I’m happy to welcome Douglas R. Skopp back to Diary of an Eccentric today with part two of his guest post about writing and researching Shadows Walking (my review), a dark novel focusing on a physician in Nazi Germany that deals with the issue of medical ethics and is one of the best books I’ve read this year. I invite you to read part one if you missed it, and keep reading to find out how you can enter to win one of three signed copies of Shadows Walking.
Please give a warm welcome to Douglas Skopp:
I did not set out to write Shadows Walking, my novel about a Nazi doctor who commits crimes against humanity and then tries to explain to his estranged wife why he did what he did. Instead, I envisioned a scholarly work detailing and analyzing the historical context of Nazi medical practices. Before I could complete my research and produce a manuscript, however, several other excellent studies were published. All of them, I now see, are superior to anything I could have produced. And thanks to them, we know an incredible amount about the administration and practices of Nazi medicine, about its perverse experimentation on unwilling human beings, and about the sufferings of its victims. We especially know a great deal about the monstrous personalities and the highest ranking physicians and medical administrators who shaped the Nazis’ cruelties toward their victims.
Just the same, all of these studies, despite their merits, to my mind did not adequately explore the why or the how a typical, well-intentioned, thoughtful, even idealistic young physician could decide to become a Nazi. How could such a person do what we know Nazi doctors did? What could lead a person, especially a person whose career is supposed to be one anchored on compassion, to choose this path? And what would happen, I asked, if such a doctor came to realize what he had done? (For the record, most Nazi doctors did not acknowledge their crimes.) How would he try to explain himself? (Most shirked or denied blame.) And what should happen to him, once he did? (Most died in their beds, having resumed their practices in post-war Germany; some even achieved prominence and praise.)
My problem was, “ordinary” Nazi doctors did not leave a conspicuous paper trail. So I began to imagine one’s life, a composite of the fragments of some actual careers that I could trace through archival materials, the transcript of the Nuremberg Trials, and published autobiographies, biographies and historical studies. I wrote a “biography” of this imagined Nazi doctor. I put him into the context of the events he most likely would have experienced—the pre-World War I era of his childhood; World War I and the disappointment at Germany’s defeat; the hated, punitive Versailles Peace Treaty that demanded unimaginable reparations from Germany; the ensuing economic crises, especially the Great Depression; the euphoria in thinking that Adolf Hitler would solve all Germany’s problems. I knew that my typical Nazi physician would certainly be a strong nationalist throughout these events, rather than an internationalist, a socialist or a communist.
As the unavoidable backdrop to these events and the sentiments they evoked, I knew that my typical Nazi physician would have imbibed at least some of the pervasive, long-standing animosity toward Jews and the unspeakable racism that authenticated it. Anti-Semitism was by no means unique to Germany, or even at its zenith there; on the contrary, it was in minds and hearts wherever the sun shone down, in Europe, the Americas, even in places where there were hardly any Jews, such as Asia. Another, related ingredient in the values of those times was the sexism that held women in contempt; even while lip-service was given to them as mothers, they were seen as unfit and needed to be protected from the realities of a world they could not possibly understand or change.
My story would have to include the wide-spread enthusiasm for medical science as taught in all the major universities of the day. Leading the way was German medical science. It arrogantly promised itself that it would eliminate all human ailments and cure every disease. Medical science at the time was animated in great part by eugenics—the pseudo- scientific belief that human health—some even argued, the survival of our species—depended upon having the will to cull out and terminate those whose “lives were not worth living” and the “useless eaters.” At the same time, and more reasonably, there was enthusiasm for fresh air, good nutrition, exercise, and public hygiene as a way to transform the human race into noble specimens more like gods and goddesses than men and women.
By 1990, I had sketched out a “biography” of the main character, Johann Brenner, in Shadows Walking, my “ordinary” or typical physician. I gave him a family and friends. Johann’s childhood friend and fellow doctor, Philipp Stein, are like the serpents on the symbolic medical staff, their lives intertwined until their last, fateful meeting at Auschwitz. I created Brenner’s associates, and ultimately, his victims. I created a plot. I invented a disguise for Brenner once he survived the war. I gave him a voice, through his letter to his estranged wife, Helga. I began to write my novel.
Over the next twenty years, I wrote fourteen drafts. I had six working titles and nine possible endings. Given the diagnosis of my illness in 2008, I decided to publish it myself, hoping to see it on a shelf before I was on one myself. I know my novel is painful, even though I tried to keep as much of the atrocities that are its focus off stage. The truth is painful, my beloved grandmother used to tell me. But from this pain can come insight and, I fervently believe, understanding. Shadows Walking is my effort to contribute to this understanding. I hope it will help us become more aware of ourselves. Of how easy it would be to become a perpetrator. I hope it will help us become more humble. And more compassionate.
My students always came to life and had better insights when we were reading fiction from or about the era we were studying. I believe in fiction as a way to explore the past. It helps me discover others’ values and test my own, as a way to discover myself. Learning about others’ lives helps me learn about my own potential—my capacity to be whatever the historical record shows human beings have been—saints and sinners; beggars and royals; the powerful and the powerless; the wise and the foolish; the brilliant composers and the maniacal destroyers; a Mozart, a Mengele; a creator, a destroyer; one who does good, and one who, like Camus’s protagonist in The Fall, walks by someone in need of help. The past is a mirror in which I can see myself, if I choose to look at it clearly.
As best I can, I need to know what made a well-intentioned, reasonable man willingly choose to become a Nazi doctor. I think we all need to know this, if we can. We might then see something of ourselves in him and better guard ourselves against the hatred that overcame him, the hatred that might overcome us. We might better appreciate the courage of his victims and more fully regret their pain. We might find the courage to stand up to tyranny and hatred, today, or, if not today, then tomorrow.
Yes, Shadows Walking is a painful, cautionary tale. But underlying it is my fervent hope that we need not repeat the past. This hope animated me throughout my career as an historian. It shaped every moment I had with my students. And it still gives me the courage to believe that as human beings, we will someday fully appreciate how precious all of us are within this wondrous world that we share. Teaching this, believing this, hoping for this has been my life’s work.
Thank you so much, Doug, for taking the time to explain your thought process. I enjoyed delving deeper into the book through your guest post, and I wish you all the best!
Courtesy of the author, I am offering three signed copies of Shadows Walking to readers with U.S. addresses. Those who are interested will have three opportunities to win: by commenting on this post, my review, and part one of the guest post. I will choose one winner from the pool of commenters on each post. Simply leave a comment on this post about what intrigues you most about the book, and be sure to include your e-mail address. This giveaway will close at 11:59 pm EST on Sunday, May 13, 2012.
**Please note that this giveaway is now closed**
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