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


Dave Hingsburger said...

As you can all see, there is a guest reviewer today - fair niece Shannon. When it came time to write the review I realized that a) I'd read it a long time ago and b) I no longer had the book having sent it along to Shannon. So in a panic I wrote and asked her to fill in today.

The only thing I will add to this review is the fact that Zoo Station managed the Herculean task of taking an unimaginable horror that is too huge to understand and bringing it down to a personal level. A mother, a child, a singular terror - this is something we all understand.

I felt that this book honoured disability history in a real way. I knew a lot before going in and knew even more coming out. I grew in both understanding and in knowledge ... all while be entertained by a story.

Great book AND Great Review by Shannon. I thank her for her help today.

Anonymous said...

I read Zoo Station after reading about it here. Since then, I feel as if I have a better understanding of how the Nazis came to the level of power they achieved. It really wasn't just Hitler, it was a system where so many marginal people could gain a chance to go up by putting others under themselves, by sneaking and snitching and knowing when to turn a blind eye to evil, and by believing pretty promises about the future: full employment after a major depression, education, health care, etc. for the Aryan masses.

We homeschool, and recently our reading has included a number of books with WWII elements. Now I include more Christian and human philosophy in our lessons - the value of all persons - than I did before reading Zoo Station (not just speaking of the disabled here, but of all races, types, behaviors, etc.) For Mother's Day I watched The Sound of Music with my son. Try watching that after reading Zoo Station and political elements just leap out at you.

Summary: I'm not sure how I feel about the plot and protagonist, but the history lessons were valuable.

(Blog editor's note, this was posted elsewhere and I've moved it here so that it doesn't get lost. Hope that's ok with anon.)

Belinda said...

Wow, Shannon,what an excellent review.

I feel that this is a book I must read now. It sounds gripping and truthful. Thank you so much. Your review should be published everywhere! Well, I suppose CTF is almost everywhere.

CJ said...

I will have to read this book.

I still wonder how the Catholic church got up the nerve to condemn the Nazi's killing of the disabled but not the Jews or others.

In "Shindler's List" I was fascinated how Shindler grew from a self centered, pleasure seeking, unfaithful man into one who will be remembered always.

I spoke with an older woman once who lived in Austria. She was a child but remembered a local institution for the disabled and how they "transferred" all of the people out.

I seriously need to read this book.

What is the choice for next time and how long do we have to read it?

Shan said...

Thank you CJ for bringing up something I wanted to include in the review but just didn't have the space.

Regarding public inaction during the Final Solution:

A lot of scholars have written on the subject and have come up with many conjectures, some more plausible than others, but the surprising thing is how many people HAD heard about the deportation and extermination of the Jews...from Bavarian barmaids right up through the Prime Minister of Britain and the President of the US.

The public outcry against T4 taught the Nazis to be more careful about how they carried out their mass killings. Though concentration camps were located all over Europe, including in or near major cities such as Munich (Dachau) most of the extermination camps were outside the central of the mistakes they made in T4 was using existing hospitals well within the sight and earshot of the average citizen.

I read a thesis hypothesizing that the world in 1942, during the height of Hitler's power, did not have the capacity to comprehend evil on that scale - people had heard rumours but, crucially, did not believe them. Genocide was outside the experience of the average citizen...especially in the cynical climate of the world's first large-scale propaganda war. It would be easy to disbelieve something so unthinkable, something you didn't WANT to believe, just by telling yourself that the Allied propaganda machine was at work.

It's easy enough to accuse the people of WWII, now that we know the terrible truth about the Nazis' killing campaign. On the outside looking in it seems incredible that life went on despite the knowledge of war crimes taking place a few kilometers away. But people NOW are just as prone to thinking "It could never happen here" - in 1943, before the days of satellite footage and hidden cameras, denial would have been even easier.

Colleen said...

Dear Dave:

Thank you for bringing this book to my reading list. I am glad to have read it. One of the ideas from this novel that I will remember for a long time is Albert telling Russell that he has come to expect cruelty and is surprised by kindness. I wonder how many people today in our world expect cruelty. I believe that we have created and participate in a world where there are many people who do.

Shannon - thank you for a very good review and for the bibleography.


Anonymous said...

(Blog editor's note, this was posted elsewhere and I've moved it here so that it doesn't get lost. Hope that's ok with anon.)

Anon says thank you for correcting her mispost, and thank you for suggesting the book. ;-)

Myrrien said...

Thanks Shannon for your review but also for your addendum as well, as that point screamed at me as well.

I started to read the book but couldn't finish it, I guess pregnancy is just the wrong time for me to read about the second world war and the atrocities committed.

Emma said...

This is an amazing review. Thank you for the recommendation of a book I'd probably have missed otherwise. I've posted my thoughts on my blog here would love to hear others thoughts about the book or my review or such things.

CJ said...

Justice at last?


Anonymous said...

CJ said...
"Justice at last?


No, unfortunately, the Demjanjuk "trial" isn't about justice, it's about vengeance. 65 years after the fact, that frail old man will be brought to trial to appease the bloodlust of those who still need someone to blame for the holocaust, even though they may not have born at the time of it. Demjanjuk might have been the most sadist killer of Germany's death machine, but the time for trials is past. He is soon to meet the greatest Judge, and will have to answer then for whatever he did. The living would do far better to educate the next generation about the past than to put a dying man on trial, for if we do not understand the past, we are condemned to repeat it - anybody taken a good look around the world lately?

Heike Fabig said...

Not a long review from me this time. I loved the book's disability theme and the way it was brought into the story (making the political personal) and loved your review with its historical background even more Shannon. But I must say I did not like the protagonist or his "spy" story very much. It was all a bit too obvious... Still, overall a good read! Looking forward to the next one.

Anonymous said...

One would be sadly naive to believe that these kinds of atrocities were a thing of the past.

We must take a good hard look at health policies and priority strategies as they pertain to newborns in our very own province.

Most people think that the decision to terminate an unborn with anomalies has no effect on the health management of infants born with those conditions.

I have learned that priority decisions are made in the NICU all the time. When it comes to offering treatment/surgery to save a life that might otherwise be lost, there appears to be a very high threshold for "quality" and the decisions have little or nothing to do with parents' choice and informed consent.

See "justice for Annie" facebook GROUP and you will get an idea how narcotic controls and consent play out at the bedside for certain infants and how the systems (Coroner etc) stand in silent observation.

The life of one infant with disabilities for which shocking hospital events occurred will never be worth risking the reputation of a hospital or a single doctor.

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