Friday, January 4, 2013

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

She wrote, "I have had enough blood and terror to last me for the rest of my life."

This fascinating book tells the story of William Dodd, the American ambassador to Germany from 1933 to 1937 and his daughter, Martha (SPOILER ALERT: Hitler seizes full control of Germany and starts World War II).  In the Garden of Beasts is the second Larson book I've read (Devil in the White City was the other), and he does a wonderful job of taking letters and other accounts and turning compelling episodes of history into almost novel-like stories.  Beasts was  very readable and never lagged.

When Dodd was named ambassador to Germany, he had no diplomatic experience and was actually Roosevelt's third or fourth choice to assume the position.  This lack of experience and unfamiliarity with the traditions and expectations of diplomats at the time (the "Pretty Good Club") caused endless friction with members of the State department back home but ended up, along with his experience as a history professor, serving him well.  While he was tasked primarily with ensuring Germany paid its massive post WWI debts to American companies, his endeavor was to serve as a "lone beacon of American freedom and hope in a land of gathering darkness."  However, even Dodd did not realize the extremity of the situation when he first arrived, admiring the way the Nazis had revitalized the country and hoping that moderate factions of the government would eventually overcome the more fanatical members.  Though attacks on Jews and sometimes Americans (usually for not standing at attention and saluting during SA parades) were rough patches, they seemed generally isolated at first, and Dodd believed the governments' assurances that they would be stopped in the future.  As Hitler gained more and more power and the regime became increasingly intolerant and censorious, Dodd became one the first and most vehement voices warning against the coming disasters (in fact, he was "dubbed the Cassandra of American diplomats).

Interestingly, Martha played a large role in shaping her father's views on the Nazis and the political climate in Berlin.  Originally enamored of the Nazis and living in Berlin, Martha (who was 24 when the Dodd family, also including Mrs. Dodd and Martha's 28 year old brother, Bill, moved to Berlin) spent much of her time interacting with high ranking members of the German government (including a love affair with Rudolf Diels, head of the Gestapo from 33-34), various intellectuals and society members, and foreign correspondents and diplomats.  She witnessed much of the tide of totalitarianism as it affected those closest to her and eventually turned completely against the Nazis, even having a long, passionate affair with a Soviet diplomat/spy and doing a small amount of spying for the NKVD (the precursor to the KGB).  Martha also fascinated me for two reasons: first, I thought it interesting to think about how differently her affairs would have been covered if she lived in today's internet age.  Who knows, maybe the daughter of the American ambassador to, say, Russia or China sleeps around with all kinds of prominent people and government officials and no one cares because whatever, but I feel like if Twitter and 24 hour news existed back then she would have been much more prominent and discussed.  Second, Martha also interested me because she slept around so much!  She boned down with everyone!  Which, good for her!  It was remarkable how little of an issue it was.  Sure, people talked about it and maybe looked down on her behind her back, but given the progress of feminism and women's sexual liberation in the mid 1930s, I was surprised to find that she wasn't a pariah.  Very interesting.

Another thing I found interesting were the was in which Germany and America were different, but also kinda similar.  For example, at one point a Jewish group in America staged a mock trial of Hitler in Madison Square Garden, which infuriated the Germans.  They simply could not understand why our government didn't just shut it down.  On the other hand, there are several times when Larson describes the treatment of Jews in Germany that I at first found outrageous, but then realized were a little too familiar.  One example was when Larson wrote about the benches in the park, the least desirable of which were painted yellow and were the only ones upon which Jews could sit.  My righteous indignation was tempered a little when I realized we were basically doing the same thing to African Americans at that time, a point that Larson once mentions that the Germans made in response to a critical speech by an American government official.

Overall I heartily recommend Beasts and probably anything else by Larson.  Very interesting.


Christopher said...

Welcome back, Billiam.

Hyacinth Marius said...

Very interesting book. Helps the reader understand how the Nazi evil spread steadily throughout Germany. And why the United States, or other nations, was not more active in stopping it before it grew so large and threatening.
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Marlene Detierro said...

Anyone with even a casual interest in the events leading up to the war will find this an invaluable read. It's easily the best book I've read this year, and likely to stay that way. A truly wonderful read!

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