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

Hitler was insane, irrational, and terrifying. What is possibly more terrifying is the way that no one really believed that he was any of the above things (much less all three) until it was too late to stop him without war. The few people who did realise, and who tried to warn others, were dismissed as insane or irrational themselves.

In the Garden of Beasts is about William Dodd, the American ambassador to Berlin from 1933 – 1937. America was mired in isolationism, but Dodd wasn’t. He wasn’t a warmonger, but he knew that it would be impossible for the US to stay completely clear of international conflict, and he tried to portray that during his time in Berlin to both his fellow Americans and the Germans he encountered.

It’s also about his daughter Martha, who came to Berlin with him. (Dodd’s wife and their son were there, too, but not explored as characters at all; they’re essentially non-existent in the book.)Martha and her father both loved the idea of Germany and of Germans,  but Martha (unlike her father) went so far as to publicly admire the Nazis, at first. She recognized the steps that they’d made toward economic recovery and government stability. She even dated, semi-seriously, a leader of the Gestapo. Ultimately, of course, she realised that the extremists in the party weren’t the outliers – the moderates were. By then she’d fallen in love with an NKVD agent and was being considered for recruitment as a Soviet spy.

Culturally, there a lot of interesting things about this time period that feature in this book. The whitewashing that the Nazis did about their activities was kind of incredible: they would attack Americans (and others) who didn’t give the Hitler salute, for example. Official regulations said that foreigners didn’t have to salute, and that soldiers who attacked foreigners would be punished. But despite official reassurances from Hitler himself, nothing was ever done. Violence continued and escalated, and yet the embassy continued to believe the official line and wouldn’t even issue travel warnings.

Another point was the US’s refusal to officially denounce the treatment of the Jews iwoun Germany. Anti-Semitism was rife in the US itself, but also the US government was afraid that shining light on Germany’s racism would reflect back on itself and the treatment of African-Americans. How sick is that – the US government didn’t take steps that might have prevented war because they didn’t want to admit how horrible their own institutionalised, legally encoded racism was.

The Nazis got more and more chilling as the years went on, and that atmosphere was vivid in this book. Anyone might be watching or listening, even in the embassy or walking along the street or sitting in a cafe. It was kind of frustrating – and frightening – to pseudo-live through; again, I think Larson did a good job of making the reader realise what life was actually like, even for high-ranking, protected people like the Dodds.

So much has been written about the war itself that it’s kind of refreshing – although that’s too positive a word – to have some background of 1930s Germany. It’s fascinating to me how many of the pieces were in place even in 1933, but no one could see the whole picture yet. In hindsight, of course, we know that Hitler would stay in power even with a poor economy, that he would systematically destroy any opposition in the most brutal way, that he had the political and personal charisma to make people think they were doing the right thing.

It’s a rare talent to make historically documented events seem real and suspenseful. Ron Howard can do it as a director, and Erik Larson seems to be able to do it as an author. More please.

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3 Comments

Filed under Non-Fiction (History)

3 responses to “In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson

  1. trixfred30

    Sounds good i just read a personal account of life on the Eastern Front – it made a change from the usual academic stuff

  2. I like this book, but it’s not my favorite of Larson’s. It definitely had that “eyewitness to history” feel to it, though I found myself not liking Martha as a focus character. She came across to me as so self-centered, I’m surprised she was able to make any useful observations on the world around her. It was interesting to see that State Department then seems to operate much as it does today, unfortunately. Can’t wait for another book from him! Maybe I’ll re-read “Isaac’s Storm.”

    • mendramarie

      She was incredibly self-centered, it’s true, but she also was semi-trained as a writer. I think she wasn’t capable of interpreting what she saw (her defense of the Nazis for so long, her naivety about the diplomatic reactions to her activities, etc., all point to that) – but she also had the goal of writing about her experiences for publication or for her friends – and Thornton Wilder and Carl Sandburg would have expected detail. So I think the observations aren’t unexpected; interpretation would be.

      I agree about the State Department as well. I’ve toyed with the idea of applying to the Foreign Service from time to time, but stories like this (and more recent ones from friends) tend to put me off!

      Isaac’s Storm is coming up on my tbr list now……

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