When you compare how many books are written about the perpetrators of the Holocaust vs books on the brave people who tried to stop the face of evil. Well, the scales are rather imbalanced. Regardless of whether it would have changed the outcome of history or not, at least they tried. Against all odds, they tried.
Marianne thinks she needs to keep her promise to protect the women and children of her husband’s co-conspirators. That in itself is a noble thing to do, and she does in fact save Benita, Ania and their children in her own way, however Marianne can be very judgemental at the same time.
The pain, horror and difficulties of those considered to be the guilty party tend to be swept under the rug. After everything the people of Germany did, and their collaborators of course, why would anyone feel any pity towards them? The author gives the reader a flavour of some of those post-war difficulties. This doesn’t mean she excuses or shifts the blame, she just tries to remind us that in war there is a lot of collateral damage, and the lines between guilt and innocence are often very blurry.
Towards the end of the book there are conversations between Ania and her daughter Mary. They are reminiscent of conversations, questions and clarifications Jessica Shattuck had with her own grandmother about her past.( I loved my grandmother, but she was a Nazi) Shattuck has tried to align the image she has of her grandmother with that of her past as a member of the Nazi party.
Many scholars and historians have spoken of a collective criminality, responsibility and guilt when it comes to the Nazi era. Men and women, who under normal circumstances would never have committed crimes, are guilty of participating in and allowing the worst of atrocities.
No matter how hard Shattuck looks for an explanation there will never be a satisfactory answer. The majority of these men and women weren’t sociopaths, psychopaths or sadists. The majority of them were normal people in the midst of a mass movement of propaganda, patriotism and not so subtle brainwashing, who did condone and commit sadistic crimes. They looked the other way and chose to believe the truth of the concentration camps was merely Allied propaganda. It’s easier to ignore than to accept that you are part of the problem.
The one thing Shattuck can and should take away from all of her literary attempts to alleviate some genetic sense of guilt, is that the descendants are not to blame for the sins, mistakes or crimes of their ancestors.
The Women in the Castle is a well balanced read. It considers both sides of the coin, and most importantly the collaboration of both sides to attempt to rebuild lives after the war. Marianne, Ania and Benita are mothers and friends, there aren’t just women influenced and driven by the choices of their past.
It is tale of friendship, hardship and ultimately one of loyalty. Shattuck delivers the harsh reality of war in a direct and no nonsense way. There is no need for violins or overly dramatic scenes. The truth is sufficient. Definitely an author I will be revisiting again.