Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Understanding Ourselves by Understanding the Past.


My biographical novel of Balian d'Ibelin in three parts is complete, but the saga continues. Follow me to Cyprus, where Lusignans and Ibelins struggle to put down a rebellion and establish a durable state. Watch for excerpts and updates here.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Montsegur and More - Finding History on Location in Southern France

Unlike the sun-soaked countryside of the Provence with its harmonious Romanesque monasteries in fields of lavender, the Cathar castles tell the dark side of the Middle Ages.
 
The Cathar Castles were built as refuges against the dangers of the world -- robbers and rivals, Saracens and French. From their inception they were defensible, and as such they implied the need to be defended. Out there, beyond the walls, the gates, the barbican was danger and darkness.

That, to a greater or lesser extent, was true of all castles, but unlike the great castles of the English kings, the French barons or the markgrafs of Saxony, the Cathar Castles offered very, very little in the way of accommodation or comfort. The Cathar Castles were not built as residences or courts, but as fortresses pure and simple. They were on the whole not very large or very elaborate -- not to be compared to the sophisticated design or engineering of Edward I's castles in Wales or the great crusader castles like Krak de Cheveliers.  What they did, however, was use the terrain to maximum advantage and so they were perched on the top of the most inaccessible piece of land available.

The most famous -- and arguably the only genuinely Cathar castle -- was Montsegur. While most of the castles that became associated with the Cathars were build as the seat of local noblemen and only became "Cathar" castles because they were held by men who opposed the French invasion, Montsegur was explicitly built as a refuge for heretics. It was built in the first decade of the 13th century by Raymond de Pereille on a spur of rock in the St. Bartholomew Range at the foot of the Pyrenees, and stood almost four thousand feet above sea level. It became the seat of the Cathar bishop, Guilhabert de Castres in 1232. It was well known that from Montsegur, Cathar "good men" went out to preach, and it was inevitable that the Catholic Church would call for the eradication of this "nest of vipers."

In 1241, King Louis of France ordered the Count of Toulouse to destroy Montsegur, but although the Count organized an expedition, he did not pursue the siege vigorously. Just a year later, two Inquisition judges were murdered along with some of their clerks and servants in Avignonet; allegedly the knights responsible for the murders sallied forth from Montsegur. Now the French crown demanded the complete destruction of Montsegur.

In May 1243, 6,000 men under the command of the French seneschal of Carcassone, Huges des Arcis, and the Archbishop of Narbonne, Pierre Amiel, laid siege to Montsegur. The castle was defended by between five and six hundred armed men loyal to the Cathar cause -- but not themselves Cathar, since the Cathar faith did not allow the bearing of arms.

At first the defenders had the advantage because the surrounding villages supported them and supplies were smuggled in, but in January 1244, some of Huges de Arcis men scaled a rock face during the night (allegedly they were terrified of their own courage when they saw the sheer drop by light of day) and captured an outpost of Montsegur, the Tower Rock. Here the attackers constructed an trebuchet and then a catapult, and a bombardment of Montsegur castle began. In February 1244, the besiegers made a first assault on the barbican of Montsegur. Although the French were driven off, the defenders suffered heavy casualties.

By March, the remaining men and women in Montsegur were suffering from shortages of food and firewood. They also started to despair of reinforcements. The decision was made to negotiate. Huges de Arcis agreed to a 15 day truce after which the castle was to be surrendered in exchange for amnesty and freedom for the defenders of Montsegur, including the murderers of the Inquisition judges in Avignonet, who accepted the Catholic faith. Indeed, it was agreed that anyone who abjured the Cathar heresy could go free. However, those who refused to accept the Catholic faith were to be burned at the stake as heretics.

On March 16, 1244, Montsegur surrendered, and Raymond de Pereille himself was among the prisoners. True to the terms of the truce, he was allowed to go free. But to the amazement of the victors, not a single Cathar was prepared to abjure his/her faith and some of the defenders, particularly the sick and wounded, chose at this time to convert to Catharism.

