How Could Ordinary, Seemingly-Upstanding People Enable the Holocaust?: Jessica Shattuck on "The Women in the Castle"

Erin Kodicek on March 28, 2017

CastleMuch of the buzz touting Jessica Shattuck’s WWII novel, The Women in the Castle, likens it to Kristin Hannah’s wildly popular, The Nightingale. It’s an apt comparison—both feature brave women overcoming nearly unfathomable obstacles. But their association actually made me hesitant to pick it up. Surely the well of enthusiasm for Nazi-related dramas has to be running dry, and if it hasn’t, then an author really needs to "bring it." Well, that well is still brimming as it turns out, and Ms. Shattuck certainly does. If you’re curious about what it was like to be an ordinary German during this time--if you wonder: Why did they allow Hitler’s nefarious plans to proceed unchecked, The Women in the Castle offers some insight. It also draws some chilling parallels to things brewing in the political climate today. Here, Christina Baker Kline--bestselling author of Orphan Train, A Piece of the World, and more, asks Jessica Shattuck about her most worthy edition to the WWII canon.

Christina Baker Kline: World War II is a perennially popular subject. Were you nervous writing about a period that has been covered so extensively? What do you hope to contribute with The Women in the Castle?

Jessica Shattuck: I think WWII is a popular subject for good reason: it is Western society’s most vivid and horrific cautionary tale. And we still have so much to learn and understand about it, especially about the society that placed Hitler and the Nazis in power.

Thanks to the many moving and important books and survivor testimonies, we have begun to comprehend (as much as is possible) the suffering and horror inflicted on the victims of the holocaust. But how ordinary, seemingly-upstanding people could have enabled the Holocaust to happen remains opaque. How could they have been enthusiastic about Hitler to begin with, and then—in most cases—passive in the face of his hatred and ruthlessness? I hope The Women in the Castle can contribute to our consideration of this.

The Women in the Castle is also a book about the aftermath of WWII in Germany, which is a less frequent subject than the war itself. I have always been fascinated by this period on account of its physical extremity—the poverty, destroyed infrastructure, disease, and general homelessness (it was about as close as Western Society has come to apocalypse) and its moral demands. It was a time of great reckoning as the ghastly evidence of the holocaust became widely available. For example, the Americans posted billboards with photographs of piles of bodies in a concentration camp emblazoned with “These atrocities: your fault”. I am fascinated by the question of how the Germans lived with their guilt. I hope The Women in the Castle can help bring this lesser known time to life.

CBK: Yours is a work of art grounded in history. How close should artists—novelists, playwrights, filmmakers—hew to the historical record? How much leeway does art—imagination—provide?

JS: I tried to be very accurate about dates and times and everyday realities because I wanted the book to provide a real window into what that time was like. Geographically, I took a few liberties so that I could, for instance, have my characters be able to walk to both an American run Prisoner of War camp and the French Occupation Zone. For me, the leeway fiction provides is not in bending historical facts, which have to remain true, but in creating story—that elusive confluence of a character’s action and feeling and thought that make the reader want to keep reading.

CBK: What inspired you to write this particular story from this particular point of view—ordinary German women? 

JS: My mother was German and I grew up visiting my grandparents’ farm in Germany. There I heard stories of the war and, more often, the time after the war, so early on I developed a consciousness of how that time was experienced by Germans in their everyday lives. I was also aware of the horror that “ordinary Germans” like my grandparents had enabled through their complacence and even early enthusiasm for a leader who seemed in retrospect to have been dangerous from the start. Writing this book was one way to try to understand.

CBK: You write with such nuance about how many Germans, even those who opposed the Nazis, were complicit in ways large and small – often through what they didn’t do. This is such a fraught subject. Did you find it perilous to navigate?

JS: I have a pretty mixed view of human nature so most of my characters tend to make flawed and misguided choices, often with relatively good intentions, and this just seems realistic to me. I’m also interested in the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of what is happening and to justify our actions. Through those stories—and our ability to reframe—I think we can do some really terrible stuff. So writing this book gave me an opportunity to explore this. But it was definitely difficult to inhabit my characters’ minds during those moments in which they made their ugliest, most self-deceiving choices.

CBK: What do you think makes your book and that time relevant to our own?

JS: After WWI many Germans felt disillusioned with their government, frustrated by their economic stagnation, and oppressed by foreign influences in a way many Americans and Europeans do today. Hitler promised to “make Germany great again” in slightly different words. His solution to Germany’s problems was to expel outsiders and build up national and racial pride (as well as introduce a major infrastructure plan and remilitarize). And Germans were excited by his completely new style of leadership—from the way he communicated, to his political outsider status. They were hungry for change and eager for simple solutions to the complicated problems of a globalizing world.

Interestingly, a “Fake News” story played a role in marshaling the German citizens’ support for Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939. A group of Nazi operatives dressed in Polish Army uniforms took over the German radio station at Gleiwitz, pretending to be anti-German Polish militia. This faux “attack” on German sovereign soil provided the pretext for the invasion, which marked the beginning of WWII.  

CBK: What is your process? How do you balance your writing with motherhood and life? 

JS: As far as writing goes, I’m like a dog who has to turn in circles a few times before settling down. I generally drop my kids off at school and then allow myself about an hour of frittering—email, reading news online, ordering this or that online—and then I eat some chocolate and get to work. The challenge for me with balancing motherhood and writing is that the two require diametrically opposed skills—motherhood is all about multi-tasking and writing is about singular focus. That’s why I need time to transition between the two. But on the other hand, I think I’m more productive since having children because of the boundaries motherhood sets around my writing time, which force me to get to work.

CBK: What do you think we’ve learned from that dark time?

JS: Hopefully to be on guard against false narratives and over simplifications...and to be wary of leaders who appeal to our basest instincts and our own worst selves. But I’m not sure if we really have learned this.


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