Albrecht had not approved at first. Assassination. Murder. It was not the culmination he wanted for the resistance movement. In his estimation, injustice could be fought only with justice — he was a lawyer to the core. Murder was evil. This was an absolute. But if it would end the war and prevent the murder of thousands? Even millions? They had debated this often deep into the night with him probing his own convictions and Marianne playing devil’s advocate. Although in fact, she was not the devil’s advocate. She believed Connie and von Stauffenberg and the others were right. Hitler must be killed.
Jessica Shattuck, The Women in the Castle
The “women in the castle” are widows of three of the men who participated in the failed plot to assassinate Hitler in July 1944. In the aftermath of the war, they and their children take refuge in Burg Lingenfels, an ancient, crumbling castle in Bavaria. Their only common bond is that their husbands sacrificed their lives in a futile effort to save their country from Hitler. Marianne von Lingenfels, the moral center of the novel and “the product of an oppressively proper Prussian upbringing”, shelters her fellow war widows and their children in the safest place she knows, a fortress once famous for parties that celebrated “liberal, bohemian culture.”
The novel opens on November 9, 1938, the date that Nazis carried out pogroms against German Jews in the infamous attacks that would later be known as Kristallnacht. That night, at a party at Burg Lingenfels, the news reaches Marianne, her husband, Albrecht, her close childhood friend, Martin Constantine (Connie) Fledermann, and others who oppose Hitler. Shocked and saddened, they “commit to active resistance from this day forward”. Although she is insulted by the men’s chauvinism, Marianne agrees to be “the commander of wives and children”, a role she takes seriously, “long after Connie was dead, Albrecht was dead, Germany itself was dead, and half the people at the party were either killed, destroyed by shame, or somewhere between the two . . .”.
The novel jumps to June 1945, when Marianne rescues Connie’s widow, Benita Fledermann, a young and uneducated woman from a small village, who has been held captive by the Russians in Berlin, along with her young son, who spent the war in a “Children’s Home” run by the Gestapo. Later, Marianne tracks down Ania Grabarek, widow of Pietre Grabarek, a Polish resister, in a displaced persons camp and brings her and her two sons to the castle.
The rest of the novel is devoted to the women’s experiences during and after the war, as Jessica Shattuck skillfully shifts points of view and time periods. The story, which both begins and ends at Burg Lingenfels, is not a traditional plot, but the unfolding of the women’s lives as they grapple with the guilt they feel for their wartime actions. In this way, they are emblematic of the German people, faced with their complicity in Nazi war crimes. But each of the women emerges as a believable, full recognized character. Readers may not agree with some of their choices, but they will understand.
In an interview, the author describes the origins of her novel: her German mother and Nazi grandparents. She spent a summer during college interviewing her grandmother, who was remarkably open about Nazism. (Shattuck’s grandfather, a “difficult and intimidating figure” was not as forthcoming.) Shattuck realized that many, if not most, members of her grandparents’ generation (“ordinary Germans”) were enthusiastic Nazis. Her grandmother wanted to talk about how this could have happened:
And she wanted to explain how it was possible that she could have been swept up in a movement that later became synonymous with evil. She did not want to be forgiven. She wanted to be understood. This is, I think, an important and often confused distinction. And in some ways, it formed the foundation of my novel.
Another source of inspiration for The Women in the Castle was a reunion of the wives and children of resisters that Shattuck attended:
One of my mother’s best friends was the daughter of a man executed for his role in the July 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. The summer after my mother died, I accompanied this friend to her mother’s eightieth birthday party . . . Suddenly I was surrounded by people who had a wholly different connection to their German past: their loved ones had been heroes rather than villains.
Shattuck says that although “The Women in the Castle centers on three widows of resisters, it is as much a book about complicity as it is one about resistance.” Franz Muller, with whom Benita falls in love, is tortured by his complicity in atrocities. I wasn’t surprised to read in Shattuck’s Acknowledgments that Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland by Christopher R. Browning was one of her sources. One of the most powerful and thought-provoking books I’ve ever read, Ordinary Men describes how a group of middle-aged men willingly murdered thousands of innocent Jews, even though they would suffer no negative repercussions if they refused to participate.
We’d all like to think that if we were Germans in 1938, we would have seen Hitler’s evil as clearly Marianne von Lingenfels and her fellow resisters did. But would we?
Readers who appreciate character-driven novels and want to understand World War II from a different perspective will love The Women in the Castle. I’m adding to my list of favorite World War II fiction, along with All the Light We Cannot See (still my #1!), Lilac Girls, Salt to the Sea, and The Invisible Bridge.