On a field at the foot of the mountain now marked by a monument, between 205 and 225 men and women were burned at the stake for their Cathar beliefs. Among the burned were Raymonde de Pereille's wife, daughter and mother-in-law.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Tribute to the German Resistance to Hitler

On July 20, 1944, Germans appalled by the moral depravity of the Nazi regime, made the last of many attempts -- going back to before the Second World War -- to remove Hitler from power. A bomb was detonated in Hitler’s bunker and a military coup set in motion. Because Hitler survived the blast, the plot failed. The conspirators were arrested, tortured and killed, but they should not be forgotten.
I wrote my PhD about one of those conspirators, General Friedrich Olbricht.  In addition, based on a decade of research and hundreds of interviews, I wrote a novel that tells the story of these brave individuals who risked their lives to fight against one of history’s most dangerous and oppressive regimes from the inside: Hitler’s Demons.
Here is an excerpt from that novel describing the hero’s decision to join the conspiracy.
It was raining the next morning, which encouraged them to stay in bed. They called room service for breakfast, and lay in bed talking and making love alternately until the sun came out about noon. Then they decided to go down for lunch and take a walk. They bathed, dressed and went downstairs. It was a mistake.

Sauckel and the men meeting with him had just started their lunch break. The lobby was awash with brown uniforms, and the unfortunate other guests passing in and out felt compelled to raise their arms and bark “Heil Hitler!” Philip’s mood was instantly shattered. Alix watched with concern and growing sense of helplessness as his face closed and his lips grew thin.
In the dining room there was not one table free, and the waiter offered to seat them at a table for four at which one man was sitting alone. As it was already quite late and the lone man was a civilian, Philip agreed. They were taken over by the waiter and introduced themselves. The man stood, bowed to Alexandria, and shook hands with Philip. “Heinrich Froehlich,” he introduced himself, “Chief of Personnel at Siemens.”

“And what brings you to Baden-Baden?” Philip asked politely.
“The gentlemen behind us,” the businessman answered candidly. “If we aren’t to be starved of labor, I have to ensure the goodwill of Sauckel and his underlings. That can’t be done nowadays without personal contact – and, of course, the appropriate payments.”

“Bribes, you mean,” Philip corrected acidly.
The businessman shrugged. “It’s the way it is.”

From the neighboring tables, the conference participants complained about the lack of fresh strawberries and the limitations of the wine menu. Philip lost his appetite, and there was nothing Alexandra could do but cut lunch short and depart.
Outside, Alexandra took her husband’s hand and smiled at him, trying to break through his gloom. He smiled back, but it was an absent smile – an alibi, while his thoughts lingered elsewhere. They walked hand in hand through the park, Alexandra chatting to distract Philip. He made an effort to  listen, but after a while he gave up and admitted, “Alix, I can’t stand it. Even here everything has been poisoned by that brown filth.” He indicated the benches with the “for Aryans only” painted on them, the troop of little boys in the uniform of the Jungvolk, and the SS soldiers opening the doors of the black Mercedes disgorging brown-uniformed passengers and “glamorous” women before the Casino.

“Is this what so many men are dying for out there? A Germany where only the corrupt have power? Where helpless patients are murdered and  young girls are turned into whores by the nations ‘leaders’? Is this what Christian and I are supposed to die for?” He was looking at his wife as if he expected her to give him an answer.
Alexandra’s first reaction was sheer panic. How could she answer such a question? But if she didn’t find an answer, their precious time together was going to be ruined by the oppressive shadow of the regime. Then she realized that she did have an answer: she had to tell him about Valkyrie. She had to tell him that decent people were working to put an end to this rule of terror. She had to share with him the reason she felt hopeful for the future. She had to tell him what she was risking, or their whole marriage would be based on a lie.

