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Book Review The Women in the Castle

The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

Disclosure: Please note that some links are affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you, we earn a commission if you make a purchase. I recommend this book because I loved it. I was not asked to review this book, and I purchased my own copy. If you are ready to buy a copy, and would like to support this website in some way, using these links will help do exactly that.

I’m always hunting for historical fiction that enables me to time travel as a fly on the walls of history, forsaking a slice of my present everyday life in glad exchange. If the book provides a peek into German history and culture, I’m all the more curious given my husband’s German heritage.

When I first saw The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck appear in my search results on Amazon, I was leery. Not another World War II novel I sighed. But, by the end of the prologue, I was mesmerized. It explores a facet of German History that I never knew existed. Have you ever thought about the family of the conspirators who tried to assassinate Hitler? I had never contemplated this question. This thoroughly researched novel presents three viewpoints from three very different women. Marianne, the central character, made a promise to the conspirators (her husband and friends who attempted to assassinate Hitler), that if the plan failed she would take care of the families they left behind. When the war ends she finds two other widows and their young kids and for a time they all take refuge and survive the aftermath of World War II in Marianne’s husband’s family castle.

So, What Makes it a Page-Turner?
I finished The Women in the Castle in roughly three days between sightseeing in Germany. There are plot twists and surprises that took me off guard. The characters’ experiences are so diverse, all of which offer new insight into what it must have felt like to live during this period. As a reader of The Women in the Castle, you’ll be in the room of the conspirators who see Hitler as the enemy and are willing to stop at nothing to see him overthrown. You’ll be six years old, living in an orphanage of other resisters’ children, undergoing the very indoctrination the parent died fighting against. You’ll shadow ordinary German citizens who volunteered to lead a Landjahr lager, Country Service Year Camp, propelling Hitler’s vision from the early beginnings of the Reich to the bitter end. Reading this novel changed my perception of the WWII experience for Germans in many ways.

This novel combines research with heart-felt storytelling, intertwined with innovative word choice and marvelous metaphors. For example, on page 24, “Benita was sick to death of desperate people. Berlin was bad enough, with it's carousing Russians and half-starved virgins hidden in cellars, it's countless dead-some still buried in the mountains of rubble-and it's stinking, overcrowded bomb-shelters-turned-refugee-camps. And the route west had been even worse, clogged with all manner of suffering and human detritus. It was if the great continent of Europe had shrugged and sent everyone rolling.”

Also, on page 301, “Sitting here, on this weather-beaten porch, with it's brittle railings and the dull pounding of the sea below, he felt a gray bloom of failure. This was why it had been so long since he had last seen Marianne. She was the gardener of this ugly flower. She knew just how to turn it's face to the sun.”

I highly recommend this book! This also would be a unique gift idea for someone traveling to Germany. I discovered The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck on Amazon. If you’re interested, you can find it on Amazon here, (available on the Kindle, or in hardcover or paperback) or it can also be downloaded from iBooks®.

Do you have any recommendations for historical fiction books set in Germany? I'm always looking for suggestions. Leave a comment below or send us an email.

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Book Review The House by the Lake: One House, Five Families, and a Hundred Years of German History

Book Review | The House by the Lake: One House, Five Families, and a Hundred Years of German History
Disclosure: Please note that some links are affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you, we earn a commission if you make a purchase. I recommend this book because I loved it. I was not asked to review this book, and I purchased my own copy. If you are ready to buy a copy, and would like to support this website in some way, using these links will help do exactly that.

Finally! A German history book I couldn't put down. I’m not kidding. I read it in one week. I’ve been on a literary quest for a year to try and teach myself the history of Germany, and I’m here to proclaim to anyone on the same lifelong learning journey that you will love The House by the Lake: One House, Five Families, and a Hundred Years of German History by Thomas Harding. And shockingly, despite the history it's covers it has a happy, inspiring resolution.

So, why is it a page-turner? Harding narrates the history of the home and its inhabitants in second person, describing the details in a way that I found myself rooting for the subjects in a way I would a fictional story. The families he describes are three-dimensional, and very human.

