The German Enigma

A bestselling author explores the ambivalence of a Nazi past.

The German Enigma

What do you say about an author who got her undergraduate degree from Harvard and honed her writing skills with an MFA from Columbia? Jessica Shattuck is not prolific. Her debut novel, The Hazards of Good Breeding, was a New York Times Notable Book in 2003. Her third, 2017’s The Women in the Castle, was a bestseller, and her fourth, Last House, is due out May 14th.

It’s that third book, set in Germany before and after World War II, that caught my attention because it concerns the July 20, 1944, attempt to assassinate Hitler, an event surprisingly little known in this country. The plot was not successful, of course, and the conspirators were either executed or committed suicide.

The main conspirator was Claus von Stauffenberg, played by Tom Cruise in the 2008 movie “Valkyrie,” but another ringleader was Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh in the film). When I was a journalist in Frankfurt, I got to know his son Rüdiger, who was a partner at a private bank.

The elder von Tresckow blew himself up with a grenade in Poland after the failed assassination. The younger von Tresckow and I spoke of his father and the aftermath of the plot. Our conversation was quite moving, as was the whole notion that there was opposition to Hitler among the Germans.

The Women in the Castle deals with the widows of three of the plotters. Each of the women has her own past and own motives, and the narrative explores this past, the immediate aftermath of the war, and subsequent developments.

Shattuck relates that she talked to her German grandmother at length about the Nazi period, and her novel is filled with Germans’ ambivalence toward Hitler and the war. It is imbued with a profound understanding of Germany and the problem of the past.

Germany remains wary of its Nazi history and condemns far-right movements, but they crop up periodically. The so-called Alternative for Germany, AfD, openly espouses a combination of nationalism and triumphalism. This right-wing party has fallen lately into disrepute due to its members taking part in a conspiracy redolent of the Final Solution and, most recently, from the staffer of an AfD candidate for the European Parliament being linked to Chinese espionage.

It may all seem remote from American concerns, but U.S. involvement in the defeat of the Nazis, the aftermath of the war, the history of West Germany, and the role of the first President Bush in that country’s reunification, not to mention America’s ongoing military presence in Germany, make it relevant.

On top of that, the current travails in this country stemming from the Israeli war in Gaza and the Jewish-Palestinian conflict overall make the issue startingly timely. The ambivalence portrayed in The Women in the Castle resonates today in a way that’s impossible to ignore.

Darrell Delamaide, a journalist and writer in Washington, DC, is the author of four books, including a financial thriller and an historical novel.

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