It's more than four months old, but it's still worth reading...
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.