Although I managed to escape the Nazi trap for a while — thanks to you, Helga, more than to any great wisdom on my part — eventually I was blinded by my selfishness. I let my own angers and fears ensnare me and become my master. The demon was not Hitler. It was me.
(from Shadows Walking, page 173)
Shadows Walking is a detailed character study that spans the world wars and focuses on a physician who must come to terms with the horrific things he’s done. Set right after World War II in Nuremberg during the war crimes trial of nearly two dozen Nazi doctors, the novel focuses on Johann Brenner, a physician turned custodian who writes a letter to his wife to explain how he got caught up in Nazi politics and allowed himself to violate the Hippocratic Oath. Author Douglas R. Skopp presents readers with a portion of the letter at the start of each chapter, then takes readers back in time to show the man Johann was and the idealistic life he lived before World War I and how the economic downturn in the wake of Germany’s defeat and the war reparations sparked so much anger and shame and paved the way for Hitler and the Nazi Party to take control, building the nation up before leading it and its people to ruin.
Skopp shows how Johann was slowly pulled toward the Nazis, how overzealous patriotism was rampant following World War I, how his studies led him to the field of eugenics, and how he so easily came to believe the arguments that Jews (and gypsies and people of mixed race, etc.) were polluting the Fatherland and were to blame for all of Germany’s ills. He describes how shops went out of business and food became scarce, and he personalizes all this by having it happen to Johann and his family.
But not everyone falls under Hitler’s spell. Johann’s wife, Helga, is distressed by her son’s excitement with the Hitler Youth and urges Johann not to join the Party, and Skopp juxtaposes Johann’s experiences as an “ordinary” German with the experiences of his best friend, Philipp Stein. Philipp grew up in the same town as Johann and also became a physician, but as a German Jew, his experiences are dramatically different than Johann’s. With the Nazis in power, Johann’s personal and professional horizons are broadened, but Philipp’s world gets smaller and smaller.
Skopp performed years of research to write Shadows Walking, and it shows. There is so much history within these pages, and Skopp does a great job merging the fictional characters with the real people, from Karl Brandt to Josef Mengele. The only problem I had with the book was the passage of time. If I wasn’t familiar with the events leading up and through World War II, I wouldn’t have known how much time had passed between chapters and what year the characters were in. But that’s only a minor issue with a book that likely will make my list of favorite books read during 2012.
Shadows Walking addresses how people could believe the Nazi propaganda, how they could believe that Jews were less than human, and how and why doctors could willingly harm their patients. It wasn’t an easy book to read, having to get inside Johann’s head and see why he does the things he does. It’s like you can understand how he could do it, what led him to do it, but at the same time you don’t and could never understand him, if that makes any sense. And with detailed descriptions of medical experiments, it’s definitely not for the faint of heart. About halfway through the book, I had to put it down and read something lighter, but I also couldn’t wait to get back to it because I wanted to know what happened.
This book made me sad, angry, and sick to my stomach. I hated Johann, his faulty thought processes, and his evil actions, and I also hated that by the end of the book, I realized there had been times when I felt sorry for him. Of course, the extent of my sympathy toward him was nowhere near the sorrow I felt for the victims, but the fact that I felt it at all was disturbing. But I think that’s what Skopp intended, for readers to see that people just like you and me got caught up in all the madness. Johann was smart, he was a decent husband and father who worked hard to support his family, and he had the same worries about money and health that we all have. Yet Johann was a Nazi, he was so quick to blame other people for his problems, and he took it all to the extreme. No one wants to believe they could ever sink as low as Johann did; just the mere thought of it is downright frightening.
Shadows Walking is a heavy, heavy book, but I highly recommend it if you want to delve deeper into medical ethics during World War II or see just how the post-World War I environment set the stage for the Holocaust. I know some readers are wary of self-published novels, but I want to stress that this book is well researched and well written. Skopp told me that he decided to self-publish after he became ill, realizing he’d rather get his book out there sooner rather than later. It’s the kind of book you want to talk about while reading — believe me, my husband knows all about that! — and it’s the kind of book that will haunt you long after you’ve finished it. For more information about the historical aspects of the novel, visit Skopp’s website.
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 review and on part one and part two of the guest post by Douglas Skopp. 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**
Disclosure: I received Shadows Walking from the author for review.
© 2012 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.