Why would I write a novel whose protagonist is a Nazi doctor?
I am—rather, I was, before I retired in 2007—a professor of history. The hardest part of my job was convincing my students that history can be fascinating, indeed exhilarating. I wanted to show them, if they were willing to look into the past—to realize its impact, that is, literally, to make it real—that we can be empowered and ought to be humbled at the same time by what came before us. Learning about the past is not a path that most young people would choose, given their focus on the future. But the record of history can show us what's possible in the future--both good and bad.
Throughout my career, I tried to challenge my students and myself to fully realize that the past is done and lost to us, except through what we choose to remember of it. The past becomes the stories—stories as true as we can make them—that we tell about it. It is not what happened, but what historians say happened that constitutes our understanding of history. This telling of stories about the past can awaken us, frighten us, empower us, energize us; cause us to tremble, weep, worry, and rejoice; give us ambition or pride; lead us to make choices that can create or destroy. At the least, if we look into the mirror of the past as closely as we can, if we honestly try to see who we were and who or what we might have become instead, given the revelations and dangers that are evident on every page of our history books, we can face the future better aware of our potential to do good or do harm. Knowing this, we can begin to find humility and compassion in the responsibilities we bear. Telling the story of how human beings, even human beings of good will, could do such harm to other human beings has always been an important part of my teaching. I have done it not to depress my students. Rather, I believe this is the only way to an understanding of ourselves, a way of building honest, realistic hope and the courage we must have if we are to live with justice and joy in our world.
In 1960, when I was eighteen, I dropped out of college and travelled to Germany to see and learn what had happened there less than a generation before. Some thirty members of my family had disappeared and probably died in the Holocaust. Were all the Germans monsters? I was interested in more than the usual historical questions—the “who? what? where? and when?” I wanted to know “how?” and even more importantly “why?” How and why was Auschwitz possible? This has been called the fundamental question of Western Civilization. In some ways it is the fundamental question of all human history, given the genocides that have happened before and since. This question shaped my consciousness even before I set foot on German soil.
As soon as I arrived, I saw and smelled ruin and pain, even fifteen years after the end of the war. I heard anger. Sorrow. Denial. Remorse. But how could I be sure it was genuine? I saw mutilated men, women and children. I know I felt anguish and sometimes fear. I talked with many, many Germans. Some admitted to having done nothing to stop the Nazis. Some told me why they didn’t. Some cried as they told me. I soon learned that not all were monsters. They were human beings just like me. I lived with a family that had saved many Jews at great risk to themselves. My twenty-nine-year-old landlady told of being ordered to pull dead bodies out of bomb shelters at age fourteen and of being raped repeatedly by occupying soldiers at age fifteen. In the train station, I was approached dozens of times by women showing me photographs of their lost children or brothers or fathers or husbands, hoping I would give them some information about where they could be found. All this reeling in my head, all this in the land where great music had been written; where philosophers had flourished; where great literature, the arts, the sciences had been justifiably praised and envied. If the hideous events we have come to abbreviate in the name of the slave-labor and death camp at “Auschwitz” could have happened here, I thought, they could happen anywhere. Right then, still in my teens, I committed myself to teaching Germany’s history as best I could. I would teach History with a purpose to transcend history. History as a cautionary tale. History with hope in the future.
After a year at a German university, I returned to the United States, completed my undergraduate education, then a Master’s in Medieval History, and finally my Ph.D. with a focus on German history. Over my career, my scholarly publications have focused on the education and values of Germany’s elites—its school teachers, its scientists, its lawyers, and finally its doctors. In 1972, my German wife, our five-year old son and I settled in Plattsburgh, New York, a small city near the Canadian border with a branch of the state university, where I have flourished with wonderful students and colleagues. To the best of my ability, I have done what I set out to do when I was eighteen. My life indeed has been blessed.
I always planned to study, write and teach about Nazi doctors. I had a sickly childhood, under doctors’ care who helped me gain good health and to whom I am immeasurably grateful. And now, having been told one year after I retired that I have Stage IV kidney cancer, I am even more indebted to my selfless, compassionate physicians. So, how could those physicians in Germany, the Nazi doctors who willing committed crimes against humanity, have become so warped in blindly serving Hitler? Where did they learn to be so arrogant and so obedient? Where did they learn such contempt for so many who needed their care? How could they justify what they were doing to innocent men, women and children? This was to be the last focus in my research agenda. I had a Senior Fulbright Scholar/Teacher Award in 1985/1986 to research German medical ethics and practices between 1880 and 1945. During this time I was a guest professor at a German university and able to research my topic at twelve major archives in Germany and another in England.
I envisioned a scholarly work detailing and analyzing this history. Before I could complete my research and produce a manuscript, however, several other excellent studies were published. All of them, I now see, are superior to anything I could have produced. And thanks to them, we know an incredible amount about the administration and practices of Nazi medicine, about its perverse experimentation on unwilling human beings, and about the sufferings of its victims. We especially know a great deal about the monstrous personalities and the highest ranking physicians and medical administrators who shaped the Nazis’ cruelties toward their victims.
