The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

Standard

This is an awkward book. There isn’t really a plot as such, it jumps backwards and forwards between different years and different characters, and it doesn’t go into much depth about anything.  However, set mainly in Bavaria in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, it raises a lot of very challenging issues about the experiences of German women during the war, and the extent of complicity and collective guilt about the Nazi atrocities and how people did and didn’t deal with that.  It also makes the reader think about the general chaos in post-war Europe, about the differing attitudes of the Allies towards the German people – ranging from the American Quakers who sent Christmas presents for German children to the Soviet soldiers who brutally abused German and Austrian women – and about how the Nazis were able to win control in the first place.  It even mentions Salem school, briefly attended by Prince Philip.  Then it seems to come to the rather impractical conclusion that the best answer is to get away from Germany and move to the United States, the country where – don’t start discussing this bit with Donald Trump – everyone can start again.

There’s the odd horrendous historical blunder, notably referring to Namibia as “a former Habsburg colony”, but it seems to be accurate otherwise. The author, who’s American but has one German parent, is very familiar with Germany, and says that she wrote the book after finding out that her German grandparents were both committed Nazis.  I don’t know how you’d deal with that, and I don’t know how Germany’s dealt with it.  I think Germany’s tried, though.  It doesn’t try to make out that it was a victim.  And it doesn’t refuse to discuss what happened during the war – whereas Osaka has just broken off its twinning agreement with San Francisco, because San Francisco’s put up a statue honouring the women forced into brothels by wartime Japan.  Somehow, societies move on.  The states of the former Yugoslavia have done that, more recently.  Somehow.

There are three main characters in the book. Marianne, a Prussian aristocrat, is probably the central character.  The Bavarian castle in the title belonged to her late husband.  He, and her childhood friend Constantine – known as Connie, which really annoyed me, because he was supposed to be this very handsome, dashing, Alpha Male, and I’m not sure what was the idea of giving him such a feminine-sounding name! – were involved in the von Stauffenberg plot, and were executed as a result.  The book’s very vague on exactly what Marianne’s involvement was, and how come she and her children weren’t punished.  It’s also vague on how she came to marry a Bavarian, and the impression’s given that she always thought she and Connie would end up together, but it’s never really gone into.

Marianne had promised the two men that she’d try to take care of any other women whose husbands had been executed due to their role in the resistance. Maybe she’s the person the author wishes her grandmother had been – always vehemently opposed to the Nazis, unable to understand how everyone didn’t realise how evil they were, and unwilling to try to forgive anyone who’d played any sort of role in carrying out Nazi atrocities.  She can’t cope with living in Germany, and, in the end, she moves to America.  In old age, she publishes her memoirs of being a heroine of the Resistance.  Presumably her readers hear all about her role in the von Stauffenberg plot: it’s very irritating that we don’t!   And it’s then, eventually, that she accepts that maybe things weren’t as black and white as she thought.

Early on in the book, she traces Connie’s widow, Benita, and young son, Martin. Martin had been taken to a home for the children of “traitors”.  He copes well with the post-war world, but he ends up in America as well.  But Benita really suffers.  Like so many women in Germany and Austria, she was repeatedly raped by Soviet soldiers.  All credit to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee for the decision it made about this year’s awards.  Rape was used as a weapon of war throughout the war in the former Yugoslavia, and is being used now this minute in Rakhine province in Burma/Myanmar, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  The incredible Nadia Murad’s highlighted what IS did to Yazidi women.  The violence during Partition in the Indian sub-continent’s another example.  It’s thought that up to two million women were raped by Red Army soldiers in 1944-45.   Even some concentration camp survivors were attacked.  It hasn’t really been spoken about until recently.  It wasn’t only the Soviet troops, but it was particularly the Soviet troops.  Annoyingly, the book repeatedly uses the word “Russian” for “Soviet”, but that’s not unusual.

The Soviet attitude, insofar as there was one, seems to have been that the Germans and Austrians deserved everything they got, and that their troops were entitled to do what they liked after their part in defeating the Nazis. No. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

We learn that Benita was part of the League of German Girls, as a teenager. She had no great interest in politics, and regarded it as something like the Girl Guides.  She struggles, not surprisingly, to cope with what happened to her, but eventually forms a relationship with a former Nazi.  Marianne, who can’t understand this, persuades the man that it would be wrong for him to marry the widow of a former resistance hero.  He breaks off the engagement.  Benita eventually kills herself.

The most interesting of the women is Ania. Marianne brings her to the castle on the understanding that she’s the widow of someone Connie had worked with.  She manages the best of any of them, eventually remarrying and making a new life for herself on a farm.  But then it turns out that she isn’t who she says she is: she’d taken someone else’s papers.  She’d actually been deeply involved with the Nazis for years.  She’d bought into all the ideology: she’d been committed to it.  But she had, eventually, realised that she was wrong.

Ania’s story makes it frighteningly easy to see how an ordinary person could have been complicit in the Nazi atrocities. Her family and community had suffered badly as a result of the Great War.  They were then embittered further by the harshness of the post-war settlement, and by the occupation of the Rhineland by British and French troops, and the reparations demanded of Germany.  What a mess that settlement was: I saw on the BBC website earlier this week that the South Tyrol question’s reared its head again.  The Nazi youth groups seemed like good fun. They organised trips out into the countryside, and sports matches.  Everyone else belonged to them.  And the Nazis promised to make Germany great again.  Ania and her husband ran Nazi camps for young men.  She saw herself as a sort of housemistress.

