The Women in the Castle, Jessica Shattuck, author; Cassandra Campbell, narrator
It is 1938. The place is Burg Lingenfels, in Germany. A traditional yearly party is being planned by Marianne von Lingenfels for her aunt, the countess, who is confined to a wheel chair and no longer able to supervise the arrangements for this yearly festive celebration at the castle. It is also a terrible time of foreboding for certain segments of the German population. Hitler is in power and is being extolled and lionized, more and more, by his followers. The worst is yet to come as he puts his plans in motion. Some Germans sensed the approaching onslaught and wanted to do something to prevent it. Others faced the rumors of German brutality with disbelief, and there were some who were simply in denial because it served their purpose to pretend blindness and reap the benefits of German cruelty and injustice. Others outright supported his plans for a “Final Solution”. Who was guiltier? Who was free from guilt? The story seems to be an attempt to understand and humanize Nazi sympathizers. They had their reasons for doing what they did, and in the end, didn’t they suffer as well?
Three women are the main characters. Marianne, the niece of the countess, is married to Albrecht von Lingenfels. He is of the aristocracy, wealthy and well thought of, and he is very much involved in conversations about setting up a resistance movement against the policies of Hitler, but he needs some additional convincing.
Another is a beautiful young woman, Benita Fledermann, the wife of Connie Fledermann a man who actively pursues the effort to resist Hitler and hopes to create a resistance movement. She, however, is a Nazi sympathizer. She met Connie when she was 19 and was the leader of a group of young girls in the Bund Deutscher Madel, the BDM, Belief and Beauty, a branch of the Nazi Organizations Female Youth Group.
The third woman calls herself Ania Grabarek when she meets Benita and Marianne. She was once the wife of Rainer Brandt, a leader of a Landjahr Lager, a place where German youth were trained to become part of Hitler’s new agrarian society. When she met him, he persuaded her to join the Nazi Party. When she met Marianne, she was pretending to be a displaced person rather than someone who had once been a Nazi sympathizer married to a devout Nazi. She had become disillusioned with Hitler when she witnessed atrocious behavior by his followers and had taken her children and run away from her husband and the Party.
Circumstances evenutually placed all three women together, sharing a living space. Each had a different agenda and hidden secrets. Each had a different way of looking at life, of surviving during and after World War II. Marianne believed in doing the right thing, in honoring the memory of the resisters, in helping those who were hurt by Hitler’s minions. However, she was self righteous and cold hearted at times, unable to forgive the things she did not approve of or to accept the wrongdoing of others, for any reason. She did not want the black deeds of Germany to be relegated to the forgotten shelves of history. Was she self-serving? Belita wanted to go forward and to lose the burden of her memories and her pain. She wanted to begin again, to have a new life, forget the past, but would it be possible? Ania wanted to escape from her past. She had always disregarded her own deceptions and created a false history, distorting the things she had done in order to excuse her own complicity and guilt. When she could no longer do that, she reversed course and wanted only to remember and would not forgive herself for her sins. Was that the right path?
While the story is interesting as it presents the effect of Hitler on Germans of all backgrounds, rather than only his specific targeted victims, it attempts to make those complicit with his ideas sympathetic in some way. I could not do that, perhaps because I am Jewish. I know the impact of the monster named Hitler, and his followers, on real people. There was no one who was truly blind to his madness, as far as I am concerned. There were simply those who chose to turn a blind eye to it because they saw only benefits for themselves and saw no downside.
Perhaps the author wanted to figure out what it was that created the Nazi or how it was possible for Germans to go forward with such a stain on their country’s history. What was the motivation for their brutality, what was the reason for their acquiescence, their hate? In a simplified explanation, perhaps it was because Germany had suffered a devastating defeat after World War I and was totally strapped and shamed. It was a self-inflicted wound to a country that had sought once again to overpower weaker neighbors. So, perhaps Hitler was the result of a disastrous economy and humiliated citizenry. They were demoralized. However, couldn’t it also be blamed on jealousy and greed, on a lack of a moral compass, on religious bias, and pure prejudice, coupled with a disregard for the lives of humans they decided were worth less than themselves. More likely it was about a pervasive ignorance of common decency and the Germanic personality which was orderly and cold, rigid and mechanical. Emotional responses were not highly valued. Little compassion was felt for the victims because the end result was considered good for Germans and Germany.
I simply cannot feel sorry for their suffering, therefore, which I feel was truly deserved because of their own belligerent, reprehensible behavior. Their actions were the harbinger of their own disaster. Where did they think the empty apartments came from? Where did they think that the clothing that was dispersed came from? Where did they think the people were resettled to? How did they not notice the cattle cars, the smell of burning flesh, the people who suddenly disappeared? Where did they think the disabled and mentally deficient people disappeared to? Why did they even think the Jews needed to be removed? What did they think would happen to their possessions that were left behind? Did they not notice the slave laborers who looked like zombies, the emaciated people marching through town? Who did they think were filling the jobs at the factories?
This is a story about Germans before the war, and in its aftermath, and it is an attempt to explain the way they became the people they were, but it is also the story of all of us, as cruelty still abounds and a lack of personal responsibility flourishes even today. Far fewer fought Hitler than complied with his ultimate plan. Perhaps it was greed at first, and fear of Hitler, later on, that made so many go along with his diabolical ideas, but that only explains the motivation behind their behavior, it cannot and does not justify the things that the Nazi sympathizers did or ignored. They did everything they could in order to benefit and preserve their own families, even as they tolerated the injustices done to the families of “others”. They did not recognize their own complicity in the contemptible policies of Hitler. If we look around today, we will see evidence of the same kind of blindness, the same pattern of blaming others for one’s own failures, the same inability to judge one’s own behavior honestly.
I can out Germany’s tragic history behind me, and surely history will, but I wonder, should they be forgiven? Would forgiveness open the door to the idea of forgetting and perhaps to another Holocaust? Perhaps the answer is to accept the fact that it happened and to work to prevent it from ever happening again, to anyone, and to understand that we are all valuable. None are less or more than any other. Will the strong continue to prey upon the weak, the wicked to do evil if we don’t continue to remember?