Just the same, all of these studies, despite their merits, to my mind did not adequately explore the why or the how a typical, well-intentioned, thoughtful, even idealistic young physician could decide to become a Nazi. How could such a person do what we know Nazi doctors did? What could lead a person, especially a person whose career is supposed to be one anchored on compassion, to choose this path? And what would happen, I asked, if such a doctor came to realize what he had done? (For the record, most Nazi doctors did not acknowledge their crimes.) How would he try to explain himself? (Most shirked or denied blame.) And what should happen to him, once he did? (Most died in their beds, having resumed their practices in post-war Germany; some even achieved prominence and praise.)
My problem was, “ordinary” Nazi doctors did not leave a conspicuous paper trail. So I began to imagine one’s life, a composite of the fragments of some actual careers that I could trace through archival materials, the transcript of the Nuremberg Trials, and published autobiographies, biographies and historical studies. I wrote a “biography” of this imagined Nazi doctor. I put him into the context of the events he most likely would have experienced—the pre-World War I era of his childhood; World War I and the disappointment at Germany’s defeat; the hated, punitive Versailles Peace Treaty that demanded unimaginable reparations from Germany; the ensuing economic crises, especially the Great Depression; the euphoria in thinking that Adolf Hitler would solve all Germany’s problems. I knew that my typical Nazi physician would certainly be a strong nationalist throughout these events, rather than an internationalist, a socialist or a communist.
As the unavoidable backdrop to these events and the sentiments they evoked, I knew that my typical Nazi physician would have imbibed at least some of the pervasive, long-standing animosity toward Jews and the unspeakable racism that authenticated it. Anti-Semitism was by no means unique to Germany, or even at its zenith there; on the contrary, it was in minds and hearts wherever the sun shone down, in Europe, the Americas, even in places where there were hardly any Jews, such as Asia. Another, related ingredient in the values of those times was the sexism that held women in contempt; even while lip-service was given to them as mothers, they were seen as unfit and needed to be protected from the realities of a world they could not possibly understand or change.
My story would have to include the wide-spread enthusiasm for medical science as taught in all the major universities of the day. Leading the way was German medical science. It arrogantly promised itself that it would eliminate all human ailments and cure every disease. Medical science at the time was animated in great part by eugenics—the pseudo- scientific belief that human health—some even argued, the survival of our species—depended upon having the will to cull out and terminate those whose “lives were not worth living” and the “useless eaters.” At the same time, and more reasonably, there was enthusiasm for fresh air, good nutrition, exercise, and public hygiene as a way to transform the human race into noble specimens more like gods and goddesses than men and women.
By 1990, I had sketched out a “biography” of the main character, Johann Brenner, in Shadows Walking, my “ordinary” or typical physician. I gave him a family and friends. Johann’s childhood friend and fellow doctor, Philipp Stein, are like the serpents on the symbolic medical staff, their lives intertwined until their last, fateful meeting at Auschwitz. I created Brenner’s associates, and ultimately, his victims. I created a plot. I invented a disguise for Brenner once he survived the war. I gave him a voice, through his letter to his estranged wife, Helga. I began to write my novel.
Over the next twenty years, I wrote fourteen drafts. I had six working titles and nine possible endings. Given the diagnosis of my illness in 2008, I decided to publish it myself, hoping to see it on a shelf before I was on one myself. I know my novel is painful, even though I tried to keep as much of the atrocities that are its focus off stage. The truth is painful, my beloved grandmother used to tell me. But from this pain can come insight and, I fervently believe, understanding. Shadows Walking is my effort to contribute to this understanding. I hope it will help us become more aware of ourselves. Of how easy it would be to become a perpetrator. I hope it will help us become more humble. And more compassionate.
My students always came to life and had better insights when we were reading fiction from or about the era we were studying. I believe in fiction as a way to explore the past. It helps me discover others’ values and test my own, as a way to discover myself. Learning about others’ lives helps me learn about my own potential—my capacity to be whatever the historical record shows human beings have been—saints and sinners; beggars and royals; the powerful and the powerless; the wise and the foolish; the brilliant composers and the maniacal destroyers; a Mozart, a Mengele; a creator, a destroyer; one who does good, and one who, like Camus’s protagonist in The Fall, walks by someone in need of help. The past is a mirror in which I can see myself, if I choose to look at it clearly.
As well as I can, I need to know what made a well-intentioned, reasonable man willingly choose to become a Nazi doctor. I think we all need to know this, if we can. We might then see something of ourselves in him and better guard ourselves against the hatred that overcame him, the hatred that might overcome us. We might better appreciate the courage of his victims and more fully regret their pain. We might find the courage to stand up to tyranny and hatred, today, or, if not today, then tomorrow.
Yes, Shadows Walking is a painful, cautionary tale. But underlying it is my fervent hope that we need not repeat the past. This hope animated me throughout my career as an historian. It shaped every moment I had with my students. And it still gives me the courage to believe that as human beings, we will someday fully appreciate how precious all of us are within this wondrous world that we share. Teaching this, believing this, hoping for this has been my life’s work.