In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin
Erik Larson, Crown 2011, 464 pages
I wrote in an earlier "Books by the Bed" that while I have many books and magazines by my bed for a little end-of-day reading, I can usually manage about five minutes in any one of them before I nod off.
But recently I've had the strange experience of prolonged, repeated wakefulness as I've been reading Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin. In fact, last night I read for nearly an hour before finally, reluctantly, giving in to sleep.
So what is it about Larson's book that's keeping me awake? The simple prose, for one thing. No fancy stuff to demonstrate the author's disdain for bourgeois conventions like clarity. And there's the structure. This is nonfiction but it reads like a fast-paced thriller, the story told in short episodes, in any one of which you're sure something awful's about to happen.
And of course as we all know, something awful did happen....
The tale takes us to Berlin at the start of Hitler's reign, opening in 1933 when William E. Dodd, an unassuming, 64-year-old history professor at the University of Chicago, is asked by President Roosevelt to become America's first ambassador to a Germany suddenly in thrall to Hitler's budding thugocracy. Dodd was far from Roosevelt's first choice for the post, but several others had declined Roosevelt's invitation. In fact, rumor had it that Roosevelt thought he was asking William F. Dodd of Harvard to take the job when he called on William E. Dodd of Chicago. In any case, William E. accepted.
Dodd had lived in Germany as a young grad student, he was fluent in German, and he loved the country, or at least the country he remembered from his youth. Plus he thought being ambassador would be a nice break from academia and an easy post that would allow him plenty of time to finish a massive history of the old south, which he'd been working on for years.
Dodd took his wife Mattie, his son Bill, Jr., and daughter Martha with him and rented a house across the street from the Tiergarten, Berlin's famous park. This put the Dodd family in the heart of the heart of darkness, just a short walk from Gestapo headquarters and Hitler's own chancellery, and thus just a short walk into a nightmare.
As the story unfolds, we watch as Dodd first resists seeing what lay before his eyes, then slowly, reluctantly, comes to realize the horror that is Hitler's regime, and the greater horrors to come unless he's stopped. We watch as Dodd futilely tries to alert his superiors back in Washington to what's happening in Germany under Hitler, pleading with them to speak out, to do what the U.S. possibly can to stop him, and then we watch with shock as they ignore his entreaties, some of them actually sympathetic to Hitler's aims, some simply too complacent in their positions of privilege and power in DC to want to rock any boats. True, this is all old news, but there's a freshness in hearing it all again from Dodd's unique POV.
A parallel story feature's the daughter, Martha, who leaves her husband behind in the U.S. and has a number of dalliances with various young men in Berlin, including a couple Nazi officials and even a member of the Russian secret service who's posing as a diplomat with the Russian delegation. We watch in fascination as Martha's initial infatuation with handsome young Nazis in their black uniforms and shiny black boots turns to disgust. Eventually, she becomes a staunch Communist and, as rumor would have it, an agent for the NKVD, the Soviet precursor to the KGB.
But what has really kept me up night after night, as I read Larson's book, is the mental list I started making on which I checked off each similarity between Germany in 1933 and our country today....
- Economic turmoil and high unemployment creating a huge, unemployed, and angry population of workers looking for a way out of their misery? Check.
- A financial and political establishment that seems not to care about the millions of unemployed? Check.
- A small but energetic fringe political party with a platform based primarily on racism, homophobia, misogyny, pandering to the wealthy, and hatred of socialism, but with the pretense of caring about the unemployed, pulling the more reasonable and mainstream political parties to the far right? Check.
- Elected representatives seemingly paralyzed by all the problems and willing to sit back and let this small fringe party set the agenda? Check.
- A Nazi campaign called Gleichschaltung - meaning "coordination" - to "bring citizens, government ministries, universities, and cultural and social institutions in line with National Socialist beliefs and attitudes"? I realize it's a bit of a stretch to suggest that the no-new-taxes pledge all good Republican legislators here have been signing, which essentially requires them to not think critically about the nation's complex problems, is similar to the Nazi Gleichschaltung, but I'm giving this one a check anyway.
- A president (in Germany in ‘33, that would be 85-year-old Field Marshal von Hindenburg) who is oddly disengaged from day-to-day business, and quite willing to sit back and watch as the thugs set the agenda? I'm not ready to check this one, yet, but if Obama caves in to the tea baggers on raising taxes on the wealthy to help reduce the deficit the way he caved in on the public option for health care and the way he caved in on renewal of the Bush tax cuts, this one gets a big fat double check.
Okay, okay, I know what you're thinking. I know how easy it is, knowing what we know now, to look back at Germany in 1933 and cherry pick this or that incident or personality and make facile comparisons with our own times, and certainly I'm not so naïve as to believe that history always repeats itself. But what has kept me awake reading this book is the thought that history does now and then make copies, even if they're a bit smudged and blurry. The fact is, Hitler in 1933 was dismissed by many intelligent, well-educated Germans as little more than a buffoon whose days were numbered. As Larson himself put it in a radio interview, democracy is always under threat, freedom is fragile. And that's what's keeping me awake....
Anyway, In the Garden of Beasts is a terrific read. But maybe not at bedtime . . ..
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