A Hundred Years of German History
The House by the Lake covers one hundred years of German history, specifically including World War I, the Weimar Republic, World War II, the GDR, and after the Berlin Wall comes down. Although the topics are complicated and heavy, when it's discussed in terms of one house and how it impacted it's residents, it's easier to empathize and comprehend. Putting a face to history is a great way to make the past come alive. The book is set up so the reader progresses through the history chronologically as the house itself would have experienced it, with the chapters broken up by times and entitled with the family name. Despite there being five families in total, I never once lost track of the names. Intermittently included throughout is, the author’s journey and his progress on researching the house. You don’t need to be deeply familiar with German history to enjoy this book. Actually, I found myself appreciating Harding’s explanations and summaries more than I had in broader Germany-centric history books. He's successfully pared it down in a way that makes sense. Not an easy feat!

I highly recommend this book! This also would be a unique gift idea for someone traveling to Germany. I discovered The House by the Lake on Amazon, and took advantage of the new paperback edition that released this year. If you’re interested, you can find it on Amazon here, (available on the Kindle, or in hardcover or paperback) or it can also be downloaded from iBooks®.

Do you have any recommendations for nonfiction books about German history? I'm always looking for suggestions. Leave a comment below or send us an email.

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If you enjoyed this article, or these topics sound interesting to you, you'll love our weekly newsletter. You'll receive the newest posts each week and exclusive access to free planning resources like ‘Packing List & Tips for 2 Weeks in Germany’ and ‘Everything You Need to Rent a Car in Germany’.

Thank you for reading!


Please note, Tourist is a Dirty Word Blog’s parent company Polar Bear Studio LLC is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to www.amazon.com.

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What You Need to Know Before Visiting Wartburg Castle

Wartburg Castle is more than just a castle, it's a symbol of German unity, and sometimes called the ‘most German castle’, similarly to how (a previous post from us) St. Peter in Frankfurt is called the ‘most German church’. It's a fair assessment when you discover how much happened at this castle! Here are tidbits of history you need to know to get the most out of your visit of Wartburg Castle.

Standing in front of the cistern and bergfried in Wartburg Castle, Germany

Medieval Hilltop Castle Architecture
Any self-respecting medieval castle is built on a hill, and Wartburg Castle is no different. Wartburg castle went through four periods of construction. Hang on to your chair, we’re also going to introduce German castle vocabulary words that might prove helpful during your visit. The German words, as always, will be italicized. The initial building period of the Palas (great hall building) was between 1157-1162. The Romanesque-period gate arch, located inside the Vorburg (front castle) is from 1200. The majority of the Vorburg, which includes the Ritterhaus (knight’s house), Torhaus (tower house), Vogtei (castle bailiff’s lodge), and the sentry walks are all timber framing and built in the late medieval time, 1478-1480. Finally, the last building period, the historicist (1853-1860), included the Bergfried (free-standing fighting tower), Neue Kemente (Fireplace Room), the Torhalle (porch), Dirnitz (heated hall building), Gadam (granary), and the Ritterbad (knight’s bath). During the historicist period the Palas was opulently furnished with the fantastical frescoes of Moritz von Schwind and the Festsaal (festival hall). In 1912-1914, the final addition of the Wartburg hotel was built.

Wartburg is a medieval hilltop castle

What is a Landgrave?
I wouldn’t be surprised if you had never heard of a landgrave before, which means ‘provincial count’. The title was first invented in 1131 solely for the German state of Thuringia, and intended to put landgraves on equal level with dukes, and ultimately could become imperial princes. Becoming a landgrave was in thanks for the dynasty’s help to Saxon Lothar von Süpplingenburg in the election of a king of Germany against Emperor Heinrich V.

If you ever wondered what your room would look like if you were a medieval princess, look no further! Named the Ruler’s Room, although the furniture is not original to the room itself, it's been collected, the effect is jaw dropping. The views of the Thuringia forest from the windows, to the chandelier and the stencil ceilings, it's decadent.

