After World War II

The Women in the Castle     Jessica Shattuck     (2017)

I had sworn off reading more novels set in World War II, because there are enough global injustices in the current news. But I decided that I’d try The Women in the Castle, because it’s set primarily right after World War II. I knew by page 10 that I was in the hands of an capable writer and that I’d stick with this novel. I read it in one day, gritting my teeth through the flashbacks to horrific scenes from the war.

In the spring of 1945, as the Nazi war machine collapses, millions of people are on the move across the European continent: prisoners of war being released, Russian soldiers running amok, civilian refugees returning to ruined villages or settling in crowded camps for displaced persons. They walk unfathomable distances in all weather, beset by injuries, diseases, assaults, and starvation.

Among the roaming throngs are surviving members of the German Resistance movement. These are the men and women within Germany who did not accept Hitler’s vision for their country and who tried, numerous times but unsuccessfully, to assassinate the Führer. Jessica Shattuck tells the stories of three fictional “widows of the Resistance” as they scrape together the fragments of their lives.

Inside Germany, Marianne von Lingenfels and her three children take shelter in a crumbling ancestral castle of Marianne’s late husband, who was part of an assassination plot that led to gruesome execution for him and his fellow plotters. Marianne has made a vow to look after the families of her husband’s compatriots. She’s able to locate the widows Benita and Ania and their children and bring them to the castle, where they all lead a hardscrabble life.

This is the basis of the surface narrative in The Women in the Castle, and that narrative is full of secrets and mysteries, betrayals and senseless deaths, but also great love and kindness. The characters of the three women are distinct and deeply drawn as the plot moves back and forth in time.

The underlying story is more complex. Shattuck considers what it was like in the late 1930s to be pulled into the fascist maelstrom in Germany through something seemingly benign like the Landjahr Lager, a Nazi agricultural training and service program. She looks at how women survived World War II, particularly women in cities, where there was no access to food once all the shops had been bombed. She asks what political resistance really entailed on an individual level, in battle or in a concentration camp. She posits what it may have been like after the war for German resisters to live next door to returning Nazi soldiers—or worse, members of the SS. She explores the reactions of ordinary Germans to the incessant Nazi propaganda that covered up war atrocities. Here is a description of Ania, one of the widows in the novel:  “She knew of the horrors and she didn’t. She half knew—but there is no word for that. She knew it the way you know something is happening far way in a distant land, something you have no control over: earthquake refugees living in squalid conditions or victims in a foreign war.” (259)

I lived in Munich in 1973, one generation after the end of World War II. By then Munich had been rebuilt from rubble and was an immaculate, prosperous city with all the cultural amenities. But reminders of the war were all around in the form of the maimed bodies of many middle-aged and elderly men. No one ever talked about what had happened to the city or its inhabitants during the war. This silence of avoidance is exactly what Shattuck portrays in The Women in the Castle. With her powerful novel, I think that Shattuck is warning us that we must confront the hard truths of the past, lest we, too, be drawn into the xenophobia and bellicosity of a dictator.