A country in denial

Jessica Shattuck’s latest novel evokes what women endured under Hitler, and how Germans had to bury their past.

A Bavarian castle after World War II hosts three German women bound together by Nazi horrors (photo credit: ILLUSTRATIVE PHOTO: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
A Bavarian castle after World War II hosts three German women bound together by Nazi horrors
Late in Jessica Shattuck’s The Women in the Castle, the daughter of a German soldier who’d once loaded Jews into Treblinka- bound trucks, walks the Bavarian castle grounds where much of this novel unfolds. It’s 1991, but her thoughts travel back a half century.
“As a German,” she thinks, one “knows that if you start poking through a shoebox of photographs, you’ll find Nazi uniforms and swastikas and children with their arms raised in ‘Heil Hitler’ salutes.”
While much of Shattuck’s well-researched novel takes place in the immediate aftermath of World War II, the three surviving women at its center are haunted by the dozen years of the Thousand Year Reich – “a great unknowable continent of experience,” as Shattuck calls it, that both binds them together and threatens to tear them apart.
Marianne, who inherits the castle, is the wealthy daughter of Prussian aristocrats and is married to a man hanged for his role in the 1944 plot to kill Hitler. Principled as a child – when her friends nicknamed her “The Judge” – she remains so as an adult, castigating those Germans who refuse to own up after the war to what they’d done.
But in a book where Shattuck manages to be both morally tough-minded and remarkably empathetic toward all of her characters, even this sometimes strident voice of conscience exhibits blind spots.
Shattuck lets us see what Marianne too readily forgets: her moral qualms are not just a mark of her often admirable and heroic character, but also a luxury made possible by wealth and status, protecting her during and after the war. As we’ll see, she’s a direct beneficiary of that war in ways that align her with every limousine liberal who decries privilege while still enjoying it.
The two poorer women and their children joining Marianne in her castle in the summer of 1945 confront tougher choices.
Benita, the less complicated of the two, is a Bavarian peasant whose beauty had led to marriage with the man she initially thinks of as her “prince”: another of the conspirators whose plot to assassinate Hitler costs him his life. Marianne treats her like a child; in some ways she is one.
But she also endures suffering of a sort Marianne cannot begin to fathom.
Marianne plucks the more inscrutable and reflective Ania and her sons from a displaced persons’ camp; the two will become best friends until, suddenly, they’re not – sundered by lies Ania has told in order to survive.
Shattuck is best in the second half of her book, as she turns her gaze on those immediate postwar years when lying in Germany was both a survival tactic and way of life.
Whether fishing along a riverbank where concentration-camp victims were once shot, making a living as a wedding photographer after serving as photo editor for the Nazi newspaper, or spreading a “thin quilt” of “peace and plenty” “over a pile of” manure, the Germans of the late 1940s and early 1950s are portrayed as a country of people denying who they’d been.
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: “She knew of the horrors and she didn’t,” we’re told of one woman, sketched through Shattuck’s close third-person narration, shifting among and giving voice to multiple characters. “She knew it the way you know something is happening far away in a distant land, something you have no control over: earthquake refugees living in squalid conditions or victims in a foreign war.”
Shattuck’s effective, cross-cutting temporal shifts – from Kristallnacht in 1938 to the end of the war in 1945, forward to 1950 and then back to the 1920s and 1930s – underscore the ongoing, nightmarish yesterday that Germany continued to live, long after the war ended. As one character ruefully learns, one ultimately cannot narrate “away evil while staring it in the face.”
■ (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/TNS)