Tuesday, June 7, 2011

In the Garden of Beasts

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson
Crown Publishing Group, May 2011
Hardcover, 464 pages
ISBN-13: 9780307408846
Very Highly Recommended

The saga of an American father and daughter who in July 1933 suddenly found themselves, and the rest of their family, transported to the heart of Hitler's Berlin. The father was William E. Dodd, a mild-mannered history professor from Chicago who, much to his surprise and everyone else's, was chosen by Roosevelt to be America's first ambassador to Nazi Germany; Dodd's daughter, Martha, was 24 years old and came along for the adventure, and to escape a dead marriage. At first this new world seemed full of energy and goodwill, nothing like what newspapers back home had portrayed. But slowly a pall of intrigue and terror fell over the family--until the cataclysmic weekend that changed them all forever.
My Thoughts:

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson chronicles a year in Berlin, from 1933-1934, during which time William Dodd was the U.S. Ambassador to Germany. Dodd, a University of Chicago professor, brought with him to Berlin his wife, son, and daughter, Martha. In the Garden of Beasts follows the experiences of William Dodd and his daughter Martha. As Larson writes in the prologue:
Once, at the dawn of a very dark time, an American father and daughter found themselves suddenly transported from their snug home in Chicago to the heart of Hitler's Berlin. They remained there for four and a half years, but it is their first year that is the subject of the story to follow, for it coincided with Hitler's ascent from Chancellor to absolute tyrant, when everything hung in the balance and nothing was certain. That first year is a kind of prologue in which all the themes of the great epic of war and murder soon to come were laid down.

I have always wondered what it would have been like for an outsider to have witnessed firsthand the gathering dark of Hitler's rule....Hindsight tells us that during that fragile time the course of history could so easily have been changed. Why, then, did no one change it? Why did it take so long to recognize the real danger posed by Hitler and his regime? (pg xiii)
Dodd was unprepared for his role as Ambassador. For example, Dodd was under the assumption that an Ambassadorship would provide him with the free time he needed to finish writing his history of the old South; he soon learned that this assumption was false. Even before he left American investors were concerned that Germany was going to default on her loans while Jewish leaders were concerned about the anti-Semitism taking place. Additionally, most ambassadors were independently wealthy - this was most decidedly not the case with Dodd.

Once the family arrived in Germany, Martha, with a startling and disturbing lack of discernment and propriety, threw herself into late night parties and affairs, including a dalliance with the first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolph Diels. William Dodd ignored the warnings of George Messersmith, who worked at the Berlin embassy. While it became clear that American's were not necessarily safe in Germany, no recommendation for a travel warning was made. Even as the anti-Semitism escalated, Martha herself began to share some of the same sentiments. Dodd repeatedly chose to believe Hitler wanted peace. It really isn't until it was too late (The Night of the Long Knives) that Dodd and Martha really understood the direction the New Germany was taking.

As Larson notes:
....as their first year reached its end, and event occurred that proved to be one of the most significant in revealing the true character of Hitler and that laid the keystone for the decade to come. For both father and daughter it changed everything. (pg. xiv)
Larson does address reasons why the United States kept silent during this time, as Hitler rose to power. Many chances to speak up and try to change the course of history were not taken. Larson writes:
There are no heroes here, at least not of the Schindler's List variety, but there are glimmers of heroism and people who behaved with unexpected grace. Always there is nuance, albeit sometimes of a disturbing nature. That's the trouble with nonfiction. One has to put aside what we all know - now - to be true, and try instead to accompany my two innocents through the world as they experienced it.
These were complicated people moving through a complicated time, before the monsters declared their true nature. (pg. xiv)
A complication for me is that I found both William and Martha to be unsympathetic historical figures. They were, most certainly, flawed individuals. I found Martha's behavior especially disturbing. As a result of this, it was hard to relate to either of them. Much of this is based on their recorded actions and Martha's behavior. But, as Larson makes clear, I had to try a put aside what I know and concentrate on what they knew at the time.

