Author Q&A with Douglas R. Skopp

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For­mer Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­sity Teach­ing Pro­fes­sor of His­tory and cur­rent author Dou­glas R. Skopp (web­site | Face­book | Twit­ter) wrote the won­der­ful his­tor­i­cal fic­tion book Shad­ows Walk­ing (my thoughts). As usual, I had many ques­tions espe­cially con­sid­er­ing the sub­ject of the book and my inter­est in that time period. Mr. Skopp was kind enough to answer fully and has even vol­un­teered to do a guest post about one of my ques­tions (com­ing at a later date).

 

Q. One of the themes of Shad­ows Walk­ing is good peo­ple doing bad things. So, why do good peo­ple do bad things?
A.  I sup­pose the answer is the usual litany of “sins”—pride, avarice, glut­tony, wrath, sloth, envy, and apa­thy, to put them in a West­ern con­text; or, from the East­ern per­spec­tive, the self-centered delu­sion, despite all evi­dence to the con­trary, that we can avoid suf­fer­ing and death.  Another way of answer­ing the ques­tion is to sim­ply say that “good people”—indeed, all humans—cannot avoid doing “bad” things because of who and what we are:  frag­ile, mor­tal beings doomed to com­pete for lim­ited resources in an unfair world.  We have reli­gions and philoso­phies that warn or guide or inspire us to do “bet­ter,” if not in this life, then in prepa­ra­tion for the next.  But in the end, we all want to sur­vive and pros­per, too often at another’s expense.   

Even if the “best” among us are tempted to do “bad” things, I want to believe that we will do less of them than we have in the past, as we gain in empa­thy and com­pas­sion­ately help each other seek under­stand­ing and jus­tice.  Our “progress” in this direc­tion over the mil­len­nia has been fit­ful and dis­cour­ag­ing, I know.  All of us live on a knife’s edge of choices between good­ness and wicked­ness.  But there are some rea­sons to be hopeful. 

If we believe Steven Pinker, who writes in The Bet­ter Angels of Our Nature: Why Vio­lence Has Declined (Viking, 2011), we are less likely now than ever before in our his­tory to harm one another. He cred­its this to our height­ened con­cerns for human rights and tol­er­ance; to more wide­spread edu­ca­tion and lit­er­acy (he notes, for exam­ple, how read­ing fic­tion helps us become more empathic); and to the increase in more pen­e­trat­ing rea­son and logic, with the rise of sci­en­tific inquiry.

Pinker’s argu­ment needs to be tem­pered, of course: the last hun­dred years of vio­lence is stag­ger­ing, no mat­ter how we mea­sure it.  We have at our fin­ger­tips tech­nolo­gies of vio­lence that over­shadow every other age’s capac­ity to do harm.  And as a species we are still prone to respond to stress with irra­tional, vio­lent ideologies—perhaps more now, thanks to the increas­ingly dense web of mass media and com­mu­ni­ca­tion net­works that can be made to serve good or evil. What is cer­tain is that even in the best of times, the veneer of human civ­i­liza­tion is never more than a few mil­lime­ters deep.  Under­neath this veneer, we have the desires, angers and fears of our arbo­real ances­tors. Just the same, I hope Pinker is more right than wrong.

Q.  Did you find it dif­fi­cult not mak­ing your pro­tag­o­nist, a Nazi doc­tor, too sym­pa­thetic?
A.  Yes.  I began by try­ing to imag­ine and cre­ate Johann Bren­ner as an ordi­nary, typ­i­cal Ger­man physi­cian: thought­ful, ide­al­is­tic, even admirable in his ded­i­ca­tion to his pro­fes­sion.  In writ­ing his char­ac­ter, I strug­gled for a long time before I could “make” him join the Nazi Party and be will­ing to do what Nazi doc­tors did.  I knew all along that I had to show how Nazi beliefs and prac­tices could be per­sua­sive to some­one like Brenner—because in fact they were! I also wanted to be sure that I con­veyed my com­plete con­tempt for his actions as a Nazi. I soon learned that, in order to make Bren­ner cred­i­ble as a char­ac­ter, I had to “become” him. This was the hard­est part of writ­ing Shad­ows Walk­ing.  It took me nine years of work­ing on the novel before I could bring myself to describe his first act as a Nazi doc­tor. I remem­ber strug­gling for hours, try­ing to write that sen­tence.  When I finally did, I wept. 

