Saturday, August 13, 2011

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

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

Nazi Germany is one of the most well-tread subject areas in literature of the last eighty years, and just when it seems everything interesting to say about it has been said, something new gives you a fresh reason to pay attention. As far as the historical record is concerned, Erik Larson’s latest book, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, offers no big surprises, but this was never meant to be a history. What Larson does, and well at that, is to grant the general readership an insight into the time period by retelling the story of a single American family and their experiences during Hitler’s rise to power. In the Garden of Beasts tells the true story of William Dodd and his family during his first year as ambassador to Germany, which, incidentally, begins shortly after the naming of Hitler as Chancellor in 1933.
The book focuses mainly on the ambassador himself and his sociable young daughter, Martha. When they arrive in Berlin, in the summer of 1933, the history professor-turned-statesman and his daughter—along with most of the world at that point—see Hitler as more of a nuisance than a tyrant. Even a month into the job Dodd, “remains convinced that the government was growing more moderate and that Nazi mistreatment of Jews was on the wane”. To Martha, however, the Nazi “revolution” was exciting. This is how much of the book is framed; Ambassador Dodd is defined by his position, even at the many social balls thrown for and by the foreign diplomats in Berlin, which were seen as a vital part of the job, while Martha took in Nazi Germany as a young vacationer. The chapters tied to William Dodd have the ring of a more conventional history, recounting correspondence between the ambassador and various contacts at the states and highlighting his growing concern towards the Nazi party as requests go unheeded and the list of casualties gets longer. Meanwhile, the episodes featuring Martha are much more experiential as she entwines herself into the social fabric of Berlin, rubbing elbows with prominent members of the Nazi government, writers, newspaper correspondents, and enemies of the state. Larson describes, in glowing detail, Martha’s fashionable friends, her stylish parties and the exciting world into which she is drawn.
Both Martha and her father take some time to turn decidedly against the Nazi regime. The major turning point, the night of the long knives, is not encountered until the very end of the book, the chapters after it dedicated to the respective fates of each member of the Dodd family. Preceding that we see the ambassador’s growing frustration towards both governments with which he deals. On the German side he sees no adequate response to his repeated complaints of Americans being assaulted and finds that, despite their numerous reassurances, their rhetoric, as well as the law, only gets harsher as time goes on. Meanwhile, he finds himself alienated from the rest of the state department, the “Pretty Good Club” which was comprised mostly of old money and who grew annoyed with Dodd’s constant preaching for frugality and greater action to be taken in moderating Hitler’s government.
Martha’s change of heart comes from more personal sources. Even witnessing a women being beaten, shaved, embarrassed, and forcibly paraded around her hotel in Nuremburg did little to dissuade her sympathy for the cause. She begins to change partly due to her close social and romantic ties to several high ranking Nazis. Among these men is Rudolf Diels, head of the Gestapo, who flees Germany several times in that year when political infighting threatens his life. It is men like Diels and Ernst Hanfstaengl, men entrenched in Hitler’s government but still not immune from the whims of other Nazi officials that show her the true face of the “revolution”. Yet, the final inspiration is motivated not by a push, but a pull. Martha begins a relationship with Boris Winogradov, an employee at the Soviet Embassy, and also a spy. She becomes enamored with him and trades the Nazis for the Soviets.
The strength of In the Garden of Beasts is the very distance that is offered by the Dodd family in their encountering men known today only in superlative terms as evil incarnate. In 1933, to this family, they were still human, not in any redeeming way, but in a way that makes them small and petty. Larson sets out to bring color to a world typically known only in, “gradients of gray and black” and he succeeds, to a degree. One can imagine a newly arrived, young adult to be swept up in the excitement of these huge rallies. The brief descriptions of the Nuremburg rallies—which the Dodds refused to attend—give glimpses to the awesome spectacle provided for those not knowing what was to come. However there is little charm here and Martha’s early affinity for the movement is despite her experiences. What color he does provide is personality behind the names we know in the history books. The name Hitler carries tremendous weight now, and it is near impossible to think of him separate from the larger than life events which he caused, but here we get a glimpse at a man, one compared to, “a suburban hairdresser”. Larson is a master of finding bits of dark humor and irony that break the stiff wall of seriousness that has been built around the subject. He takes us out of the grand landscape shots and provides an extreme close up. The nuance is what makes this an interesting story and a good read, but do not expect a surprise twist ending.


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