In her award-winning novel, The Women in the Castle, Jessica Shattuck explores what happened in Germany during World War II, as well as how “ordinary Germans” were swept up in the Nazi movement, and the profound moral reckoning individuals experienced during the long aftermath. In a gripping tale that spans decades, three German widows and their children come together in a decaying castle in the years immediately following the war to create a family, weighing the words, actions, and silences that have led them to their moment in history. Shattuck is in conversation January 12th with local author and University of Michigan Creative Writing Director, Laura Thomas, at Nicola’s Books. Current caught up with Shattuck to discuss her journey into history and how the novel’s insights relate to the present day.
In your nonfiction work, you’ve discussed the importance of understanding “not just what happened, but how.” What do you mean?
I’m half -German and grew up hearing stories about my mother’s childhood in World War II Germany. Later, I spent time interviewing my grandmother about her experiences during the war, leading up to it, and after. I tried to understand how a woman like my grandmother, whom I knew to be a generous, kind, and upstanding person, could have been swept up in a movement that later became synonymous with evil. As I dug deeper and tried to inhabit my characters, I was compelled to think more about how people normalize and rationalize the events happening around them, what they saw with their own eyes, and even more frequently and importantly, what they heard or gathered rumors about, how they turned those pieces into something more benign and more acceptable to themselves.
A friend of my mother’s was the daughter of someone executed for his role in the failed July 20th assassination attempt, so I always knew about a different German history, that there were people who resisted. It made an impression on me that there was a group of people who had a very different understanding of what was happening as it was unfolding in front of them in real time, and they took action. I knew I wanted to have characters from both ends of a spectrum, I don’t think they’re extreme villains, nor are they extreme victims. They aren’t totally heroic, but rather in that big swath of greyness where I think most people live.
Why focus the narrative on the end of the war and the years following?
My mother was born in 1943 and her early stories were in the ‘40’s. They fascinated me because they were so remote from my own American life. On the farm where she grew up, they were still using a horse and plow until the early ‘50’s, they would walk barefoot to school when the weather was warm enough because they didn’t have shoes that fit. Trying to contextualize that and understand why it was that way in Germany was important to me. As I learned more, I realized there was very little about that time, especially in fiction translated into English. I thought more about what all these “ordinary Germans” were grappling with about their personal histories, and how much was subterranean because no one was talking about it. Everyone was reckoning with their own pasts; what they had done and not done in a very personal and private way. That is the province of the novel.
Something that encapsulates that for me is how little we know about the Displaced Persons Camps which were a big part of life in postwar Germany. The last one didn’t close until 1957. The last German prisoner of war came home from Russia in 1956. We in America kind of think, 1945, D Day, it was over. The Marshall Plan kicked in. Happy ending. Triumph of ideology and freedom and democracy. But, it’s almost like there’s the war, and then there’s the afterwar, and the two parts are equally expensive and complicated and require enormous energy.
Ania and Benita are two characters who are well-versed in modes of silence: silence as complicity, silence as strategy, silence as grace. Can you discuss the sense of silence for these characters?
There is an enabling silence during the war that both those characters are complicit in, partly because they are willfully blind to what is actually happening. They aren’t carrying around secrets, but they are deceiving themselves, choosing not to ask too many questions, to keep quiet about anything strange, and to tell themselves whatever they want to make it possible to sleep at night. That’s the early silence. After the war, at least in the case of Ania, who is aware in her heart of the perversion of words and language during the Third Reich, she has a deep skepticism of the power of language to undo anything or create anything, and, therefore, silence is her true way of being. She is skeptical of the American belief in talk therapy; actions are what matter in the end. Her silence in the second half of the book, after the war, is an attempt to be truthful. Also an attempt to recognize that the evil is so great that words can’t encapsulate it. Her own sense of guilt is so huge, there’s a sense there isn’t a language to properly express her experience.
You started this book 8 years ago. This paperback edition comes out in the era of President Trump. How does it feel for it to be landing in today’s current political climate?
There are obviously so many parallels, but something I come back to is that our human search for simple answers can be dangerous. It’s an increasingly complicated global world where we are not only bringing our kids to school and voting in the local mayoral election and trying to keep up with what that means for our day to day lives, but also trying to, and being expected to, understand what is going on in Syria, how that is affecting what is happening in Greece, how that’s affecting what’s happening in Germany. The complexity of living in this global world can be overwhelming. As a well-educated person, I feel that way, and I think if I had less education, I would probably feel even more overwhelmed in trying to find sense and meaning of all this. A logical place to go, to look, is for the simplest answers. That leads to interest in leaders who offer the simplest answers and break things down in very clear black and white equations. Writing this book brought home the fact that is a very dangerous type of leader. It is an understandable, but dangerous impulse in human beings in modern society to search for simple answers.
Something else I started thinking about is the dangerous power of narrative and how important it is to separate thin from fat. Many Germans honestly believed Hitler’s story about the Jews being part of an international Bolshevik conspiracy that was aiming at overthrowing Germany. Many were afraid, and that was how they rationalized what was happening, that was how they believed that Jews and others were being shipped off to settlements. They left it at that, this vague idea. They were not envisioning the horrific reality we now know concentration camps to have been. They listened to the company line, to what Goebbels and Hitler were putting out there. They didn’t stop to do their own investigating, which is not always possible, but as much as we can, we have to try to cross-examine these narratives and find the fact.
We sometimes forget when we’re looking at books about WWII, and books about the Holocaust specifically, that we have learned a lot from what happened. Pre WWII, in Germany and Europe in general, and even in America to a large extent, racism and stereotyping were totally acceptable. It was no problem to be talking about big groups of people in very general, sweeping ways, and making rules and assumptions and laws that were unequal. I think the Holocaust showed us the danger of where that can lead.
Now you have people acknowledging the danger of where this rhetoric can lead.
Right. The red flag goes up way earlier now. There was no red flag waving when Hitler started talking about the Jews, whereas now there would be. In general, we have a lot more defenses against that.
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