Today my seventh novel The German Wife is published. Publication day is always a nerve-wracking event. I’ve spent over eighteen months researching and writing a novel and now it’s ‘out there’. I just hope people enjoy it and feel they learn something at the end of it.
The Second World War was an extraordinary event in so many ways. There were episodes of immense courage and nobility, alongside appalling cruelty. My previous two ‘wartime’ novels have tended to focus on the more uplifting aspects of war but this one, I’m afraid, hones in on the cruelty – in particular the terrible medical experiments that were enacted in the Dachau Concentration Camp.
It was during a visit to Dachau in 2020 that I learned of these experiments. Dachau was the first camp to be opened in the early 1930s – and was considered a shining example of how to run a concentration camp. Initially full of political prisoners (people who stood up to the Nazi regime) it quickly became a centre of medical experimentation. Reading of the awful experiments that took place there I could barely believe that doctors could be capable of such evil. Slowly the idea for a novel took hold.
It was clear from the start that a doctor would feature as a major character. But as I explored the exhibition at Dachau and read about the doctors who worked there, I wondered if it was possible to make such an unsympathetic person a significant part of the story. A man like Dr Sigmund Rascher, for example, whose experiments involved immersing prisoners in ice cold water to find out at what point they would die. He also had a collection of lamp shades and other ‘leather goods’ made of human skin. This man, surely, was the personification of evil and as such I knew it would be impossible to make him a sympathetic central character. Then I learned of a man who had been the first doctor to be recruited at Dachau. Karl Plötner was a homeopath by training – a man who by definition was dedicated to minimal interventions from a medical perspective. I became intrigued by how this man - a doctor who had made an oath to ‘first do no harm’, could be persuaded to work at the camp. How could he justify it? Did he convince himself that it was for the ‘greater good’? Or did he persuade himself that it was the only way he would ever get academic respect? It was certainly true that most doctors in Nazi Germany were essentially required to join the Party, simply to enhance their careers. But there is a big leap from joining the Party to becoming an instrument of cruelty and torture for the regime. Ultimately, I wanted to explore how he could live with himself. And as for his wife – how much would she know about what he was doing? And if she knew, how could she stay with him?
Although centred on Dachau, the novel is more than an investigation of the horrors that took place there. At its heart, this is a love story – in fact, it’s a love triangle. For the other character in the novel is a Russian ‘slave’. A man who as a prisoner of war, was held captive at Dachau, but was released to work for the doctor and his wife. How these three people become entangled with each other is at the heart of the novel.
In the end, of course, I found evidence of both courage and nobility in my characters. Those characteristics of humanity, I believe, will always win out in the end. I hope you enjoy it…