Shadows Walking by Douglas Skopp is a novel about a Nazi doctor battling his conscence after the war. While this novel was difficult to read, it was also difficult to put down.
Dr. Johann Brenner is an idealistic man and a German nationalist. Dr. Brenner has joined the Nazi party out of a sense of patriotism and believes their propaganda even though it clashes with his real world experiences.
After the war ended, Brenner has accidently taken on a new identity and becomes a janitor in the courthouse where the Nuremberg Trials are being heard. Trying to heal his conscence, Brenner writes a letter to his wife which set up each chapter of the book.
One of the phenomena which, to me, is fascinating is how people blindly follow others even though they know that the leaders are wrong, manipulative or even worst, that what they are doing is against their own upbringing.
How could people who consider themselves national socialists (Nazis) act to this way towards their own families and neighbors? How could a régime train hundreds and thousands of people to murder civilians, children, women and the elderly? What happened when one suddenly realizes that he or she is the “bad person” in the story of life?
This is one of the questions Douglas R. Skopp is trying to answer in his fascinating Shadows Walking. In this book Skopp, who is a historian, uses Johann Brenner, a doctor from Bavaria, as the protagonist who questions himself over his role as a Nazi doctor in Auschwitz.
This is a bleak novel describing some of the medical atrocities which happened in concentration camps in vivid detail. The protagonist, Dr. Johann Brenner, agrees to participate in castration experiments on Jewish prisoners. How Dr. Brenner comes to terms with his heinous acts as well as being conflicted about the role that Jews played in the destruction of Germany (according to Nazi propaganda) weighed against his intimate knowledge of Jewish friends is one of the interesting angles of Shadows Walking.
Dr. Brenner is never a sympathetic character, a very brave choice for a protagonist and a dangerous gamble by the author which paid off. The protagonist is introduced as a Nazi doctor while the story examines how, from an honorable well meaning man he became a part of such harsh acts.
Skopp the historian also goes to length to describe how World War I laid the groundworks, in social as well as economical aspects, to the rise of the Third Reich and World War II. I wouldn’t be surprised if in several hundred years historians will combine both world wars into one.
What really struck home, especially after the last 10 years or so is how the false sense of patriotism can play a major role in the way people react in a group. As everyone knows a crowd-mentality is dangerous and can cause good people to do bad thing and, as we saw in Rwanda, for example, government sanctioned atrocities can quickly spiral out of control when the populace takes their sense of patriotism to new heights.
Books in similar vein:
Auschwitz: A Doctor’s Eyewitness Account by Dr. Miklós Nyiszli (one of the books used in the research of Shadows Walking)
The Emperor of Lies by Steve Sem-Sandberg