She had some idea of what was going on, but she didn’t think about it much. It seemed distant, like something happening a long way away.  What do you do?  We have 24/7 news these days.  We know all about the Rohingya crisis, about Yemen, about Syria, about the Democratic Republic of Congo … what do we do about any of it?  Maybe share an article about it on Facebook.  Press the “sad” emoticon if one of our friends shares an article about it on Facebook.  I did sign a petition asking the Government to do something when news of the IS treatment of the Yazidi women first emerged, but I’m not sure what good I expected it to do.  Send the odd tenner to the Red Cross.  That’s all.

But at least you accept what’s going on. You don’t try to kid yourself that it isn’t happening.  You acknowledge that, and you hate it.  Ania can’t forgive herself for being complicit, and she also can’t forgive herself for her self-deception, for letting herself believe that people were just being “resettled”.  When babies and toddlers arrived at her camp, and were then taken away, she’d told herself that they were going to foster homes or orphanages.  It was when she’d accepted that they were being taken away to be killed that she’d left.

She makes a new life for herself, but never forgives herself. But her daughter, another one who ends up in America, working for a human rights organisation, does forgive her.  Ania reflects on the modern culture of baring your soul on TV chat shows and feeling that you’ve earned forgiveness that way, but knows that no amount of talking or soul-baring can ever put right what happened in Nazi Germany.

The book ends with a very minor character, the daughter of the man to whom Benita was briefly engaged, reflecting on how Nazism permeated everywhere in Germany, and how everyone’ll have old photos somewhere of parents or grandparents in Nazi uniform and or making the Nazi salute. Most of us will have photos of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, great-aunts or great-uncles during the war, and hopefully we’re all very proud of them.  It’s hard to understand how Germany deals with that.  I’ve been to Germany several times, and will hopefully be going again next month.  I’ve got absolutely no problem with modern Germany, or with today’s Germans.  But is it always there?  When Angela Merkel said that all Syrian refugees were welcome in Germany, people said that she, someone who wasn’t even born until nine years after the end of the war, was still trying to make up for what the Nazis did.

The idea of collective guilt and collective responsibility was certainly very much to the fore in 1945. The book touches on the de-Nazification programme but, frustratingly, only touches on it.  We’re told that there are leaflets and posters showing concentration camp victims, as part of the de-Nazification programme – that the Americans are trying to make the Germans face up to what happened.  But that most of the locals try to ignore them.  There were films too, although the book didn’t really mention them.

In the American zone, everyone had to fill in a form, and they were then all categorised as either Major Offenders, Offenders, Lesser Offenders, Followers or Exonerated Persons. The idea was to implement a full, detailed, de-Nazification programme.  But there just wasn’t the administrative manpower for it, especially once attention turned to the Cold War.  In the British zone, only those applying for official jobs had to fill in the forms.  In the French zone, they didn’t really bother at all.  As early as 1946, “de-Nazification” was handed over to the German authorities.  Not much happened – lack of time, lack of manpower, too much paperwork, other things to do – and it was abandoned as a bad job in 1951.

The book says too little about it, only that most people hoped to get away with being classed as Followers. It also touches on the vast numbers of people in Displaced Persons Camps, and on the post-war food crisis, but it doesn’t really explain any of it.  There’s too much it doesn’t explain, but what it does do is make you think.

Final thought. All the characters agree that they can start anew in America, where there’s openness, and where there’s no guilt.  The people who emigrate seem to have no trouble being allowed into America.  There was a ship called the St Louis, which took nearly 1,000 Jewish refugees to Cuba in 1939.  Cuba wouldn’t let them in.  The United States wouldn’t let them in.  Canada wouldn’t let them in.  I’m not having a go at those three countries:  there are all sorts of stories about people desperately pleading at every foreign embassy in Germany and Austria to be granted a visa, and being turned down.  Eventually, the ship had to sail back across the Atlantic.  I’m pleased to say that Britain agreed to take a third of those on board.  The others were eventually admitted to France, Belgium and the Netherlands: 254 of them were murdered after those countries were occupied by the Nazis.  In a couple of weeks’ time, Justin Trudeau will be issuing a formal apology for Canada’s refusal to take the refugees.  A lot of apologising goes on these days.  No guilt?

I’m not sure what I wanted from this book. I was hoping for more of a sense of Bavaria, but it said almost nothing about Bavaria: the castle could have been anywhere.  The idea of a castle being returned to a family who’d opposed the Nazis reminded me of Marie von und zu Wertheim, nee Marie von Eschenau, a favourite character in the Chalet School books; but there wasn’t much about the castle either.  It was a very unsatisfying book all round, but it certainly contained a lot of food for thought.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

  1. Chris Deeley

    Re Donald Trump: the New York Times’ first-ever front-page editorial was a piece condemning presidential candidate Warren G Harding, who the NYT regarded as a total rat-bag. History now shows that Harding was a great President (I would say the greatest), who paved the way for making America ‘great’. I wonder whether, in the case of Trump, history may repeat itself?

Hello! Please let me know what you think.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.