Sunday, November 13, 2011

Conclusion: Author Interview--Doug Skopp "Shadows Walking" and the Nuremberg Trials

....the last of a series of a questions I was able to ask Doug Skopp, author of Shadows Walking.
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Amy: Could you explain how the Nuremberg Trials ended and the long-term impact of their judgment?

Doug:  There were many trials at Nuremberg. The one most people know about is the first one, the International Military Tribunal, which focused on the highest ranking or most influential, captured Nazis, most notably, Hermann Goering (and on one Nazi, Martin Bormann, head of the Chancellery and Hitler’s private secretary, tried in absentia.) My novel refers to this trial, but I am most interested in the “Doctors’ Trial,” the first of twelve more trials at Nuremberg against significant Nazis or supporters. Allow me, please, to summarize the little essay on this trial that I have written on my website,

The “Doctors’ Trial” was officially called the United States of America v. Karl Brandt, et al. Karl Brandt, an actual character in my novel, was the highest ranking medical officer captured by the Allies at the end of the war and brought to trial; therefore, his name precedes all the other defendants in this trial.

Twenty-two men and one woman were indicted on October 25, 1946: twenty, including the one female, were physicians; the other three were Nazi officers involved in some aspect of medical administration. All twenty-three were accused of being significantly involved with Nazi initiatives to kill those held to be “living lives not worth living” and for experiments on human beings. The trial opened on December 9, 1946 and concluded on August 20, 1947. The defendants were charged with “conspiracy to commit war crimes” and with “crimes against humanity,” which meant plans for mass murder in phases of the “euthanasia” programs, and for medical experimentation on prisoners and civilians without their consent. The Tribunal determined that the charge of “conspiracy to commit war crimes” was “beyond its jurisdiction” but found incontrovertible evidence linking the defendants found guilty to “crimes against humanity.” Many were also charged with membership in the SS, a criminal organization. Of the twenty-three defendants, seven, including Brandt, were sentenced to death, and hanged on June 2, 1948. Seven more were acquitted of all changes. The remaining nine received prison sentences of ten years to life; but none—eight men and the one woman defendant—served the full term of his or her sentence. Excerpts from the transcript of the Doctors’ Trial can be found through the link provided by the University of Missouri-Kansas City at

The most important result of the Doctor’s Trial is the Nuremberg Code, which establishes a foundation for an ethical research protocol involving human beings. Elements of the Nuremberg Code first were articulated by Dr. Leo Alexander, a prominent psychiatrist and medical educator who had emigrated to the United States from Austria in 1933. His six principles, plus four more added by the judges at Nuremberg, are now widely recognized as a standard in the United States and beyond. The first principle is “voluntary consent of the human subject, based upon his or her full freedom of choice and awareness of the nature, extent, purpose and duration of the experiment, as well as any hazards and effects it might cause to the subject’s health; obtaining this consent is the duty of the experimenter.” The Nuremberg Code provides an anchor for all subsequent medical ethics. Its wisdom, if followed, should prevent such atrocities from occurring again—but we already know that they did occur after it was established, and that it is entirely possible that they will continue to occur, given the high stakes of prestige and material gain that dangle above unprincipled medical researchers and those who encourage them. (To see the other Nuremberg Code principles and sources for further reading, please go to my essay on “Nazi doctors” on website.)

Amy:  Do you see any parallels between post-1989 Eastern Europe racial wars/genocide and the Holocaust?

Doug:  Unfortunately, wars and genocides all now resemble each other in that they seek total commitment from the combating societies. As a result, governments and radical groups generate propaganda and develop ideologies that deliberately undermine rational thinking. We are encouraged to think in terms of “us” versus “them.” To suspect “the other,” whoever the “other du jour” may be. To simply stereotype the enemy as the devil incarnate and set in motion the instruments of his destruction. Modern instruments of destruction are particularly brutal, as in Bosnia and in Eastern Europe. But machetes achieved the same end in Rwanda. We are a violent species. Our propensity for violence is evident now in the hostility in the Middle East between Israel and the Palestinians and their supporters, and in the conflicts between the Sunni and the Shias. Biological, chemical and nuclear weaponry makes such confrontations all the more fearful. Until we learn how to see every human being as a reflection of ourselves, we are destined, I fear, to see more genocides.

Amy:  Finally, was it difficult to write such a complicated protagonist as Brenner without resorting to stereotype?

Doug:  Yes, I didn’t just want to write a simplistic story of a “bad guy,” like a GI-Joe comic book or a caricature like “Hogan’s Heroes.” It was painfully difficult to write about someone like Brenner—far more difficult than I ever imagined. The worst part was having to “become” Brenner, in the same way any author must enter into the persona that he or she is trying to describe and make real for the reader. From 1990 until 2006, when I retired, I only allowed myself to write on the novel during summer vacations. Each summer, I forced myself to begin by re-reading portions of the transcripts of the Nuremberg Trials, and each time I did, I experienced anew the horror of what happened because of Nazi brutality. It took me nine years before I could actually write the first sentence which describes Brenner’s initial vicious act. I remember weeping after I wrote it.

But then I began to experience another kind of problem. The deeper Brenner got into his Nazi mentality, the more I began to mirror his attitude towards his victims. I found that I, too, was becoming indifferent. Each time I felt this, I returned to my copies of archival materials and to the trial transcripts, in order to remind myself that I was not Brenner. I must tell you, I didn’t enjoy writing Shadows Walking whatsoever. I know it is not an enjoyable book. It was painful to write, and it is painful to read. I tried to not let my writing affect my health and outlook on life, but I can’t be sure that it didn’t. As much as possible, I tried to keep the brutality and violence in the story to a minimum; to keep it off-stage, so to speak—but since it is about Nazi atrocities, I did not know how to leave that all unsaid.  In short, I didn’t write this novel to entertain anyone, least of all to provide a voyeur what has been called the “pornography” of violence. I wrote Shadows Walking out of my deep conviction that we must try to understand what each of us is capable of doing. Learning that about myself was indeed painful, especially given my Jewish heritage. I can only hope that it is worthwhile for others to learn, too.

Special thanks again to Professor Skopp for his help in providing this week's backstory to the novel Shadows Walking and his insight on the Holocaust and keeping the topic relevant in our forgetful society.

To lighten things up quite a bit, stay tuned for a review next week of Show Up, Look Good by Mark Wisniewski, possibly the most amusing book I've read this year....

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