Erik Larson is one of my favorite nonfiction authors. (Isaac's Storm is one of my favorite nonfiction books.) What I especially appreciate about Larson is his narrative style. You are reading a nonfiction book based on facts, which Larson makes clear:
This is a work of nonfiction. As always, any material between quotation marks comes from a letter, diary, memoir, or other historical document. (pg. xiv)
but it flows like a fictional account of an historical event.

Immediately after I finished In the Garden of Beasts, I wasn't sure how I felt about the book. I'm glad I waited to write my review. Even Larson acknowledged the darkness he felt while writing the book:
While I did not realize as I ventured into those dark days of Hitler's rule was how much the darkness would infiltrate my own soul. I generally pride myself on possessing a journalist's remove, the ability to mourn tragedy and at the same time appreciate it's narrative power, but living among the Nazis day in. day out proved for me a uniquely trying experience. (Sources and Acknowledgments, pg. 369)
I feel like some of that darkness seeped into the narrative too.
All in all, this is a very interesting book and a must read for students of history, especially WWII. Larson includes chapter notes, a bibliography, and an index.
Very Highly Recommended


For Messersmith it was yet another indicator of the reality of life under Hitler. He understood that all this violence represented more than a passing spasm of atrocity. Something fundamental had changed in Germany.
He understood it, but he was convinced that few others in America did. He was growing increasingly disturbed by the difficulty of persuading the world of the true magnitude of Hitler's threat. pg. 4

Dodd was anything but the typical candidate for a diplomatic post. He wasn't rich. He wasn't politically influential. He wasn't one of Roosevelt's friends. But he did speak German and he was said to know the country well. One potential problem was his past allegiance to Woodrow Wilson, whose belief in engaging other nations on the world stage was anathema to the growing camp of Americans who insisted that the United States avoid entangling itself in the affairs of foreign nations. pg. 18-19

In the course of a wide-ranging conversation, Dodd learned for the first time how far he'd been from being Roosevelt's first choice. The news was humbling. pg. 38

Messersmith's view of Martha's behavior hardened over time. In an unpublished memoir he wrote that "she behaved so badly in so many ways, especially in view of the position held by her father."
The Dodd's butler, Fritz, framed his own criticism succinctly: "That was not a house, but a house of ill repute." pg. 115

For Martha, however, Thomsen's display had a lingering effect of surprising power, for it eroded - albeit slightly - her enthusiasm for the new Germany, in the way a single ugly phrase can tilt a marriage toward decline. pg. 147

It was a strange moment. Here was Dodd, the humble Jeffersonian schooled to view statesmen as rational creatures, seated before the leader of one of Europe's great nations as that leader grew nearly hysterical with fury and threatened to destroy a portion of his own population. It was extraordinary, utterly alien to his experience. pg. 236


Jeanne said...

I have this book and am looking forward to it even more now (my daughter has claimed it first). Summer is definitely the right time for me to read something so dark.

Lori L said...

My son claimed it next here, LOL! Erik Larsen is a favorite author of his too. I'll be interested to hear what both of you think about it. It was a bit of a struggle for me to not judge their actions based on what we now know.

TheBookGirl said...

I've heard such great things about this author; I have this book on my TBR pile and am anxious to get to it, particularly after reading your enthusiastic review :)

Lori L said...

I hope you enjoy it, BookGirl. I'll be watching for your view!

quirky girls said...

I enjoyed his Devil In The White City - as you mention the way he tells a true story with the fictional vibe. But I did struggle with how much of it had to be interpretive to suit the flow and interest of the story. Always a difficult line to walk. I have heard great things about Isaac's Storm. Now I have this to add to the pile as well!


Jane said...

I held this book in my hands at the library about 2 weeks ago. I almost checked it out. There were only 2 things stopping me. I already had 3 books checked out, & I was mistakingly thinking by something on the cover that this might be a second book & I needed to read The White City first. Now I see I was mistaken. I'll check it out next, thanks to your review. :)