PW: In your novel series Seven Dreams (The Ice Shirt, Argall, etc.), you've explored the highly fraught encounters between Indians and Europeans. This novel [Europe Central], set in the heart of WWII Europe, is a departure for you. What motivated the change?

William Vollman: I'm of German ancestry. I remember watching a film loop about the concentration camps in elementary school and feeling very upset about it. Later, I wondered whether I had relatives who had been involved. That's one motive. Then, years ago, I read Vassily Grossman's Life and Fate, a tremendous book in which Grossman had the courage, for that time, to say that Stalinism and Nazism were morally equivalent. And it seems to me that this opens a lot of questions, because a lot of good people fought on opposite sides for equally despicable regimes. Then, personally, my parents have lived in Switzerland since the '70s, so I am very familiar with Europe. I was in Sarajevo during the siege, and in Bosnia. I don't want to exaggerate this, [but] I experienced a certain post-traumatic stress after Bosnia, where friends and colleagues were killed. And if you magnify that by a hundred times, that happened at the end of World War I. And certainly at the end of WWII.

PW: Your book tells the story of the war in Russia and Germany through profiles of real people, most notably Shostakovich and Kurt Gerstein, the SS officer who tried to reveal the crime of the death camps while it was happening. Why Shostakovich?

WV: I was in the airport in Madrid years ago, and I wanted something to read. Naturally, there wasn't much in English, but I did find an oral history of Shostakovich. There was the story in it of how the 7th Symphony, the Leningrad Symphony, was performed while the city was under siege by the Germans. I thought that was very dramatic. So I started listening to Shostakovich, which was at first difficult, since I didn't have the musical education to immediately appreciate the beauty of his achromatic harmonies. But eventually I became addicted. I listened to him hundreds of times, and started taking notes.... And Shostakovich is admirable in being so terribly ambiguous about everything but still resisting Stalin. And then, sadly, he gives in, and in his latter years he joins the party, does all the usual party things—denouncing Solzhenitsyn, etc.

PW: You have a chapter profiling Friedrich Paulus, the German general who surrendered at Stalingrad. It treats him almost sympathetically.

WV: My European friends are somewhat bothered by that. Paulus was sent to carry out an aggressive, unjustified war, and he was denied freedom of action. If you look at Paulus's actions from his point of view, I think he would defend himself in terms of Clausewitz—that is, you maximize the swift, ruthless persecution of a war in order to end it, and that that is the real kindness you can do to all parties. As for his character—look, I've interviewed higher-ups in the Khmer Rouge. And I was curious about whether they'd quote Marx or Mao. But you know what? These guys hardly knew a thing about Marx or Mao. When you'd ask them why they did what they did, they would say that they joined the Khmer Rouge because it looked like Pol Pot was winning. In other words, they were careerists. That explains Paulus, and a lot of the Nazi high command. Americans think people who follow orders unthinkingly are stupid and culpable and dangerous. The German military thought they were being honorable, and this wasn't an excuse—this was their complete mindset.