Then I began fac­ing a new, more dif­fi­cult chal­lenge. To my hor­ror, as I con­tin­ued writ­ing and described Brenner’s descent deeper and deeper in the abyss of Nazi vio­lence, I saw myself becom­ing just like him—indifferent and numb to his vic­tims suf­fer­ing.  To retrieve my own san­ity, I returned often to the Nurem­berg Doc­tors’ Trial tran­scripts and to other pri­mary sources from my archival work in Ger­many and Eng­land, in order to refresh my sen­si­tiv­ity to the suf­fer­ing caused by Nazi racism and arrogance.

Q. How long did it take you to do the research for Shad­ows Walk­ing?
A.  There’s a long answer to this question—drawing on my child­hood experiences—but I will spare you that. The short answer is sim­ply that I focused on Ger­man his­tory dur­ing my under­grad­u­ate stud­ies, espe­cially after I dropped out of col­lege in 1960 in order to learn Ger­man and attend a Ger­man uni­ver­sity for a year.  Ger­many at the time was still recov­er­ing from World War II—bombed-out build­ings, ruins, really; but worse, peo­ple maimed in body and spirit; hun­dreds of posters in the train sta­tions plead­ing for infor­ma­tion about miss­ing per­sons.  I had a har­row­ing con­ver­sa­tion with my land-lady, who told me that as a fourteen-year old she was required to pull dead bod­ies out of bomb shel­ters, and as the war ended, she was repeat­edly raped by occu­py­ing troops.  The choices that led to the war, and its con­se­quences, inspired me to want to teach Ger­man history—as a cau­tion­ary tale.  If a mani­a­cal régime and the war it sought could come to power in Ger­many, with its his­tory of cul­tural genius, I thought (and still think), such hor­rors could hap­pen anywhere. 

I focused on Ger­man his­tory when I returned to col­lege fif­teen months later.  In grad­u­ate school, my doc­toral dis­ser­ta­tion set the theme for my career-long research agenda:   how did the social and cul­tural expe­ri­ences, par­tic­u­larly the edu­ca­tional expe­ri­ences of Ger­man pro­fes­sion­als influ­ence their polit­i­cal val­ues and choices?  I have researched, writ­ten and/or taught about 19th and 20th cen­tury Ger­man school teach­ers, math­e­mati­cians, physi­cists, chemists, engi­neers, anthro­pol­o­gists, lawyers, and his­to­ri­ans. I saved Ger­man physi­cians for last, because of my abid­ing high regard for the med­ical profession—this takes us back to my child­hood ill­nesses, and the won­der­ful care I received.  Surely, com­pas­sion­ate physi­cians would not have served Hitler.  But of course, so many did. 

In 1985–1986, with a Senior Ful­bright Scholar/Teacher award, I had a won­der­ful oppor­tu­nity to research Ger­man med­ical ethics and prac­tices between 1880 and 1945.  While a guest pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­sity in Han­nover, Ger­many, I researched my topic in twelve major Ger­man archives and in London’s Wel­come Insti­tute for the His­tory of Med­i­cine. At the same time, I inter­viewed health care pro­fes­sion­als from the Nazi era and their vic­tims, and spoke with other his­to­ri­ans whose research was more advanced than mine.  I began giv­ing my own schol­arly papers on the his­tory of Ger­man med­ical ethics while I was still abroad, in hopes of writ­ing a book-length study based on my research soon after I returned to my posi­tion in the His­tory Depart­ment at the State Uni­ver­sity of New York in Plattsburgh.    

Other books about sig­nif­i­cant Nazi doc­tors and med­ical prac­tices, how­ever, began to appear before I could com­plete my own.  Out­stand­ing as these works all are, they didn’t explain to my sat­is­fac­tion how an ordi­nary, typ­i­cal Ger­man physi­cian would have been will­ing to serve Hitler’s agenda.  I espe­cially wanted to call atten­tion to such a person’s edu­ca­tion and expe­ri­ences in the cru­cial years of World War I and the time before Hitler came to power in 1933.  The prob­lem was, “ordi­nary” peo­ple don’t leave much of an archival record.  So I decided to write a novel whose main char­ac­ter was a com­pos­ite of sev­eral Nazi doc­tors:  intel­li­gent, well-meaning, intensely proud of his pro­fes­sion and nation­al­is­tic, deter­mined to serve his Vater­land and Volk.

