Tyler R. Tichelaar of Reader
is pleased to be joined by Helena P.
Schrader, who is here to inform us about some fascinating details of
World War II, as detailed in her new historical novel, "An Obsolete
Schrader earned a Ph.D. in History with a biography of the
German Resistance leader who initiated the plot against Hitler on July
20, 1944. She has also written a study of women pilots in World War II,
"Sisters in Arms," and her non-fiction book about the Berlin Airlift,
"The Blockade Breakers," will be released shortly. She has published
two previous novels set in World War II, as well as novels set in
Ancient Sparta, and a trilogy about the Templars. Helena is an active
Foreign Service Officer. Her current novel is the result of years of
research and twenty years of living in Germany.
Welcome, Helena. I'm happy you could join me today. It
strikes me that "An Obsolete Honor" is a story long overdue.
First, let me say it is a pleasure to be here. I
really appreciate this opportunity to talk more about a project that
consumed me for nearly a decade.
Helena, who are the main characters in "An Obsolete
Honor" and how are they involved in the German resistance movement?
The main protagonists in the novel are fictional
characters. I chose to use fictional characters at the heart of the
novel in order to free myself from real biographies. Fictional
characters enabled me to address the topics I felt were essential to
understanding Nazi Germany and the Resistance. However, while the
principal characters are fictional, their fictional biographies bring
them in contact with a variety of real historical figures. These
historical figures are always in the places they really were at that
time, doing the things they really did and holding the views ascribed
to them. Wherever a historical figure appears, he or she is as
accurately described as possible.
The main fictional character in the novel is Philip Freiherr (Baron)
von Feldburg. He is a General Staff Officer, who falls in love with a
secretary at General Staff Headquarters and through her is introduced
to and becomes involved in the military conspiracy. The secondary plot
line revolves around Marianne Moldenauer, a medical student who
personally witnesses the conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto and is so
appalled that she starts trying to help the victims of the regime.
Will you tell us about Marianne's relationship with a
Gestapo commissar? What is the conflict or the point you
create by depicting their relationship?
Marianne represents all the basically decent people
in Germany who recognized how inhumane and horrible the Nazis were but
were NOT in positions of power that enabled them to work toward an
overthrow of the government. If you were a general, an
officer, or a diplomat you had many more opportunities to take action
against the brutal, criminal regime than a college student, housewife
Marianne's relationship with Peter is designed to show how horribly
difficult it was for an ordinary individual in a totalitarian regime to
do anything against that regime. A totalitarian regime
aspect of life, and 90% of the population is in some way working for
that regime. It is also more likely that you will fall in
someone who is part of the regime than someone who is opposed to it.
Let me illustrate this point with one example. One of the
interviews I conducted was with the widow of Generaloberst Jodl, a man
who was sentenced to death by the Allied Military Tribunal at Nuremburg
for complicity in the Nazis war crimes. His widow was a
woman, who had been the personal secretary to the leader of the German
military resistance, Generaloberst Beck, in the mid-1930s, when he was
Chief of the General Staff. She was furthermore a close
friend of the
fanatical opponent to Hitler, Henning von Tresckow. One of
survivors of July 20, 1944, Ludwig Baron von Hammerstein, defended her
with great compassion because he felt strongly that she was no less
intelligent or moral than those in the Resistance, but "how can we ever
know where the heart will lead us?" This is Marianne's story.
truly an opponent of Hitler, but she falls in love with a
Helena, what about the German Resistance movement
intrigued you enough to write a novel about it?
The fact that the German Resistance had to be
traitors to their country in order to do what their conscience
demanded. That is a huge burden! Members of the Norwegian,
Czech Resistance movements were brave men and women. They
lives because they were fighting a powerful and ruthless
invader—but they knew that the vast majority of their
countrymen were on their side. They were the best and bravest
countrymen, but they were not alienated and alone. They did
self-doubt or face a continuous conflict between moral and patriotic
duties. It is the moral and ethical dilemma of the German
that sets it apart.
What else about "An Obsolete Honor" do you think makes
your novel stand out among the several other novels about World War II?
First, I do not rely on stereotypes. For example,
many of my readers may find my portrayal of German generals
"unrealistic" because I have not turned them into humorless
squareheads, bigots and martinets. That is because I
interviewed many German officers, including Generals. I have
memoirs and more important their diaries and letters. I know
the German officer corps the pig-headed, uneducated, unsophisticated
men were the rare exception. American officers will
understand what I
Second, my novel is designed to show how very difficult it was to
oppose Hitler inside Nazi Germany – rather than treating it
as self-evident and easy. Furthermore, my novel will
people to understand those who chose not to resist as well as those who
did—whether it is Marianne's mother, who doesn't have the
nerves to become a criminal after years of being a law-biding citizen,
or General von Rittenbach, who believes the Communist threat has to be
Far too many books about WWII are crude caricatures, painted in
black-and-white without any nuances, shades-of-grey or
subtly. I can
hear the screams of protest already. How could there be any
grey" when facing such a diabolical regime? Well, because the regime
was incredibly crafty and subtle and well disguised at first.
recognize that evil is not always evident at the first instant, we run
the risk of being deceived again and again.
Tyler, you asked me earlier, how or why I got interested in the German
Resistance. Let me say something a little provocative: It is
cannot be 100% sure that my own beloved country could not be misled
into committing crimes against humanity. When I saw the
Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, I could only shudder at my own premonitions.
