Friday, March 15, 2013

Walking the Line

As a historian who writes historical fiction, I am always interested in how other people like me handle the overlap between fact and imagination. So I particularly enjoyed my interview with Douglas Skopp, a retired professor of German history, in which we talk at length about how he negotiated the same boundary. The results of our conversation are now available online at New Books in Historical Fiction. As with all the New Books Network podcasts, you can listen to the interview or download it free of charge through the link above.

Doug’s podcast (and even more, his book) address some of the same questions raised during my conversation in January with Julius (Jay) Wachtel. So listen to them both. They will make you ponder what limits you might cross in service to a cause that seemed greater than yourself.

Jay also has a new interview on another site. And here is my post introducing Doug Skopp’s Shadows Walking.

“First do no harm.” Every doctor in the Western medical tradition swears to observe this basic principle of the Hippocratic oath before he or she receives a license to practice. Yet in Nazi Germany, doctors who had sworn to heal participated in grotesque medical experiments on concentration-camp prisoners, conducted sterilization campaigns against their fellow-citizens, refused treatment to terminally ill patients, and supported euthanasia, eugenics, and antisemitism. How did they justify such a perversion of their calling?

This is the question that Douglas R. Skopp addresses in Shadows Walking, his extensively researched account of the intertwining lives—like the snakes on Aesculapius’s staff—of two fictional German doctors, the boyhood friends Johann Brenner and Philipp Stein, from 1928 to their final meeting near the end of World War II. The novel opens in Nuremberg in 1946, with Johann working under an alias as a janitor in the Palace of Justice, where the Allied trials of Nazi war criminals are underway. A chance meeting with his estranged wife—furious to discover that her husband has been hiding in the city for months—sparks in Johann a desire to explain in a letter the crimes he has committed since he last saw her, the reasons why he has allowed her to believe that he died near the end of the war. Every paragraph of his letter leads into a flashback that reveals a segment of his past and pushes Johann farther down the road to Nazism and Auschwitz. Meanwhile, Philipp, as a German Jew, experiences the shrinking horizons and worsening abuse that Nazism inflicted on its victims.

Because of its subject matter, Shadows Walking is not easy to read, but it is an important book, well worth the investment of time and energy. Doug Skopp traces the path by which fundamentally decent people can descend into barbarism if they forget the importance of compassion. It could happen in Germany—and did. It could happen here. It could happen anywhere.

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