Shad­ows Walk­ing can be seen as a kind of his­tory of Ger­many, from before World War I to shortly after World War II.  Its main char­ac­ters are fic­tional, but they act within a fac­tual frame­work and make choices that indi­vid­u­als at the time would have had to con­tem­plate:  every­thing in my novel either hap­pened or could have hap­pened as I describe it.  To doc­u­ment the accu­racy of my story, I have writ­ten sev­enty lit­tle “essays” about the actual per­sons, places, inci­dents and cir­cum­stances around which the novel is woven; these can be found at my novel’s web­site: www.shadowswalking.com  Click on the header for “Fur­ther Read­ing” and you will see links to six focused Eng­lish lan­guage bib­li­ogra­phies (“Aspects of Ger­man His­tory,” Ger­many and the Jews,” “the Nurem­berg Tri­als,” etc.) for those who want to read more about these sub­jects, and then scroll down to the alpha­bet­i­cal list of  “essay” links, to find more infor­ma­tion about, for exam­ple, Hitler, Kristall­nacht, Men­gele, “Rhineland Bas­tards,” the SS, the “Rosen­strasse Protest,” etc. 

Q. Was Dr. Men­gele a psy­chopath? If so how did he get to such a high level in a bureau­cracy, espe­cially one like the Third Reich which looks down upon men­tal ill­nesses?
A.   I don’t have the pro­fes­sional qual­i­fi­ca­tions to say defin­i­tively, as a psy­chol­o­gist might, but ‘yes,’ as an his­to­rian, I do think Men­gele was a psy­chopath.  From what I know about his actions as a Nazi doc­tor, he showed all the per­son­al­ity dis­or­ders that we asso­ciate with psy­chopaths:  ego­cen­tric­ity, decep­tion, abuse of oth­ers, a grossly lack­ing sense of empa­thy; and, if we believe what we learned about his life after flee­ing Ger­many for South Amer­ica, he died with­out remorse.  Fur­ther, as is typ­i­cal of psy­chopaths, Men­gele was adept at behav­ing appro­pri­ately when it served his purposes.

            I don’t think we should be sur­prised that some­one like Men­gele achieved promi­nence in the Third Reich—or in any highly struc­tured bureau­cracy, for that mat­ter.  Another exam­ple would be Adolf Eich­mann.  Bureau­cra­cies, in gen­eral, require highly effi­cient, focused, impar­tial, often even indif­fer­ent indi­vid­u­als who “go by the book” and “get the job done.”   Psy­chopaths can be highly effi­cient and focused, indeed obsessed, and have the capac­ity to deceive oth­ers so cun­ningly that they gain respect and admi­ra­tion.  Most of the high­est Nazis were ruth­less and decep­tive, while prid­ing them­selves on their loy­alty and devo­tion to order and dis­ci­pline.  In fact, all the com­mon traits of psy­chopaths are hall­marks of the Nazi régime, from Hitler on down.  Hitler him­self, in my judg­ment, above all his under­lings, behaved psychopathically.  

And ‘yes,’ the Nazis did “look down upon men­tal ill­nesses,” but they tended to regard most such ill­nesses as hav­ing a bio­log­i­cal ori­gin in one’s “race” and “blood.”  Since an “Aryan” by def­i­n­i­tion was a supe­rior being, whose behav­ior, no mat­ter what, was accept­able, even praise­wor­thy, an Aryan’s men­tal ill­ness, even if psy­cho­pathic, was accept­able, too—quite con­ve­nient, if you were an Aryan.

Finally, I don’t believe that using such terms really helps us fully under­stand how the Nazis achieved and then mis­used so much power.  I think we gain greater under­stand­ing of them –and ourselves—if we con­sider the whole con­tex­tual pic­ture in which such per­son­al­i­ties are cre­ated and func­tion. This means attempt­ing to com­pre­hend the full range of cul­tural, social, polit­i­cal, and eco­nomic conditions—or, at least, those that are believed to be the case by those who are expe­ri­enc­ing them—when indi­vid­u­als make choices that have his­tor­i­cal con­se­quences. In other words, we need to try and fathom both what was true and what was believed to have been true, in order to bet­ter under­stand the past—or the present. 