But she was afraid he might not approve of what she was doing. She avoided his sharp, penetrating eyes by putting her arms around him and leaning her head on his chest. “No, Philip,” she whispered, “it’s not what you are meant to die for. The war has to be stopped….”
Philip took her words for a helpless attempt to deny reality. He tightened his arms around her, ashamed of himself for ruining her honeymoon. Alexandra clung to him; her heart beating rapidly. She was suddenly very, very afraid of Philip’s reaction. Philip could sense her fear, and he assumed it was just his talk of death. He gently tried to pry Alexandra away from his chest so he could look into her face, but she resisted tenaciously. He would have had to use more force than he was willing to use with her, so he gave up and said, “Forgive me.”

“It’s not that. It’s…”
Philip asked gently, “What is it, Alex? Tell me.”

“I have a confession to make.”
“I’m listening,” he waited, holding her patiently.

“Philip,” she started in a timid voice, very frightened that he would angrily order her to stop her activities. If he did that, she would never forgive him. “General Olbricht asked me to type up some top-secret plans – plans for putting down a forced laborers’ revolt or to eliminate an enemy commando raid in the center of Berlin. But that’s not what they’re really about….” He voice faded away, afraid to be more articulate.
Philip hesitated and then asked sharply, “Is Tresckow part of these plans?”

“Yes, but I don’t know Oberst Tresckow’s role. There are lots of things I don’t know. I don’t know the names of the civilians who are working on the plans for what comes afterwards. I don’t know what Admiral Canaris and Oberst Oster have to do with things. And although I know that Oberst Tresckow is kept informed of developments, I don’t know why. The plans themselves are being worked out in AHA.”

Philip had stopped breathing. Then speaking very slowly and softly, he told her: “Tresckow wants me to help him with these plans…. Would you approve of that?”
Alexandra looked up, hardly daring to believe her ears. Philip wasn’t just willing to let her continue; he would be part of it. They would be working together. “Of course!”

“What do you mean ‘of course’? We’re talking about me breaking my oath and committing High Treason!” he rebuked her.
“It may be treason against the government, but not against the nation, Philip. We’re talking about putting an end to the murder of innocent people and stopping the senseless sacrifice of others – like Christian and Stefan.”

“Only if we succeed. The chances of success are pitiable.”
“Maybe. Personally, I think General Olbricht is brilliant. And the supplementary orders – things like closing the Concentration Camps and the arrest of Gauleiter – are being handled by Uncle Erich and Generaloberst Beck.”

“Beck? Generaloberst Ludwig Beck is involved?” Philip took as step back, holding Alexandra at arm’s length and searching her face intently.
She nodded, meeting his eyes. “Olbricht always refers to him as the CO of the Operation.”

“Beck, Olbricht, Hoepner, Tresckow – good company to die in.” Philip managed  a little twitch of his lips as if he were trying to smile.
“Better than for the Fuehrer,” Alexandra insisted.

“There’s a difference. On the front I die alone. As a traitor, I drag you down with me.”
“I’m already there, Philip.”

“No, you’re not. As Olbricht’s secretary, you can always say you were just doing your job – following orders. You can claim you never had any reason to think the plans went beyond their official purpose. But if I join this conspiracy, they’ll never believe that. You’ll pay the same price as I. You could be tried for treason and beheaded.”
In an impulsive and passionate gesture, Alexandra reached up and took Philip’s head in her hands. She went on tiptoe to kiss him. “That you would hesitate on my account is flattering, but I can’t love you because you’re a man of conscience and character, and then expect you to behave like an opportunist. In the midst of so much death, I want to believe there is something worth dying for, and you can’t go on as you have been. You can’t continue to serve a criminal regime without it destroying you. Don’t you see, Philip? Only this can give our lives meaning.”

“What about our love?”
“What chance has our love in a world poisoned by moral depravity on this scale? Just think of the last two days: all our love couldn’t change the world around us, and it has ruined our wedding. Without hope for a better future, why should we go on living at all – much less have children?”

She was right, Philip realized with a touch of surprise. How could he have been so stupid? She was right, and so was Tresckow. The fight against the Nazis was not a military operation, which should only be risked if the chance of success was better than 50/50. Joining this conspiracy was the only means of saving his sanity -- and soul.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

The Occitan Resistance

The Albigensian Crusade, which I talked about in my last post, resulted in a bitter and prolonged conflict, because the people of the Languedoc did not submit docilely to the rule of the King of France or the Pope. For half a century, the Occitan lords and towns fought bitterly for their independence.

