March is Women’s History Month, and in today’s post we’re talking women and resistance with Jessica Shattuck, author of The Women in the Castle, and Alison Owings, acclaimed historian.
Set at the end of World War II, in a crumbling Bavarian castle that once played host to all of German high society, The Women in the Castle is a powerful and propulsive story of three widows whose lives and fates become intertwined—an affecting, shocking, and ultimately redemptive novel. Amid the ashes of Nazi Germany’s defeat, Marianne von Lingenfels returns to the once-grand castle of her husband’s ancestors, an imposing stone fortress now fallen into ruin following years of war. The widow of a resister murdered in the failed July 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, Marianne plans to uphold the promise she made to her husband’s brave conspirators: to find and protect their wives, her fellow resistance widows.
Read a conversation below in which Jessica Shattuck and Alison Owings discuss the importance of women’s resistance during World War II.
ON WOMEN AND RESISTANCE: FROM WWII TO MODERN AMERICA
Acclaimed historian Alison Owings in conversation with award-winning novelist Jessica Shattuck.
SHATTUCK: Your book, Frauen: German Women Recall the Third Reich, was such an inspiration to me when I was writing The Women in the Castle. I love the range of voices you interviewed, women who span the gamut from unrepentant Nazis to resisters. I thought that we could start by talking about some of the women who resisted Hitler and what you think motivated or inspired them.
OWINGS: To me the hero of heroes is Frau Erna Dubnack, the woman who hid her Jewish girlfriend in her apartment for two years while also protecting her small son. What struck me was her matter of fact bravery, which was really common to some rescuers. They would say, “Well, she was my friend what else was I going to do?” At one point I asked, “Did you have any idea how dangerous this was?” and she just looked at me and drew her forefinger across her neck. She knew. But she did it anyway because Hilde was her friend.
SHATTUCK: When I think about the resistance, I think of it in two overlapping categories, resistance with a capital “R”—organized groups like The Kraisau Circle and The Red Orchestra or the White Rose—and resistance with a lower case “r”—personal resistance on a daily level. I would think of Frau Dubnack as being in that category, and in some ways it seems that kind of resistance required the most immediate bravery.
OWINGS: I don’t think the word “resister” really applies. The word that applies to her is “rescuer,” because she wasn't resisting per se. She wasn’t trying to bring down the Nazis. She was helping her friend. Another woman who did this was Dr. Margaret Blersch. She was a homeopathic doctor who also secretly treated people the Nazis would have killed. That also verges from resisting to rescuing.
SHATTUCK: I was just rereading your interview with Frau Charlotte Muller, who was a member of an organized Communist resistance group. She talked about being influenced by her father, who was a Social Democrat. Was that often the case? Were there certain influences or characteristics that you saw as common to the “rescuers” or “resisters” you interviewed?
OWINGS: There's a book called The Altruistic Personality: Rescuers of Jews in Nazi Germany by Samuel and Pearl Oliner, which names several characteristics common to resisters. One was having a parent who was very moral, who did things for other people and who would stand up for others. Another was feeling oneself an outsider growing up. Like being the only Protestant in a Catholic village, or having a stutter or a limp, or just feeling a little bit not in the mainstream.
SHATTUCK: This feels very relevant to me as a parent. Because my grandparents were members of the Nazi party, I grew up with an awareness of the fallibility of choices people make—and with the question: what would I have done in their shoes? And as a parent in this day and age of self-conscious parenting, I think a lot about what I’m doing to make sure my children have a sound moral compass—and the courage and clarity to resist if they need to.
OWINGS: I'd say much of parenting today, as then, would be in anti-bullying, not only teaching empathy for fellow human beings, but in standing up to bullies. Yet in the Third Reich a lot of rescuing was circumstantial. Some people would never think of themselves as a rescuer and then they'd hear a knock at the door and say, “Okay, I'll put you up for an hour,” or, “Okay, I'll give you some food.” And an hour led to a day, or a month. So circumstances are part of it.
SHATTUCK: I also think there are people who seem to have seen more clearly than others—who penetrated the propaganda and convenient narratives many others embraced. They looked at what was happening around them and saw it for the danger it was. And that, ultimately, motivated them to resist. Did you see that in your work?
OWINGS: I think some people feel very comfortable with blinders, and this is not specific to Nazi Germany. I read The Good War by Studs Terkel, who was a huge help to me in writing my book, and I pulled quotes such as, “Oh, they were really nice neighbors and then they disappeared,” or, “Well, they always kind of kept to themselves,” or, “I didn't really like them much anyway.” These quotes all had to do with the Japanese Internment in the U.S. in the forties. There was a sort of a protective lack of curiosity then by those not rounded up. Another obstacle to resistance in Nazi Germany, was that a lot of women really liked the Nazis. They trusted their leaders, they believed the propaganda, they were anti-Semitic for whatever reason, or they simply weren't very informed.
