The Women in the Castle: Jessica Shattuck on Metaphor and Empathy

Mary Tod

Many assassination attempts on Adolf Hitler’s life occurred prior to and during World War Two. Some perpetrators were convinced of the sheer madness of Hitler and his regime. Others were revolted at the horror of Nazi war crimes. Most of the military leaders involved knew that Hitler’s plans for conquering Europe harboured the seeds of Germany’s own destruction. Most thought of themselves as German patriots.

July 20, 1944 marked the last assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler’s life. This is the pivotal event behind Jessica Shattuck’s The Women in the Castle.

Shattuck asks the question: What happened to the wives of those involved in the July 20th event? And she poses an answer involving three women and their children trying to survive after Germany’s defeat. Through them and those close to them, readers consider the physical, emotional, and psychological experiences of everyday Germans. The author hopes “readers will feel a connection to this chapter of history and to the experiences of  ‘ordinary Germans’ who fell somewhere on the spectrum between victim and villain.” She feels that “reading about characters drawn in by the Nazi movement helps people imagine how they too could be swept up in dangerous political and cultural currents. How they too could be blind — or willfully blind — to frightening changes taking place right in front of them.”

Marianne Lingenfels made a promise to her husband and the others involved in the assassination attempt to protect their wives. When the war ends she sets about finding these women and ultimately gathers Benita Fledermann and her son Martin, as well as Ania Grabarek and her two sons, at the run-down castle owned by the Lingenfels family. Each woman is flawed. Each tries to come to terms with what she did during the war and find a path into the future. As the chapters unfold, we come to understand their backgrounds, the families that shaped their lives, and the dreams they had as Germany under Hitler rose from its World War One defeat.

Jessica Shattuck explores the German experience of World War Two and its aftermath with a clear eye. In a scene from Christmas 1945, we read of the music that “stirred the hardened sediment of their memory, chafed against layers of horror and shame, and offered a rare solace in their shared anger, grief, and guilt.”

The Women in the Castle offers a glimpse of everyday Germans dealing with the successes and failures of Hitler’s strategies, the lies and tyranny of Nazi rule, and pivotal events such as Kristallnacht and the Anschluss, as well as terror-filled streets and prisoners marching to concentration camps. “It was difficult, of course, to discern truth from propaganda, and Marianne trusted nothing the Nazi press printed.”

Shattuck’s writing is rich without being overdone. She picks just the right words and phrases to convey the stories of these women, their feelings and state of mind. Using an effective blend of action and description, Shattuck weaves the forward motion of the plot with backstory to create distinctive characters and circumstances. She believes in the “truth of metaphor,” notably a reader’s ability to generate empathy by comparing the feelings and experiences of characters to ones they’ve had themselves.

Ultimately, the reader comes to understand the “treacherous mountains and dry valleys” of memory. In researching and writing this story, she became “fascinated by the schism within the life of any German who lived through that time — not only in terms of the physical trauma of war and its aftermath, but in terms of the psychological implications of having lived within, and in many cases supported, a system that became synonymous with evil.” Readers will come to appreciate that schism and wonder what they might have done, or might do, under similarly horrifying circumstances.

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: Mary Tod is author of Time and Regret (Lake Union, 2016) and can be found at


Published in Historical Novels Review  |  Issue 81, August 2017

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