Nor were the lords of the Languedoc without allies. The King of Aragon, Pedro II, offered his protection to them in 1212, in exchange for them paying homage to him as their overlord. Thinking the King of Spain would be more tolerant of their independent lifestyle – or simply appalled by the atrocities and success of Simon de Montfort – the bulk of the lords of the Languedoc submitted. However, King Pedro proved no match for Simon de Montfort on the battlefield; he was defeated and killed at the Battle of Muret in September 1213. In a second attempt to gain support from a powerful foreign ruler, Raymond VII, the son of Joanna Plantagenet, the sister of Richard I (the Lionheart) and John I of England, forged an alliance in 1241 with his uncle King Henry III, but the army of Louis IX of France defeated the English at Taillebourg a year later.
In short, the bulk of the fighting fell to the intractable people of the Languedoc. Simon de Montfort, the most successful and ruthless of the French invaders, was forced to fight a total of 43 battles or sieges in just 9 years. This was a clear indication of how little he was accepted in the territories given him by the Pope (the Viscountship of Béziers and Carcassonne and the County of Toulouse). He was killed during a second siege of Toulouse in 1218 – allegedly by a stone flung from a mangonel (medieval mechanical stone thrower) manned by women.
His son Amaury tried to continue the war, receiving support from Prince Louis of France (later Louis VIII), but Amaury lacked his father’s military skills or his luck. In 1220, Guy de Montfort, Amaury’s younger brother, was killed in yet another siege, and by 1224, Amaury de Montfort had had enough. He surrendered the lands and titles for which he, his father, and his brothers had fought so bitterly for 15 years and returned to France. For a moment it looked as if the lords of the Languedoc had won.
But the Cathar heresy had not been eradicated, and this provided an excuse for a new crusade. In 1226, Louis VIII took the cross and again brought an army of northern barons and mercenaries into the Languedoc. Within 3 years, the resistance of the southern lords had been broken, and the counts of Toulouse and Foix signed treaties with the French, now led by Louis IX, after his father’s death in 1226.
This time, the Inquisition came with the invaders and established the University of Toulouse to conduct “inquiries” into the Cathar heresy. The systematic methods of the Inquisition made it increasingly difficult for Cathars, particularly the so-called Perfects, the priests (and priestesses) of the Cathars, to survive in the towns and villages of the Languedoc. They retreated more and more to the few strongholds still defended by lords sympathetic to the heresy, notably the mountain fortress of Montsegur. In 1232, the Cathar “Bishop,” Guilhabert de Castres, declared Montsegur the “seat and head” of the Cathar Church. The castle was under the protection of the lords of Pereille and Mirepoix.
The last armed uprising against the French was led by Raymond-Roger de Trencavel, the son of the last Viscount.  His father had died in his own dungeon at Carcassonne after surrendering to Simon de Montfort in 1209. In 1240, the younger Trencavel made an attempt to recapture his birthright by force. He was supported by many young men from disinherited families, the so-called faydits. It was some of these desperate men who, on May 28, 1242, murdered 2 inquisitors and some of their servants in Avignonet. It had been the murder of the Papal Legate, Pierre of Castlenau, in 1208 that provoked the first “Albigensian Crusade,” of 1209. The murder of 2 inquisitors in 1242 was the final straw that onvinced the French King it was necessary to destroy the Cathar stronghold of Montsegur.
In 1243, the siege of Montsegur began. By March of the next year, the garrison had suffered a number of casualties, and an outpost had already fallen to the besiegers. The defenders sought and obtained a truce. On March 16, the forces of the King of France took control of Montsegur. 220 men and women, some “Perfects” and some defenders who converted to the Cathar faith now that they could no longer bear arms in its defense, refused to abjure their heresy and were burned at the stake.