Friday, August 17, 2012

Shadows Walking, a Novel by Douglas Skopp

Review copies and interviews are available upon request. Contact Douglas Skopp -

Why would an idealistic German physician join the Nazi Party and commit crimes against humanity? How might he come to realize the horror of his deeds? And what would he do then?

In 1935, Johann Brenner, M.D., joins the Nazis and volunteers to sterilize mixed-race German children—-the “Rhineland bastards” born to German women from relationships with Allied colonial troops after World War I. In 1939, he volunteers for Hitler’s “euthanasia campaign” to kill those Germans who were deemed by the regime to be “useless lives not worth living.” In 1943, now an SS First Lieutenant, he volunteers to participate in gruesome sterilizations and mass murder at Auschwitz.

As Berlin is falling to the Russians, Brenner flees to Nuremberg, where he once lived with his family and practiced medicine. With a false identity, he has become a janitor in the Palace of Justice, Nuremberg’s courthouse. In 1946, he attends the “Nazi Doctors’ Trial,” knowing that he could be one of the physicians sitting in the dock. The chief defendant is Dr. Karl Brandt, Hitler’s personal physician and the highest-ranking Nazi medical officer captured at the end of the war. Brandt, more than any other Nazi, inspired Brenner to join and serve Hitler.

Outside Nuremberg’s Palace of Justice, where the “Nazi Doctors’ Trial” is being held, Johann Brenner helps an old man who is sorting out the rubble that was once the neighborhood’s savings’ bank. Doing so helps him find the courage to confront his own past and sort out the rubble of his own life. He decides to write his estranged wife, Helga, a letter in which he tries to understand the choices he has made. Through it, he becomes a physician trying to heal himself.

Shadows Walking illustrates how Brenner’s actions are linked to—but not excused by— events in his private life. When his daughter, Greta, dies of polio, despite his best medical efforts, he suffers a serious blow to his self-confidence. He and Helga drift further apart with his unwillingness to heed her warnings about the Nazis, especially after he does little to dissuade their son, Paul-Adolf, from participation in the Hitler Youth. Although Johann is distressed by the vulgarity of the Nazis, he supports the Party for the prestige and material benefits it brings to the medical profession and, he believes, for the good of his Vaterland.  

In 1960, when Skopp was eighteen, he dropped out of Dartmouth College and travelled to Germany to see and learn what had happened there less than a generation before.  Some thirty members of his family had disappeared and probably died in the Holocaust.  Were all the Germans monsters?  He was interested in more than the usual historical questions—-the “who? what? where? and when?”  Skopp wanted to know “how?” and even more importantly, “why?”  How and why was Auschwitz possible? This, for Skopp was a fundamental question, not only of German history, but of all human history.  

Visit for seventy short historical essays about the people, places, incidents, and circumstances around which Shadows Walking is woven.

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