Douglas R. SKOPP
Published by CreateSpace in 2010
Softcover received from the author
This book counts for the following Reading Challenges:
MY THOUGHTS ABOUT THIS BOOK
I started Shadows Walking in 2012 and it was one of the first books I finished in 2013. But I needed time to digest it all.
Let me tell you right away that if you are interested in German history, in the Nazi era, and in what happened then, you need absolutely to read this novel. Fruit of 20 years of study and work, it is extremely rich and multi-layered.
You can also easily read it as a warning to what can happen with a nice logical and good-looking system, especially when people’s minds are getting progressively led not to think (nowadays, thanks to easy entertainment and lack of culture); whatever the country and the century.
This story is set during the Nuremberg Trials. Johann is a janitor in the building. For fear of being finally recognized and arrested for what he did as a Nazi doctor, he can’t resolve to live in the open and go back home. His wife Helga, ignorant of her husband’s role and occupation during the war, does not understand his behavior; so he decides to write a long letter to her.
Each chapter of the novel begins with a passage of this letter; it goes on with his souvenirs and reflections, and narrations of his life during WWII, as they come back to him while listening to the Nuremberg trials.
It is also about Philipp’s story. Philipp is Jewish. They became friends when they were both medical students.
This is how the author presents the book himself in the Afterword:“In 1990, when I realized that I could not add anything significant to the formal scholarship om medical ethics in Nazi Germany, I decided to write a firmly grounded historical novel. There I could more creatively explore, could try to imagine, if you will, the mind and motives of what I believed to be an “ordinary” Nazi doctor. My novel describes such a doctor, able, for a while, to justify his actions and believe he was still fulfilling his sworn responsibilities to “do no harm.” It tells the story of his descent into this abyss. And it allows me to raise two questions: first, what, if anything, can a perpetrator do to redeem himself? and second, what should society do if it becomes aware of his deeds?
I will now give a few vignettes of different things that struck me in the book.
The image of the train is haunting all along the book: the one leading young Germans to the French war front of WWI, the ones driving Jews to concentration camps, the ones full of coffins on their back to Germany during the war; the trains our main characters take, to places they dream of, to their destiny.
The author translated very well the historical background after WWI, with the German population weighed down by the shame of having lost the war, with Veterans having lost their identity and purpose, and being reduced to begging.
In parallel with the veneer of Berlin life right before WWII, it is shocking to see life lived at different levels of society, mesmerized by a man whom they thought could give back the country its original glory.
Of course a lot is about medicine and the theme of eugenics. Because of the socioeconomic situation of Germany, eugenics seemed first a means for a good cause, at least to Johann who did an internship with a famous Swiss doctor in that field. Overwhelmed by the suffering of his patients, Johann thought euthanasia would be a good thing for them and for the German society at large. And then his own daughter got polio…
From there the door is right open to sterilization…
Skopp translates extremely well how the characters evolved and let themselves slowly but surely get trapped in foolish and evil ideas, ideas that appeared good at first. The whole Nazi system is presented in its scary logical cold reasoning, leaving no room for empathy or humanistic thoughts.
It is unfortunately not too difficult to do some transposition, and think about the consequences some political logical decisions could have…
The whole theme of dreams, delusions, and fantasy is omnipresent. There’s also a lot on the themes of religion and violence.
The ending is very clever, like a sword of Damocles you may have expected for a while…
- (Johann stumbles upon a mesmerizing speaker à la Hitler): And he saw how the speaker by himself, without the willing crowd, was meaningless, an absurdity. How the crowd, not the leader, held power and raised him up like a hero on their shoulders. Supporting a leader who told them what to do might be as close as those in the crowd would ever come to feeling powerful, to taking control of their destiny. Even if it meant giving up everything they believed in, and being told what they should believe from now on. pp.41-42
- I was willing, so many of us were willing, to do what we thought we had to do to gain the future we believed we deserved… I let my own angers and fears ensnare me and become my master. The demon was not Hitler. It was me. p.173
- People prefer begin led than to thinking for themselves. p.187
- He found refuge in believing what he heard and read, even if that was absurd. That was more reassuring, more comforting than painful, time-consuming reasoning could ever be. So Johann bowed to Hitler. p.244
- Idealism corrupted by indifference. The cause of our ruin. Germany’s. His. Mine. p.301
WHAT IS IT ABOUT
Johann Brenner, an idealistic physician and ardent German nationalist, has joined the Nazi Party and willingly participated in its “crimes against humanity.” His Jewish childhood friend, Philipp Stein, has also become a doctor. Their lives inevitably intersect until their last, fateful meeting.
After the war, Brenner, with stolen papers and a new name, has become a janitor in the courthouse where the Nuremberg Trials are being held. Hoping to “heal himself” and wishing to begin a new life with his estranged wife, he decides that he must write her a letter telling what he has done and why.
Brenner’s letter sets the theme for each chapter of Shadows Walking. Through his letter, we see him admit his choices and their consequences as he slips deeper and deeper into the brutality of the Third Reich. [author’s website]
Please visit his website, which contains a lot of extra materials, as well as an impressive list of data and documents showing the seriousness of his research.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Douglas R. Skopp attended public schools in Los Angeles, California. He attended Dartmouth College, where he studied European history and German, and Albert-Ludwigs Universität in Germany, graduating from Dartmouth in 1963. He received a Master’s in Medieval Studies at Connecticut College (1964) and a Ph.D. in European history, focusing on modern Germany, from Brown University (1974). From 1972 until his retirement from the State University of New York at Plattsburgh in 2006 with the rank of Distinguished University Teaching Professor of History, he taught courses on aspects of the World Wars, the Holocaust, medieval and modern Europe, education in Western civilization, survey courses in European history, and research skills and methods.
In 1989, he received the SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. In 1985-1986, he received a Fulbright Award to research medical ethics in Germany between 1880 and 1945; that research provided the base for this novel.
An inaugural Fellow in SUNY Plattsburgh’s Institute for Ethics in Public Life, Skopp continues to assist in his retirement in the Institute’s “guided inquiry” faculty seminars on ethics, ethical practices, and the curriculum. Skopp also serves as SUNY Plattsburgh’s College Historian. Having taken twenty years to write this book, he doubts that he will ever attempt another (at least his wife hopes so.)
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