We Americans no longer have the right to assume that we would
have done anything like what the Nazis did. We can no longer
moral superiority over the Germans. We all have to realize
own—elected! —government has committed crimes
against humanity. No, the scale is not the same as the Nazi
crimes—yet. But then our government is not a
dictatorship either. What if it was? What if the
people responsible for
the crimes at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib faced no legislative censure?
What if there was no free press? What if they could
do whatever they
liked without fear of being called to account
Helena, that makes me have to ask you about Hitler
himself. He is a very minor character in the novel, even
book centers around attempts to assassinate him. Why did you
to provide a more detailed portrait of him? Do you think any
could do him justice? And finally, how do you see him
yourself—was he just a monster—is he to blame for
everything that happened in Germany? Decades later, is it possible for
us to understand him?
Frankly, Hitler doesn't interest me in the least. I
don't like murder mysteries either. I am not a criminal or
psychologist. What interests me is how sane, rational,
can be misled, even fascinated, by a madman—and even more
what enables some people not to be mesmerized by a clever, charismatic
political seducer while all those around them are following along like
sheep. I suppose that someone who specializes in writing
criminally insane could do a very good job of writing about Hitler, but
I suspect that most novelists would fall into the trap of demonizing or
trivializing him. I have personally always found that I
extensively about people I do not understand or admire in some way.
As to Hitler's role, of course he wasn't to blame for
everything. If he
had not received financing, support and votes, he would have remained
in complete obscurity. Only because others were willing to
orders, hitch their wagons to his campaign machine and exploit the
political situation that he created did he get into a position to seize
dictatorial powers and then use those powers to create a police state
focused on genocide and wide-spread aggression. Hitler had
accomplices and millions of willing minions. Most Germans,
were very happy to reap the rewards of his aggressive policies as long
as all was going well. The fact that the German Resistance
isolated, so small, and ultimately so ineffective is an indictment of
the vast majority of Germans who just carried on with their lives,
closed their eyes to the injustices around them, and latter were the
first to claim they had "never been Nazis."
Our reviewer at Reader Views commented that she could
tell you really visited the places you wrote about. Will you
more about your research for "An Obsolete Honor"?
I lived in Berlin for over 20 years. I could visit the
historical sites, but more importantly, I or my friends lived in the
apartments, used the public transport, walked in the parks and boated
on the lakes described. I love Berlin. It is a
beautiful city. At the
invitation of friends, I also visited and stayed in a number of manors
and castles, some of which are described in the novel.
You must appreciate the opportunity to interview so
many of the people who lived through and were involved in the war, an
opportunity that in just a few more years, writers will no longer have.
How would you describe this opportunity? What did
you learn about
people from hearing their stories?
It was a privilege. It was humbling too. I always
insignificant and almost embarrassed to ask people who have truly
proved their moral courage to tell a young American woman about what
they experienced and felt. Clearly, I had experienced nothing
and prosperity! I remember Axel von dem Bussche's wife, who
in the war
had been married to a member of the Stauffenberg family, joking about
"well, I was only condemned to death once." I talked to a
officer who had been in the Gestapo's central interrogation prison and
realized his brother was being held in a near-by cell because he
recognized the towel outside the door. I talked to people who
in Concentration Camps, people who survived in hiding, people who
contracted crippling diseases while in Nazi prisons. And yet
moment was when I was interviewing the widow of one of the leaders of
the Resistance whose husband had been tortured by the Gestapo.
this from the literature. There was no question about it, and
reference to it. She stopped me cold. "I didn't
know that," she said.
No one had ever told her about it before.
Amazingly, she did not throw me out. We even continued to be
And the longer I worked on the project and the more I
learned, the more
people opened up to me. I remember interviewing the widow of
James Count Moltke, and sensing her relief when she realized I already
knew about the German Resistance Movement and she didn't have to start
by telling me, "yes, there were Germans who opposed Hitler," and "no,
we didn't all vote for him in 1932," etc. etc. etc. Others,
von dem Bussche and Philipp Baron von Boeselager increasingly opened up
to me about military affairs when they realized I was fully conversant
with the jargon, ranks, organization etc.
In a way it was like peeling an onion. You got one set of
answers in a
first interview, and then in a second and third or over a long
friendship more and more details and nuances of feeling came to light.
And there is no end to the story. Each person who
lived through this
period had a unique experience and a unique point of view.
every one of the people I spoke to was worthy of a novel.
That was the hardest part of writing "An Obsolete Honor": cutting out
hundreds of events, episodes, characters, insights etc. etc.
out invaluable material for the sake of making a novel that
worked—that was coherent and fast-paced enough to retain
So to return to your question: What did I learn? More than I
convey in a hundred novels, much less a short interview. "An
Honor" is only a tiny, almost pathetic, start to telling the whole of
what I learned.
What about this period and the events of the war did
you find most difficult to write about?
The interrogation scenes. Although I interviewed and
read accounts of people who had been held by the Gestapo, I still found
it very difficult to imagine exactly what Marianne would have been
subjected to and felt. Most books opt for the sensationalist
interrogation, the torture, but like any good police force (and the
Gestapo was good!), most methods of breaking people were far more
subtle. I had hoped one of my acquaintances who had police
would review and revise these scenes, but he never found the time so I
had to go ahead with what I had.
The other thing I found difficult was the Warsaw Ghetto
Scene. This is
too much of a cliché and I really dislike it. But
how hard I searched for an alternative, I failed to find one that would
be early enough in the novel and have the consequences necessary for
the rest of the plot.
Thank you, Helena. It was a very educational
experience for me. I wish you much success with "An Obsolete Honor" and
your other works.
transcript of Reader's