What leads men and women of good will to violate fundamental ethical principles? How do they justify their behavior? Are we all capable of such acts? And if so, how can we guard ourselves from making these choices? These are the questions at the heart of Shadows Walking, a novel about medical ethics and practices, and their consequences in Nazi Germany.
Author interview by Paul Larsen, WCFE Mountain Lake Public Brodcasting System
Shadows Walking tells the story of two boyhood friends, Johann Brenner and Philip Stein.Both men are devoted to their Vaterland.Both believe wholeheartedly in the power of medical science to cure humanity of its ills. Both have become dedicated physicians. As they experience World War I, medical school, and their determined efforts to build their practices and provide for their families, they differ chiefly in only one respect: Stein is Jewish and Brenner is not.
The two friends’ paths inevitably divide as Hitler comes to power. When Johann Brenner joins the Nazi Party and willingly commits “crimes against humanity,” he does so not as a psychopath like Josef Mengele or as an egotistically cruel opportunist like Carl Clauberg, just two of the novel’s many actual historical figures. Rather, Johann Brenner is an “ordinary” Nazi doctor. His understanding of the Hippocratic Oath’s first principle —“Do no harm!” —leads him to believe that his responsibility as a physician is to the entire Volk more than it is to any single patient. Meanwhile, living in Berlin under the Nazi boot, Philipp Stein’s personal and professional life is forced into a different, agonizing direction, and an inevitable, final meeting with his boyhood friend.
Skopp explores the choices that have shaped Brenner’s and Stein’s lives.Some were beyond their control. But others, related to what E. Thomas Moran in his Foreword calls, “the skein of forces that press on an ordinary life,” were not.These choices determined their fate, and the fate of so many others.
Johann Brenner, M.D., climbed inside the first boxcar he could find in Berlin’s train yards as the city was falling to the Russians. When the train headed south, toward Nuremberg, he cursed his luck. But he knew it could have gone east, deeper into the territory held by the Soviets, or into Russia itself. He knew that the war would soon end. If only the train were not bombed before he could jump off.
His false papers afforded him a new identity, a new life. He wanted to go west, to Karlsruhe, where he hoped to find his wife. He was comforted by his belief that she had fled their apartment in Nuremberg to live with her sister in the Rhineland. He missed her, but their separation helped him forget what he wanted to forget.
As the train neared Nuremberg, he jumped. American troops captured him within minutes. They brought him to a D.P. camp outside the city and assigned him and other “displaced persons” to one of the re-construction crews at Nuremberg’s Palace of Justice. But his war wounds—a leg injury resulting in an awkward limp from the First World War, and a scarred right hand, which he concealed with a glove, from the Second—made him unfit for hard labor. Instead, he worked as a cleaner inside the courthouse. He followed orders, did as he was told, and the Americans were satisfied.
When the courthouse repairs were completed, Johann Brenner—now known as Heinrich Westermann—was selected to be the head custodian in Nuremberg’s Palace of Justice. He liked his title. He assigned himself the night shift: eleven to seven. He appreciated the quiet. In the vast building, he alone was awake. He had a bunk, a small desk, and a cupboard under the stairs in the basement. He took his meals during the workweek in the building’s cafeteria; on weekends, he lined up at the nearby soup kitchen. Supervising the others, he felt responsible, even a bit important. Sometimes he hummed softly as he walked up and down the stairs. He alone knew that he had been a doctor at Auschwitz.
Professional Reviews What is easy vs what is right
As a teacher of history the two things I most often hear from students in regards to the Holocaust are: How could this happen, and We could never do this in the United States. Students are morally repulsed by the actions of average people in the Holocaust and struggle with these issues. Shadows walking presents a well researched and plausible story of an average man and his descent into evil. It is so effective because we see that his good intentions and his pride (which reflect our own) lead him into the depths of evil. This book has helped me to offer explanations and cautions to students about the general principle that evil is easy and profitable while good is difficult and unprofitable. In the end this is an excellent tale cautioning us that we all have the capability to become monsters.
Skopps book is a worthy addition to the depth of Holocaust literature available today. While it does not break new ground on a scholarly level, it takes that scholarship and gives a human face to the staggering number of people that helped the Nazi regime to flourish, helping readers to understand the evil within all of us. I hope that this book attracts the recognition that it so richly deserves.
Worthy of Five Stars!
Shadows Walking is a fascinating, sad commentary on German life following the country's defeats in WWI and WWII. It ends with the Nuremberg Doctors Trials that began in 1946. Filled with descriptions as lifelike as a cinematographer's camera, the author, Doug Skopp, visually paints word pictures that place the reader directly into scenes, like a fly on a wall.
Skopp's prose-- meticulously constructed and geographically concise--is a literal travelogue of German cities, ethnic populations, customs and even the food of that day.
The book's atmosphere vividly captures the moods and emotions conveyed by its setting. These were trying times. Germany limped to recover from the first war. Political leadership was found wanting. The country was divided by political factions, including one led by Adolf Hitler. German Patriotism was deeply rooted. Anti-Semitism and German white supremacy was a simmering pot ready to scald. The arrival of the Great Depression had demoralizing implication on the troubled psyche of German truebloods. The story gives compelling historical insight as to how German citizens were induced into Nazism and provides a glimpse of Nazi oppression in their daily lives.
The story illustrates how fate is inexorably tied to the decisions and choices made during our lives. In regard to the atrocities of the Holocaust, the reader is left with a gnawing question: is it possible that each of us have inner capacity to behave so contemptibly? Shadows Walking is a unique historical reflection of its time and well worth reading.
Everyman gone bad
Once I put my toe into the amazing waters of Shadows Walking, I had no choice but to jump in with all my clothes on. I started reading early in the morning and read the day away, finishing the book in the evening. During that time I put it down only briefly and reluctantly to attend to the sincerely pressing needs of myself and my dog. In the following weeks, the characters have continued to buzz in my head. Probably because of author Douglas Skopp's strict attention to historical details, I found it easy to forget that the book is fiction. At the end of the story, I felt that I was ready to read a sequel: I wanted to know what happened in the continuing lives of the characters who came to join my daily thoughts. For me, this is the best kind of historical novel. The people in the novel quickly pop off the two dimensional page into three dimensions, living on elaborately crafted sets of a sound stage in my head.
I was particularly taken by voice of the author as the narrator of the book. The experience of reading Shadows Walking is exactly like sitting in a comfortable chair listening to an accomplished story teller. The emotional loading of the action in the book flows from the sentences as if one was hearing them read by a talented actor.
The individuals in the book make their own decisions and travel through their lives on interesting paths, all the while being observed by the author as a third party spectator. While this observer is privy to the innermost thoughts of the book's characters, the voice is surprisingly non-judgmental. The main character is described as living a most ordinary life in pre-war Germany. He is trying to do what is right and is trying to help humanity. Through a series of small nudges and accidental encounters, he becomes a Nazi doctor, taking part in horrific deeds. We are presented with the dilemma that he could be any of us, or could he? What would have happened to us if we had been squarely in his shoes? This question, very carefully considered, has spun in my head ever since I read the book. It is a very basic question about human nature and, with the launch from Shadows Walking, I have continued to think about personal choices, past and present.
This book is a compelling story that is skillfully presented. Its timeless lessons apply to all of us.