The book begins on Kristallnacht in 1938. Hitler has seized total power in Germany. After a minor Nazi diplomat is assassinated by a young Jew in Paris, Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister unleashes the Nazi thugs to brutalize Jews and smash their shops all over Germany in a night of government-sponsored terror. The term Kristallnacht refers to the broken glass in the streets the next morning in every major city.
Hearing of the wanton destruction, Marianne, her husband, her lifelong friend Connie, and several other German aristocrats agree Hitler must be overthrown. To Marianne’s disappointment Connie is engaged to Benita, a peasant girl who is not terribly bright but is beautiful. Connie asks Marianne to take care of Benita should something happen to him, as he plots against the Nazis. As the book skips to the end of the war Benita becomes one of the three main female characters.
In 1944, after five years of increasingly pointless war, the plotters, including Connie, attempt to kill Hitler with a bomb planted in East Prussia, the Wolf’s Lair headquarters. Unfortunately, Hitler miraculously survives. Shattuck, has tied her characters to the actual July 20th bomb, which adds to the book’s credibility. There were many attempts to overthrow Hitler both before and during the war and we don’t know if Marianne’s friends were involved in earlier attempts to kill the Fuhrer.
After the failure of the July 1944 coup Benita is arrested. Marianne comes under suspicion but being married to nobility keeps her out of prison. The Nazis don’t execute Benita, apparently deciding she’s not bright enough to be in on the plot.
The book picks up with Marianne rescuing Benita in a bombed-out apartment from Russian soldiers in Berlin, where Benita has been kept for the sexual pleasure of the Soviet soldiers Traveling west to escape the Soviet zone of occupation they meet Ania, a woman with a mysterious past and is the third main character.
The majority of the novel covers the five years between the end of the war and 1950. I think the novel would have more punch if it began with what must have been an incredible effort to find and rescue Benita, although it does cover Ania and her travails fleeing Poland and the Red Army. The journey ends at Marianne’s home in the American zone.
The older Marianne plays the role of big sister, over managing the lives of Benita, Ania, and their children. When Benita falls in love with a former solider, Marianne, bitter about the loss of Connie and her husband, does not approve and tries to interfere with the romance. Eventually Ania’s secrets are revealed and the stresses of the post war Germany are almost too much for the friendships to survive.
The characters are well developed and though the book is interesting, it is not a thriller by any means. However there is enough mystery, particularly surrounding Ania, to keep the pages turning. Those first post war years in shattered Germany have a Gone with the Wind feel to them and you almost expect someone to announce that they, “will never be hungry again.”
I have to give The Women in the Castle a solid A-. The history may not appeal to everyone and some may wonder how Germans could be heroes after what their government did, but I give the book a hardy recommendation.