Wartburg Castle Fuerstenzimmer, Ruler's Room

What are Minnesingers?
A minnesinger is a 12th-14th century German lyric poet and singer who performed songs of courtly love. All medieval courts had minnesinger contests, but it's alleged that Wartburg Castle held the most famous contest of the age with the six most famous minnesingers of the time: Walther von der Vogelweide, Wolfram von Escheenbach, Reinmar von Zweter, Heinrich von Ofterdingen, Heinrich Schreiber, and Biterolf. When imagining a minnesinger, be on the lookout for one of their instruments in the museum, the Quinterne, a small lute, likely made from a single piece of maple in 1450 with the marks of Hans Oth of Nuremberg, a master craftsman of the time.

Top: Dürer cupboard c. 1515 | Left: Lute from 1450 | Exhibits at the Wartburg Art Collection

St Elizabeth
First, St Elizabeth lived here for most of her life. What you need to know is that Elizabeth was a Hungarian princess who was betrothed to Ludwig IV of the Ludovingians. She was sent to the castle to be groomed as a wife at age four. She gave everything she could to take care of the poor in the surrounding area. If you’d like to read more about St. Elizabeth and the miracles associated with her, click here and you’ll be redirected to a Catholic Encyclopedia article.

The Refuge of Martin Luther
The second reason the Wartburg is a religious destination, is because Martin Luther found refuge here. You can visit the room where he stayed. This is the place where he did some of his life’s best works and translated the New Testament from Greek to German. The castle is fortunate to have a copy from 1541 that belonged to Wolfgang Wesemer with an inscription on the inside cover by Luther himself and his collaborator Philipp Melanchthon.

1817 Wartburg Festival
Four years after the Battle of Nations in 1813, and the 300th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, student corporations met in Eisenach and marched to the Wartburg. They hosted speeches and symbolically burnt items. Five hundred students marched for the creation of a unified German Empire. It is said that one of the fraternity flags from the city of Jena that was carried during the march became the inspiration for the final German flag. You can read more about the stories behind the German flag in our earlier article here.

Where Martin Luther Translated the New Testament From Greek to German | Furnishing are reconstructions

Historicism
Historicism is architecture inspired by and recreates another period’s architecture. In Wartburg Castle’s case, the Romantics were inspired by the medieval architecture and sought to recreate it and expand the castle in the same style. Often, when castles were expanded or renovated, they wanted to replace the out of fashion architecture, in this period they loved it and wanted more of it. Historicist architect Hugo von Ritgen lobbied passionately for the commission to restore and continue building.

Goethe & Museum Treasures
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was emotionally impacted by the castle’s history; he demonstrated this through his writing, letters, and sketches. He hoped there would be a museum installed within the castle that would inspire even more pilgrims to visit. Inspired by Goethe’s idea for a museum and in Goethe’s memory, Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna and her son Carl Alexander of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, began the process of a European art collection which would focus on the time period of the castle. Today, the Wartburg Art Museum has collected over 1,000 years of European art from the time of Wartburg Castle’s heyday.

Recommended Souvenir From Wartburg Castle
The souvenir to get from Wartburg is definitely the small booklet (60 pages) about the history of the castle, the architecture, and the legend of St. Elizabeth. The Wartburg, Part of the World’s Heritage by Günter Schuchardt, Translated by Margaret Marks. In such a slim, light volume, there’s a wealth of information alongside historical drawings, paintings, and color photos. Without it, I could not write this post with any credible facts.

Wartburg Vogtei (castle bailiff lodge) has a copy of the late Gothic oriel on the South Side. The Vogtei is where you'll find Martin Luther's room.

Still want to see more? There's certainly more to see! This is a nice video overview of the castle.

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If you enjoyed this article, or these topics sound interesting to you, you'll love our weekly newsletter. You'll receive a free Germany Packing list for signing up, and you'll receive each week's newest posts every Friday. Thank you for reading!



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Thank you For Reading! Denise & Sebastian | Photo by Irene Fiedler