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 regime 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:  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 regime, 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, 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 so much and often visit the web­site?
Wise Guy Answer: 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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