Jessica Shattuck was fascinated as a child seeing photographs of her German grandparents and their lives as younger people. In a NPR interview, Shattuck writes, “I loved to look at the old photo albums with my grandmother, and at some point we came across some pictures of my grandfather in Nazi uniform, and suddenly I had a whole different sense of what they had been a part of. I knew they had led these kind of agricultural youth programs, but seeing that he was wearing a Nazi uniform while leading the programs really drove home the point that their “ordinary German” experience was that of the Nazis.” Shattuck does a great job telling a story of three German women during the Fascist years who live together in a rundown, basically uninhabitable Bavarian castle immediately after WW2. These women are war widows whose husbands had been part of the resistance against Hitler. The men plot to assassinate Hitler in what we now call the 1944 July Plot or Operation Valkyrie. Much as been written about this plot, but never from the perspective of the wives and families left behind after the plotters are caught and executed.
Marianne von Lingenfels, the wife of one of the plotters and an aristocratic anti-Nazi promises the men that she will find their widows and provide for them after the war. Marianne is a privileged, controlling mother of three children and whose moral compass becomes a bad case of self-righteousness. However, she makes good on her promise and finds Benita Fledermann, a beautiful, flighty, apolitical young woman who married her childhood friend, Martin Constantine Fledermann. She rescues their young son Martin from a Nazi re-education home. Marianne finds another widow she doesn’t know but whose name appears on the list- Ania Grabereks and her two boys, Anselm and Wolfgang. Ironically, Ania was a true-blue Nazi, though years later she will tell her grown daughter she was too busy or too stupid to have really heard all the terrible things the Nazis were doing. All three of these women with varied backgrounds and belief systems are forced to live with choices and their consequences made during the war years. They are not all who they seem to be. These women represent three different experiences of Germany at the time. They represent the complexities of life for ordinary Germans under Nazism. And following the war, the women represent the aftermath of the Nazi horrors: shame, denial, complicity, self righteousness, trauma, forgiveness, reconciliation, guilt, survival, sacrifices.
What makes this well-written book even more fascinating is Shattuck’s family history. “What I felt was really relevant when I was writing this book was the question of, what did ordinary Germans…experience during that time, and how did they let this happen?” In the post-war years, we look at this whole experience through many lens, like the Holocaust, the Righteous Gentles, the political leaders and alliances, but Shattuck wants to “look at the German experience, the experience of the complicit and the enablers…What did ordinary Germans- the people whose lives sort of touched very peripherally on the darkness- experience during that time, and how did they let this happen? How did they either not see it, or blind themselves to it?”
I wanted to read this book because it kept showing up on Pinterest reading lists as excellent historical fiction. It did not disappoint.
Go to http://www.jessicashattuck.com and read the bonus chapter on Ania.
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