Friday, September 9, 2011

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin, by Erik Larson

Crown/Random House, 2011
434 pp

"With a few exceptions, the men who are running this Government are of a mentality that you and I cannot understand. Some of them are psychopathic cases and would ordinarily be receiving treament somewhere."
George S. Messersmith, America's consul general for Germany

As everyone knows, Erik Larson is a talented writer who manages to capture a slice of history and retell it in a most compelling way.  His book Isaac's Storm is actually my favorite of all of his books, although the preferred book by most Larson fans is The Devil in the White City.  And now he brings us In the Garden of Beasts, focusing on Germany in 1933-37 as Hitler begins to brutally consolidate his power. While any number of books have been written about this time period, this one is a bit different: we see events from the points of view of William E. Dodd, the U.S. Ambassador to Germany and his daughter Martha, giving his readers as usual a more personal connection to events beyond what has been written down in history textbooks. Even if you've never read a history of this period, or if you're not a history buff in general, you'll find In the Garden of Beasts to be compelling. 

William Dodd became the ambassador to Germany under FDR, who had previously offered the post to others who refused to accept it.  Dodd, an academic who was much more at home with teaching and writing his history of the Old South, had some close friends in Washington, and he soon came to FDR's attention.  First offered a post in Holland or Belgium, Dodd refused, but when the call came with the offer of a post in Germany, Dodd reconsidered. What Roosevelt wanted was "an American liberal  in Germany as a standing example,"  but the US government was really interested in ensuring that Hitler's regime would repay its 1.2 billion-dollar debt owed to American creditors.  Larson shows how based on this economic bottom line, Dodd was not allowed to rock the diplomatic boat, for fear that Hitler would refuse to pay.  Sadly, as events were to play out, Dodd was probably the least suitable candidate for this job. In the overall picture, he didn't too much while in office there, and Larson spends a great deal of time on discussing Dodd's reluctance in the diplomatic arena as well as the growing feelings by his peers that Larson needed to be recalled.  They also criticized his daughter, Martha, who even in the face of brutality, proclaimed her admiration for the Nazis. Martha had several lovers (one of them the first head of the Gestapo and one a known Soviet spy), and her affairs were known not only among American diplomatic circles, but among the Nazis as well.  As events occur, one after the other, culminating in the Night of the Long Knives,  Dodd at first refuses to acknowledge the dangers posed by Hitler's regime, and didn't take Hitler, Göring and Goebbels seriously -- he viewed them  as "inept and dangerous adolescents -- '16 year olds' -- who found themselves confronting an accumulation of daunting troubles."  It takes a long time, but eventually the ambassador begins to come around and see the truth of what is happening all around him. Sadly, his warnings were largely ignored by officials in Washington.   Although there were other Americans in Germany who knew from the outset that Hitler was a force to be reckoned with, they were largely ignored as well, even with evidence pointing to the mistreatment of the Jewish population. 

In and around the story of the Dodds, Larson encapsulates the lives of  Hitler and his henchmen; some of the stories are absolutely surreal.  The weirdest has to be that of Göring, who invited a few members of the diplomatic corps to his home an hour north of Berlin. There not only did the guests get to see their host in different outfits and get a look at his new bison enclosure, but they were treated to a rather bizarre spectacle in the mausoleum into which Goring was going to re-inter his dead wife on the summer solstice.  Hitler would be there for the event, as well as "legions of men from the army, SS and SA."  Larson also focuses on the building tensions and paranoia that came to encompass all of Germany as these men slowly clamped down on any sources of possible dissent.  His coverage of The Night of the Long Knives is so well done that the atmosphere of fear and darkness becomes palpable. 

What strikes me about this book is that none of what was happening in Germany raised any real red flags to the U.S. government, although it should have.  America was in the throes of  isolationist sentiment; there were pressing issues at home with the Depression, and of course, the Jewish question  was a hot enough potato in the US. Even among Jews here, the American Jewish Congress wanted to boycott German goods; the American Jewish Committee feared that if the US made too much of an issue out of the treatment of Jews in Germany, things would be made even worse.  And of course, let us not forget a tide of anti-Semitism  that existed at the time.  Even when Hitler made it publicly known that he intended to rearm Germany, and basically blew off the Treaty of Versailles, no one took it seriously.  As William Shirer notes, quoted in In the Garden of Beasts,

"That the allies at this time could easily have overwhelmed Germany is as certain as it is that such an action would have brought the end of the Third Reich in the very year of its birth..." but Hitler "knew the mettle of his foreign adversaries as expertly and uncannily as he had sized up that of his opponents at home."

Just think of what could have been avoided.

Although the firsthand accounts of Dodd and his daughter Martha are obviously invaluable resources to what was really going on at this time, and even though they are the lens, the witnesses to history, through which Larson tells the story, I didn't really care for either one of these people very much, Martha especially.  But in and around their stories comes some of the best unfolding of this period of history that I've ever come across.  Larson's book will wow even people who aren't regular history buffs, and it's one of those books that once you pick it up you have to prepare to do nothing while you're reading.


  1. This one is sitting on my "to read" list for a while...

    1. Hi
      It's a good book -- my copy went around the neighborhood and got mostly positive reactions.