Monday, May 11, 2009
Zoo Station: CTF Book Club
A Book Review by Shannon.
I didn’t expect to like this book much. When Dave recommended it to me, I heard the words “1939”, “Nazi”, and “disabled”, and that was enough to turn my stomach. While studying European History in university I was immersed in that place and that time, and that specific aspect of Nazism, and to be honest I didn’t care to read a single word more about it.
Zoo Station surprised me. It wasn’t the screaming cauldron of fear I expected. To his enormous credit, Downing manages to bring some sweetness and some life, and some modicum of relief to the subject at hand. His writing is deft and smooth, and he succeeds in turning a novel that might have been mired down in its own ambitions into a fast-paced and rather gripping story. Thankfully, he widens the setting of the novel so that, by the end, you’ve visited half of Europe with the hero, from England to Czechoslovakia. This is one of the keys to the novel’s success – staying within Germany would have weighed the book down. The skies always seem to be leaden and the clouds concrete when you’re in Nazi Germany. Like Stalin’s Soviet Union, everything feels so heavy and frightening.
The protagonist, John Russell, is one of those reluctant heroes whose circumstances maneuver him into a life he didn’t expect. I like this technique in a book – the way a character is forced to do something he’d rather not do, and the readers’ uncertainty as we watch to see whether he’ll be able to pull it off. In Zoo Station one of these circumstances, a critical one, involves Russell’s discovery of the Nazi intent to euthanize the disabled. He is made aware of the policy through Tyler McKinley, a colleague. Tyler is an American journalist who is in contact with a woman – a former nurse – whose daughter is disabled. While working at a hospital, the woman overhears conversation about a government memo concerning the best way to change the laws to allow the killing of ‘incurables’. The woman searches an office for the letter and takes it away with her, going into hiding with her daughter.
Tyler McKinley begins to formulate plans to publicise the contents of this letter in Britain or the United States, hoping to raise international outcry against the Nazis. Russell, though concerned, has other irons in the fire, and so for a while it seems this plot point will stay peripheral. It’s only when McKinley is himself murdered by the Gestapo that Russell is forced to take a hand. He’s unable to let the incriminating information die with McKinley and yet, in Germany in 1939, with the SS everywhere and Stalin’s Red Menace looming on Germany’s eastern borders, it is not as simple as popping the letter in an envelope addressed to Washington or London.
Throughout the novel, Russell’s conflict involves one key question – should he, or should he not, get involved? Every act of sedition he commits, whether it is taking valuables out of Germany for a Jewish family, pulling strings at the British Embassy to get visas for a Jewish woman and her daughters, or impersonating Tyler McKinley to bring Nazi atrocities to light, requires an effort of will and a conscious decision to take a risk. Sometimes the risk he takes is a small one, and other times the choice he makes puts his own life in real danger.
Leaving the novel aside for a moment, I’d like to share what I found out after reading Zoo Station, when I picked up some textbooks of mine to read up on the eugenics movement and the euthanasia program. The letter mentioned in the novel was not a fabrication: in October 1939 Hitler issued a secret order, backdated to 1 September 1939, in which he directed that the allegedly incurable mentally ill were to be “granted a merciful death”. The Ministry of Justice then sent a letter to asylum directors mandating the killing of ‘incurables’, and directing them as to how to inform parents of their children’s deaths.
A group of a few dozen initiates, mainly doctors, carried out these orders.
They murdered 70,000 people by lethal injection and, later, by gassing – only children, at first, then adults – between October 1939 and August 1941.
At one 100-bed hospital, Grafeneck, during the period from May 12 until June 28, 1940 – 47 days – a total of 2,019 people died. This averages out to 43 deaths daily. Almost half the population of a 100-bed institution murdered, every day. As patients were killed, others were bussed in from institutions all over the Reich, to take their places.
It was the detail of this policy – the selection of the victims, their transportation, incarceration and extermination, which provided the model for the subsequent campaigns against other ‘undesirable’ elements – Gypsies, homosexuals, political dissidents, Jews.
70,000 people – double the population of my hometown.
The war ended in 1945, but the killings ended in August 1941. Why?
All along, the Nazi euthanasia conspirators were aware that they needed the utmost secrecy to avoid the German people getting wind of their plans. It was impossible to keep it entirely a secret, though, because of the sheer size of the operation. Before long, citizens realised the truth about what was happening in these institutions across Germany – some watched busload after busload of disabled people arriving, though no one ever left; some received death certificates for their loved ones on the same day as the death had supposedly occurred. In one town which contained a hospital-turned-killing-centre, ashes containing human hair rained down on the city.
Slowly – too slowly – a groundswell of protest rose throughout the Reich. Some doctors managed to get away with rediagnosing their patients, making them ineligible for euthanasia and saving their lives. Some families were able to manipulate, deceive, or bully their doctors into releasing their family members to their own care, or transferring them to a private hospital where the murderous arm of “Action T4” did not reach.
In July 1940 a Lutheran Bishop wrote a memorandum detailing how the Protestant churches had become aware of the systematic killings, and urging that the measures be immediately halted. “The moral basis of the entire nation”, he stated, “will otherwise be extremely shaken.”
In 1941 the Catholic church broke its silence – first amongst the clergy itself, and then publicly to its parishioners. Denouncing the Gestapo in a public church, during the heat of World War II, could not have been an easy thing to do. But the Bishop of Münster, Clemens von Galen preached, “It is a terrible, unjust and catastrophic thing when man opposes his will to the will of God. We are talking about men and women, our compatriots, our brothers and sisters. Poor unproductive people if you wish, but does this mean that they have lost their right to live?” Parts of this sermon were reproduced by the Royal Air Force and dropped, by British pilots, among German troops.
By August 1941 Hitler was no longer able to ignore the waves of protest. He was jeered by an angry crowd during a speech – the one time an audience opposed him in all his 12 years at the head of the Reich.
On August 24, 1941 Hitler ordered that the Action T4 program be stopped – and commanded that there was to be no further provocation of Germany’s churches for the duration of the war.
Margaret Mead, anthropologist and feminist, said “Never doubt that a small group of citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Our days, like John Russell’s of Zoo Station, are made up of hundreds of little decisions, and a few big ones. Smiling at someone on the bus – little decision, or big one? Holding the elevator – little decision or big? Making eye contact – little or big?
Looking away from suffering – little or big?
Keeping quiet when wrong is being done – little or big?
1,347 days elapsed between the cancellation of Action T4 and Germany’s unconditional surrender to the Allied Forces. Had the Nazis carried on their program at the pace set, the Grafeneck facility alone – only one of at least six – would have supervised the deaths of an additional 57,921 disabled people.
If no one had dared. If people had looked away. If everyone had kept quiet.
Speak out – because your voices can change the world.
Never doubt it.
Berghahn, Volker. Imperial Germany 1971-1914 Berghahn Books 1994
Craig, Gordon. Germany 1866-1945 Oxford University Press 1980
Peukert, Detlev. Inside Nazi Germany Penguin Books 1987
Ramm, Agatha. Europe in the Twentieth Century 1905-1970 Longman Group 1984
Sax, Benjamin and Kuntz, Dieter. Inside Hitler’s Germany D.C. Heath & Co 1992