was the first time, and one of the only times, he ever saw Germans crying in public. Not at the news of a dead loved one, or at the sight of their bombed home, and not in physical pain, but from spontaneous emotion. For this brief time they were not hiding from one another, wearing their masks of cold and practical detachment.
“The music stiffened the hardened sediment of their memory, chafed against layers of horror and shame, and offered a rare solace in their anger, grief, and guilt."
And if you're a musician, an artist or a writer, Martin's belief will vibrate within your very being:
Years later, as a professor, Martin would try to find the words to articulate the power of togetherness in a world where togetherness had been corrupted — and to explore the effect of the music, the surprising lengths the people had gone to hear it and to play it, as evidence that music, and art in general, are basic requirements of the human soul. Not a luxury but a compulsion.
What reviewers say:
“Moving… This is definitely not a story of plucky women banding together to fix up a chilly home.[Shattuck’s] achievement – beyond unfolding a plot that surprises and devastates – is in her subtle exploration of what a moral righteousness… looks like in the aftermath of the war, when communities and lives must be rebuilt, together.” — Mary Pol, The New York Times
Even as “The Women in the Castle” chronicles the guilt, shame and denial, Shattuck also credibly traces how the descent into madness could have happened, hardening good people one fatal misstep at a time.”— –Mike Fischer, Newsday (originally in Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
Jessica Shattuck's memorable novel has helped me begin to scrape the surface of "how could this have happened?" It hasn't yet helped me determine if I would have been brave enough to be a follower or a revolutionary, a person who ignored the truth or a person who fought for righteousness.
I can only hope that I'd have the courage Marianne had when she fought against Hitler. I can wish for the wisdom she offered at the end of the book when time has given her a new perspective. In a ceremony for the unveiling of the book about her, an elderly Marianne gives a speech. In it, she admits that her moral compass wasn't as strong in her personal life as it was in the wider political spectrum of the world.
With deep regret and painful honesty, Marianne delivers my favorite line from the book:
"There is so much gray between the black and white, and this is where so many of us live --trying, but so often failing -- to bend towards the light."
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Buy The Women in the Castle from Bookshop.org.