Sunday, July 17, 2011

In the Garden of Beasts

Erik Larson's latest book, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin, is powerful, fascinating, chilling, and unforgettable.

At the center of the story is William E. Dodd, U.S. ambassador to Germany from 1933 to 1937, not FDR's first choice or even second or third for the post, but a professor of history who loved Germany and was utterly crushed by despair at seeing what it became under Hitler. Dodd lived in Berlin during his years as ambassador with his wife and two grown children, Bill Jr., and Martha, who nearly steals the focus of the book from her father.

While Dodd struggles to navigate the stormy diplomatic waters of Nazi-controlled Berlin while dealing with political manuevering and backstabbing within the U.S. State Departement and diplomatic corps, Martha embarks on a career of socializing with Nazi officials, including Rudolf Diels (head of the Gestapo) as well as a variety of international diplomatic staffers and anti-Nazi intellectuals. Hers is a journey from being naively sympathetic towards the Nazis, whom she initially sees as part of a positive force that is rejuvenating Germany, to being naively sympathetic towards communism and the Soviet Union, which tries to recruit her as a spy during and after WWII.

Larson does an absolutely magnificent job of writing history within the context of a story narrative, and in this case the dual story of Dodd and his diplomatic charter versus Martha as the ingénue who knew too much makes for a perfectly balanced work.

As in the other Larson book that I read this year, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, In the Garden of Beasts is thoroughly researched and rigorously documented. The only words in people's mouths are those they uttered themselves (i.e., in letters, memoirs, etc.) or from primary sources who were present and recall what was said by individuals. Increasingly, I have little patience for novels that masquerade as history or biography and resent wild speculation on the part of the author. In the case of this book, the facts are so unbelieveable (i.e., the Nazis treatment of the Jews and other "undesireables") that Larson needn't invent anything.

The title of the book comes from the location of the house that Ambassador Dodd rented in the Tiergarten--Tiergarten is German for Animal Garden, and the Dodd family witnessed Berlin and Germany as the garden animals transformed into monstrous beasts capable of indescribable cruelty. It's a particularly apt title as the warm, gentle, genial idea of a garden of animals (ala The Peaceable Kingdom) is cruelly and ironically undercut by the viciousness that initially simmered and eventually boiled while the Dodds were in Berlin. I kept on remembering the scene in Stephen King's The Shining when the topiary garden comes to life and menaces Danny.

Reading this book has launched me on a quest to learn more about WWII, and so I am now listening to Churchill's The Second World War: Milestones to Disaster, and after that I may have to reread Ella Lefland's excellent book about Hermann Goering, The Knight, Death, and the Devil.

Time and again when I was reading about the atrocities the Nazis committed In the Garden of Beasts I kept on thinking of George Santayana's famous quote that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." While it is often not easy to read about such troubling times as those Larson documented in this book, it is essential that we do read books like this and keep from hiding our head in the sands when the going gets rough.

The William E. Dodd family embarking to Germany in 1933.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't read either of these books but this one certainly sounds interesting. I have been on a bit of a WW2 kick with fiction - would be good to mix in some non- fiction.