Q. Any positive/negative expe­ri­ences in book pro­mo­tions? What are the chal­lenges of book pro­mo­tions in the social media age?
A.  I wish I had not “self-published” Shad­ows Walk­ing.  In 2006, I tried to inter­est lit­er­ary agents in an ear­lier ver­sion of it.  I sent out thirty-five let­ters and quickly received thirty-five rejec­tions, some of them say­ing lit­tle more than “NO!”  One agent even told me that “Nazi atroc­i­ties were passé” and that I should try some other topic; given the spate of suc­cess­ful books and films since then, I often have won­dered whether she has changed her mind.   

When I was diag­nosed in 2008 with can­cer, I decided that I wanted to see my novel on a shelf before I was on one myself.  Try­ing to find a lit­er­ary agent who would then try to inter­est a pub­lisher, who in turn would take a year or more to per­haps decide that my novel was not suit­able for pub­li­ca­tion after all—well, I doubted that I would live that long. I began to explore many “publish-on-demand” com­pa­nies, finally set­tling on Cre­ate­Space (for­merly known as Book­Surge), espe­cially because, as a sub­sidiary of Amazon.com, my novel would be avail­able for on-line purchase.

I am very happy with the pro­fes­sional pro­duc­tion val­ues of Shad­ows Walk­ing.  The cover’s design (by a col­league in the Art Depart­ment at my uni­ver­sity), the lay­out, qual­ity of paper, etc., are all, I believe, excel­lent. Cre­ate­Space even helped me set up accounts for my novel with Face­book and Twit­ter. I have tried to use them, but con­fess to being impa­tient and frus­trated with social media.  Cre­ate­Space would have done more to help me pro­mote my novel, had I been will­ing to pay for the var­i­ous other ser­vices they offer. 

But the real prob­lem I have had since Shad­ows Walk­ing appeared is with major book review­ers, whether in print or elec­tronic media—the New York Times, NPR, etc. Not one promi­nent reviewer that I have con­tacted is will­ing to write a review of a book that is not pub­lished by a major pub­lish­ing house.  With­out such reviews, Shad­ows Walk­ing is des­tined to remain unknown to most read­ers.  I know that some (maybe even many, or most) self-published works are weak.  But so are at least some of the books pub­lished by major pub­lish­ing houses.  Major review­ers know this, too, I sup­pose.  Yet they still refuse to give strong self-published books—and I hope that Shad­ows Walk­ing is one of these—the expo­sure they deserve. 

I am most grate­ful to Zohar Laor and to other blog­gers who have taken it upon them­selves to read and write insight­ful, sen­si­tive and engag­ing reviews of books that they find wor­thy, whether pub­lished by major pub­lish­ing houses or not.  With­out these blogs, I doubt very much that any­one beyond my imme­di­ate cir­cle of friends and acquain­tances would ever have learned about my novel.  

Shame­less plug dis­guised as a wise ass ques­tion: Why do you love ManOfLaBook.com so much and often visit the web­site?
Wise Guy Answer: ManOfLaBook.com is excep­tional in many ways:  it is crisply writ­ten, provoca­tive, thought­ful, even at times touch­ing in its sen­si­tiv­i­ties. The intel­lec­tual curios­ity that it reflects and then evokes in me is very reward­ing. I espe­cially appre­ci­ate its links to other per­ti­nent on-line reviews and arti­cles.  I visit it often because I know I am always going to read an hon­est state­ment about a book that I might want to read and learn some­thing of inter­est.  As a lover of paper books, I lament a great deal about the tran­si­tion from print media to elec­tronic media—but this blog rep­re­sents for me all that is won­der­ful in our pix­i­lated era:  the ease with which all of us can share ideas, stim­u­lat­ing our­selves and oth­ers to think and/or re-think about the myr­iad ways that we have to make sense of our world.

Thanks for the great answers Doug, I'm look­ing for­ward to your guest post.

Zohar — Man of la Book

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