SHATTUCK: When I would talk with my grandmother I was struck by how, in a weird way, she felt women were—not liberated—but celebrated by the Nazis. It was kind of heady, even though it was all about their maternal abilities and breeding potential and being beautiful. There was, perversely, a kind of female empowerment that Nazi ideology offered.
OWINGS: They put women on a pedestal, but then surrounded the pedestal with guards. Many women were flattered by the attention. And then there were also all these clever community groups—suddenly, something's going on in our boring little village, you know, we have all these outings and they're so wonderful. They didn’t realize how much ideology was tucked in. One of the women I interviewed told me how decades later she found her BDM song booklet and thought it would be this innocent sweet thing and it was a little closer to, “the blood of the Jew will run,” or something.
SHATTUCK: Even as an intelligent, independent woman, my grandmother was clearly susceptible to the romance of the movement and to the promise. She talked about having been an idealist, and said what most appealed to her was, ironically, what she perceived to be a celebration of equal rights and democracy: in the agricultural education program she worked in, it was the sons and daughters of fisherman and factory workers learning and working together with the sons and daughters of aristocrats.
OWINGS: Yes, actually a couple of women I interviewed mentioned that as a huge draw, and I think it appealed to the sensibilities of many young people, who thought, “Oh, this is wonderfully fair.” I mean, without noticing that no Jews were allowed.
SHATTUCK: Maybe a sense of diversity within very confined boundaries was appealing to people then because they were beginning to feel the forces of globalization? There was this sense of being part of a larger, more international world and a real anxiety about what this meant, how it would change their lives, in the same way there is today in America.
OWINGS: I guess what feels more familiar to me from that time is this “Us against Them” thinking. Not so much the wider world crashing in, as the fifth column, a sense that “these people within our midst are messing everything up, and they shouldn’t have been here in the first place.” I have to say, on the 20th of January, that my feeling of hopeless outrage at the Inauguration—which I could not bear to watch—gave me a glimmer of insight into what an anti-
Hitler German might have felt when he took power. A sense of, “What the hell can I do against this power and hatefulness?”
SHATTUCK: And we don’t have the constraints Germans had at the time; we have our constitution and so many civic institutions protecting our civil and human rights, such as the right to assemble and to free speech, which Germans did not have.
OWINGS: Maybe. How many women have not at some point felt like outsiders? Another obstacle to women's resistance then was the factor of fear. I talked to one woman about how she and her mother were afraid they could be overheard on their telephone when they weren't even using it, so they put a tea cosy on top of the phone. I think the salient question in everyday life both then and now is: what do you risk? You might risk your own life. But would you risk your son's? You might risk your job or your social standing or you risk your house or your financial or psychological well-being, but who among us risks that much really? I'm writing a book about homelessness and, as I sometimes thought when I was writing Frauen, I now think to myself, “I could ask this homeless person to my house and give him or her a shower and a place to stay, and it's not illegal. My government allows this. But I don't, for reasons like I'm afraid of this person.” On top of personal fear, imagine all the risk there was in Nazi Germany. The danger, I think, helped wipe out the shame. In a strange way, the danger was thus a comfort, including after the war.
SHATTUCK: So there are obviously huge differences between “resistance” in America today and resistance in Nazi Germany. But are there some parallels? Things that we can learn from resistance at that time?
OWINGS: One rule of thumb or lesson, at least to me: start as early as you can. Start when the Secretary of your little gardening club is fired because she’s Jewish. Act sooner rather than later. One of my most treasured reactions to Frauen came from a Jewish friend who said that whenever she thought of the Third Reich, she always imagined herself reacting as a Jew—when to get out, how to resist, and so on—but after reading my book, she began to wonder what she would have done as a non-Jew. Big compliment!
And yet I keep thinking—a legacy of my mentor, Professor Gordon A. Craig—that this history did not have to be. Hitler, initially, was not even elected. And many more Germans could have just said nein.
Alison Owings is the author of three stereotype-challenging oral-history based books, including New York Times “Notable Book of the Year” Frauen: German Women Recall the Third Reich. Her current work in progress, about homelessness in America, focusses on one formerly long-time homeless man in San Francisco and his efforts to train homeless people for entry level jobs, especially in the tech industry.
Jessica Shattuck is the award-winning author of the novels The Hazards of Good Breeding, a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year” and finalist for the PEN/Winship Award, Perfect Life, and the forthcoming The Women in the Castle (on sale March 28, 2017), which follows the story of three German women living in an abandoned castle in the wake of WWII.