Thursday, November 10, 2011

Book Review: Shadows Walking

When I received Shadows Walking in the mail to review, I knew immediately that this is one that my Dad would be much more qualified to review. My father is a voracious reader and a historian. And as a World War II veteran, my father was there—he has seen those shadows walking. He was extremely moved by Shadows Walking, read it thoroughly once and skimmed it another time. And here is what he has to say:

"...out brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow... " Macbeth

When the world was still young and bright and innocent, two twelve-year-old boys solemnly performed the blood brother ritual. Johann pricked Philip’s finger, Philip cut Johan’s; they mixed their blood and swore eternal friendship. Johann is gentile, Philip Jewish. In 1914, their schooling complete, Johann, Philip and all their school class enlist in the Wehrmacht and go off to World War I.

Forty years later, Germany is a shambles. Millions upon millions of Germans are dead, Russians in their millions; Frenchmen, Britons, Italians, even Americans. Six million Jews have been murdered; like so many others, Philip is dead at Auschwitz.

In Nuremburg’s Palace of Justice, Johann is a janitor watching the trials of The Doctors—the German physicians who led the medical atrocities of the Nazis in the name of “science." What happened to those golden days before WW1? How did the horrors of Hitler’s Nazism capture the German nation? How could the Holocaust erupt and then overcome Deutschland?

Historian Douglas Skopp uses Johann Brenner, the gentile boy from Bavaria to approach these questions. How did Hitler’s Nazism capture Germany? How did Hitler’s Nazism capture Johann Brenner? How did the Holocaust engulf the Jews of all Europe? Ask Johann Brenner how he contributed to Holocaust!


Perhaps for Johann Brenner, it began in Munich in 1923. Waiting to have a beer with Philip, Johann chances on a street preacher, haranguing a little crowd of ragged veterans. The haranger is a short, nondescript little man, sporting a ridiculous mustache and a shrill, penetrating voice. But this little man speaks eloquently of the times— hard times, and all the fault of die Juden!
    —Why did we lost the war? Die Juden!
    —Why Versailles? Die Juden!
    —Who keeps Germany from her destiny? Die Juden! Die Juden! Juden! Die Juden!

    Germany was a fertile soil in 1923, a soil waiting to be planted with all the hatred, the venom that Adolph Hitler could spew. But Hitler was persuasive, if illogical – Johann (and Germany) are seduced. Hitler’s theme of der Volk and “blood purity” of course formed the basic rationale for the removals – removals of Jews and gypsies, homosexuals and mentally ill and handicapped, and, later, of Poles and Russians and other inferiors.

    Hitler is not the only seducer. For Johann, a "great” physician, Brandt, reinforces Johann’s disquiet and his growing contempt for Jews and other undesirables. Brandt is part of the driving force that leads to Holocaust.


    Johann is not corrupted in one fell swoop; his corruption is gradual, so gradual that he cannot see his entrapment. He participates in compulsory sterilization procedures, framed in the concept of eugenics and for the good of the Volk. Eventually we find Johann working in Auschwitz, carrying out medical “research.” His particular specialty was castrations – mass castrations to produce docile slaves who could not reproduce and so spoil the sacred blood of the Volk.


    We pity Johann as he carries out his assault on humanity, we pity him because he is not able to see the depth of evil to which he is contributing. Only when his boyhood friend, his blood brother Philip the Jew arrives at Auschwitz via cattle car does Johann begin to recognize his own evil.

    Johann finds shadows walking in Munich – men with no present, no future. Men from the trenches, men who will always be soldiers, old soldiers, shadows walking in the past.

    And the question for the reader lurks at the end: what evil lies in all of us just below the surface?

    ***
    Many thanks to my Dad, Dr. James Cummins, for taking the time to read and thoughtfully review Shadows Walking. The book is on a virtual tour for the month of November. Be sure to visit these other blogs for more reviews!

    Monday, November 7th
    Review at Impressions in Ink

    Monday, November 14th
    Review at A Bookish Affair

    Thursday, November 17th
    Review at The Book Garden

    Monday, November 21st
    Author Interview at A Bookish Affair

    Thursday, November 24th
    Review at Confessions of a Book Hoarder

    Monday, November 28th
    Author Guest Post at Confessions of a Book Hoarder

    3 comments:

    Douglas R. Skopp said...

    Thank you so much, Sarah and Dr. Cummins, for your review of my novel, Shadows Walking. I am grateful for your thoughts--and welcome comments from anyone who may read your review and want to know more about how and why I wrote this novel. Although the principle characters in Shadows Walking are fictitious, everything in the novel happened, or could have happened, exactly as I have described it. It is based on my extensive research in German and English archives, as well as formal histories of the era. I have written seventy short essays about the actual persons, places, incidents and circumstances around which Shadows Walking is woven (e.g., Adolf Hitler, Kristallnacht, the "Rosenstrasse Protest," "Weimar Republic," etc.) and offer the interested reader six thematic bibliographies of selected historical works in English. To see these little essays and the bibliographies, please go to my website-- www.shadowswalking.com --and click on the header "Further Reading."

    My effort to get into the mind of a Nazi doctor and try to understand what would could have led a thoughtful, well-intentioned person to make such choices is, I believe, a unique way of approaching the horror of the times. Recognizing the possibility, as I see your father does in the last sentence of his review, that all of us need to ask ourselves what we would have done in those circumstances, may yet give us a chance to overcome our baser instincts. If we can answer this question with appropriate humility, we might be closer to ensuring that such genocides do not happen again. I have been a teacher all my life, in service to this hope. Thank you for helping me bring my book to others’ attention.

    lsl_scrapper said...

    Great review! I think I probably should read this, and I might read this, but I think it will be difficult to get through. A lot to think about.

    Susan Bennett said...

    Sounds like an emotional read.