Tuesday, July 12, 2011

In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson

This latest bestseller from Erik Larson, author of Devil in the White City, probably doesn't need much in the way of introduction here. It follows the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party through the early 1930s. It looks at the period and life in Berlin in particular from a unique angle--that of the family of the American ambassador William E. Dodd, who was posted there, drawing particularly from his writing and that of his daughter Martha, although his wife and son were there the whole time too, and are somewhat underrepresented in this book. Drawing on a variety of documents, including the letters and journals of the time, it paints a portrait of Berlin in the early 1930s, a period in which Hitler had come into power but had not yet taken absolute control.

Dodd did not come out of a diplomatic background, and was actually a professor at the time he was summoned to represent the U.S. under the Roosevelt administration. As the book reveals, there was the equivalent of a Good Old Boys club in the diplomatic services and Dodd definitely didn't fit the bill. He took the job in order to have more time to finish what he considered his own great project, a book on the old South.

In some ways, the book is a little harsh on Dodd in his greenhorn neophyte role. He had been in Germany as a student and did not at first grasp the historic moment he was actually in. Yeah, terrible, except that no one else really did either. I liked the bit at the beginning that explained that Americans did not really understand the nature of the beast they had encountered in the Nazi regime. It never was a question of rational pursuasion, for power was all the thugs understood.

I did connect pretty deeply to this book, because it is just a few years before my mother's own time as a young single woman and I think the family circumstances may have been similar. Her father raised himself by his own bootstraps in the same way as Dodd did, and lived a professional life in the law, though doubtless encountered some of the same sort of good ol' boys in that profession that Dodd did in the diplomatic one. And my mom, though I trust and hope wasn't quite such a party girl as Martha was, would, from her background, probably have entered into this true den of iniquity with the same brand of naivete that Martha sported.

It's incredible to hear how long the U.S. was fixated on the repayment of the war bonds owed by Germany from World War I. All sorts of other people looked the other way even when some fresh cruelty had been brought to their attention because they did not want to offend the Germans into defaulting.  Even the Jewish communities in America were divided on how far open revolt against the Hitlerian regime should go.

One thing that stood out for me in the book was a short chapter on how well the Germans treated their animals, at the same time they were carting Jews off to be offed as if they were nothing more than so much Jewish lumber. This is a part of the pre-World War II psyche that I still don't understand, and Larson does not try to illuminate it, so much as just put it in the general picture. I find it interesting.

One of my great teachers, Page Smith, toward the end of his life lamented the end of narrative history for the non-historian, which seemed at the time to have given way to highly specialized monographs  by professionals. I wish he had lived to see the likes of Larson, Krakauer, and Kurlansky, who write well-researched books about important historical subjects and bring the crowds in. I hadn't read any of these authors, so it was interesting to read this book. I found it easy to read, but I also noticed the brevity of the chapters, and I was a little put off by the ending, which seemed a bit hasty. But I think Larson does a public service by showing exactly what the mindset was in the days before Hitler's total control over Germany. It's a complex portrait. People were facing the unimaginable. But there were many signs that there were there for all to see, and the international community was clearly culpable in sittting by while dark forces took over a country that had not too long before understood what it meant to be a member of civilization.  


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  2. I did enjoy this book but I did not connect with the character as much as I expected. Dodd, though a man of great principle, was dry and a bit hard to understand at times. As a cardinal axis upon which this story unfolds, I found Martha Dodd to be an unnecessary character. She was as some would say "a woman of easy virtue". At twenty four, she saw her father's appointment to Germany as an opportunity to be adventurous and wild. She lived for attention and because of her father's position, her attractiveness, social circle and lack of scruples(especially sexual) she got it in abundance. She took as many men as time and space as would allow into her bed and reviled in her ability to manipulate and control the men who were taken with her. She dated so many men, some of them powerful men in the Nazi party and where she dated so did her sympathies lie. Once on a drive through the countryside, she witnessed an incident of shocking brutality but chose to ignore it, seeing it as "a nation in the midst of historic rebirth." She insisted on dismissing the evidence of the truth and even when her new friends try to educate her on the facts, she turns a deaf ear to it all. Germany and its high ranking officials had enchanted her too much for her to care or listen to dissent of her original read on the situation. But to be fair to her, she wasn't alone in her view. Many visitors to Germany were as naive and deluded. Larson cites an example of a prominent American journalist who saw those expressing concern at the situation in Germany as alarmists.

    1. Canada, thanks so much for writing your thoughts here. Sorry it's taken awhile for me to respond--some technical difficulties have put me a bit behind.

      I was talking about this book at a book group I'm in. I gave my spiel, and my friend who had brought it up had a growingly bemused look on her face. She said that the man who had told her about it had given her a very different take on the book--he was fascinated by this swinger, Martha. The fact that he himself was Jewish didn't make him any less focussed on this mid-century hottie.

      For me, though, which I may have said in my initial review, this family in very many ways could have been my mother's. And so I am a little skeptical about the idea as some kind of Paris Hilton of the past.

      I don't think we are really supposed to admire the Dodds, but to see them as representative of Americans abroad. I don't really mean to excuse the Dodds for their denial, but I think Larson's point is to show how the refusal of the evidence of one's own eyes plays a part in the inability of other countries to come down more strongly against Hitler's rise when it still might have turned the tide.