Jessica Shattuck’s most recent novel “The Women in the Castle” is based partly on her experiences as the granddaughter of Nazis. In the early days of Hitler’s regime, Shattuck’s grandmother ran a “Landjahr Lager,” a farm for Hitler youth to spend a year learning the skills for the agricultural society Hitler wanted Germany to be. In a March 2017 New York Times op-ed, Shattuck wrote about her unwillingness to accept her grandparents’ role in the horrors committed by the Nazi regime.
“The Women in the Castle” deals powerfully with the realities of German life during World War II, but fails to fully live up to its premise. In many cases, the novel focuses on commending the supposedly heroic actions of Marianne, the member of the German Resistance, rather than understanding why the Nazi, Ania, and the bystander, Benita, failed to resist as Marianne did.
Shattuck skillfully juxtaposes the turbulence of Hitler’s rise to power with the normality of daily life that remained for several years after his initial election. Her characters constantly remind us that standing by while others wreak havoc is often as bad as participating in the violence. The novel opens with a party, an aristocratic gathering in the Burg Lindenfels castle where much of the novel takes place, as the Sturmabteilung (a Nazi paramilitary force) attacks Jewish properties in Munich. Guests eat apple tortes and drink champagne and cavalierly discuss the fate of their Jewish neighbors. It is at this party that Marianne’s husband decides to join a plot to assassinate Hitler. Meanwhile, he and his friends designate Marianne the “commander of wives and children.”
Ultimately, this is Marianne’s great contribution to the resistance — ensuring her friends’ wives and children are cared for after the plot fails and her husband and fellow collaborators are killed. That, and ensuring all of their letters are properly sorted. Surely in this work of fiction, Marianne could have been permitted to have a more active role in pushing back against Hitler’s regime. Marianne’s only faults are that she’s too vehemently opposed to Nazism and can’t cook, which are hardly relevant flaws in the context of World War II. Her impeccability comes across as saccharine, unrealistic and uninteresting.
Where the novel becomes more compelling is when it deals with Ania’s contributions to the Nazi cause. The central question of World War II is not how German citizens resisted the atrocities carried out by Hitler but rather why German citizens allowed such atrocities to happen in the first place. Ania’s story is of a well-intentioned person who believed Hitler’s rhetoric and was too quick to deny reports of discrimination and violence. Like Shattuck’s grandmother, Ania directs a Hitler youth farm and it is only after she allows three brown-haired, physically disabled and otherwise “deformed” children to be sent to death camps that she leaves the Nazi Party.
Ania’s complicity in the face of evil was the reality of many German citizens. Her story forces the reader to consider whether in the same circumstances they might have been an Ania or a Marianne. Shattuck has written a novel that, despite its flaws, is an important and timely read.