January 18, 2012

January 18, 2012

Things I’ve Read: In the Garden of Beasts

Author Erik Larson writes about fascinating little-known history juxtaposed against famous world events. The first book of his that I read, The Devil in the White City, was about the serial killer running loose during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Indeed, a pseudo-doctor calling himself H.H Holmes was abducting, gassing, and autopsying people (mostly unsuspecting young women) while the rest of the world was riding the first Ferris Wheel and whatnot. Fascinating and grim, you put the book down with disgust and amazement at the human condition. It’s a nice change from my usual straight-up disgust.

In the Garden of Beasts was even more fascinating and grimmer. (Nazis trump serial killers any day of the week.) Set in Germany during the 1930s, it details the experiences of American Ambassador William Dodd and his family in Berlin as the Nazis are coming to power. And you think YOU have problems at the office. Psh.

Dodd was a Chicago professor, nearing retirement yet unable to find time to complete his magnum opus, a book about the old American South. Since he had connections in the Roosevelt administration, he decided to angle for a cushy ambassadorship. He figured that a posting to a second-tier city would give him plenty of time to write, and a decent wage as he did so. Ha.

Once he arrived in Berlin, Dodd was truly a fish out of water. For one thing, he was a frugal academic. At that point in history, most members of the foreign service (and almost all ambassadors) were independently wealthy. They threw lavish parties and ran expensive households because they had the personal means to do so. Whatever the State Department didn’t cover, their paid from their own pockets. Dodd, however, was a fiscal conservative. He had his personal Chevrolet shipped from Chicago, and had his son act as chauffeur. As you might imagine, this embarrassed diplomats in Berlin and in DC.

Dodd also had to contend with the Orwellian nightmare of 1930s Germany. Laws were changing. You never knew what to say to whom. Forget to salute an SS parade, or sit on the wrong park bench, and you’re toast. Hitler’s contradicting words and actions were detailed by Dodd in numerous cables. Yet the US government continued to focus on Germany’s war debts rather than on its obvious preparations for round 2.

(I’m sorry if you’re not familiar with the events leading up to WW2 and this makes no sense. I forget that not everyone was raised by a huge WW2 student. The entirety of my German knowledge is war-related: panzer, stuka, Luftwaffe, lebensraum, Deutschland Deutschland uber alles, etc. When discussing this book with my dad, I would start a sentence with something like “Then Himmler…” and he would finish with my exact thought. It was like freakish history mad libs.)

Dodd wasn’t a huge social butterfly, either. And being an ambassador is all about entertaining the rulers of the nation to which you’re accredited. When those rulers are people like Goring, Rohm, and even Hitler himself, IT GETS AWKWARD. I mean, try to imagine yourself in his shoes. You’re forced to throw a party that you can’t afford, and to invite people that you and the other guests detest. Larson is great at throwing in these little foreshadows, like how seven of the eight guests at one dinner party were dead four months after the fact. Ouch.

Then there’s Dodd’s daughter Martha. She was what one might euphemistically term “a romantic opportunist.” Though technically married when she moved to Berlin, she was linked to fellow diplomats (of several countries), members of the Nazi party, members of the Communist party, and even notable Germans. (Yes, she was set up on a date with Hitler. They were both taken to the same restaurant and she was introduced to him in the hopes that he’d be taken with her. He wasn’t.) Martha proved to be a huge liability for her father, especially since she was later revealed as a spy for the Soviets. She ended up moving to Prague and dying in 1990. TRUE STORY!

So poor Dodd is just trying to do his job, while his colleagues sabotage him by leaking his cables and letters to the press, while DC gives him no support, while the Nazis bug his phones, and while his daughter spies on him for the Commies. I repeat: and you think YOU have problems at the office.

Dodd is “encouraged” to give up the posting by Roosevelt in 1937, which he does in 1938. He returns to the US in the hopes of finally finishing that darn Old South book. He does a bit of speaking to stir up anti-Nazi awareness in the US (remember, we were laissez-faire in the days before Pearl Harbor). But the years in Berlin had taken their toll, and he died a few short years later. The book itself ends shortly after the Night of the Long Knives.

The effusive length of this review should indicate that I found this to be an absolutely fascinating read. Though I knew where it was going, the ominous march to war was chilling. I can only imagine what it was like for the Germans, both Jews and Gentile, as their society changed into a police state under the guise of patriotism. I love novels about an Orwellian future, but this true-life tale of an Orwellian past was even better.

1 Fish in a Sea of Diet Coke:

"In the Garden of Beasts" is a fascinating history of Germany during Hitler's first years in power, from the viewpoint of the American ambassador and his family. It is well-written, engaging, and well-researched. Larson draws on the papers, letters, and diaries of Ambassador Dodd and his daughter to build a narrative of the family's life in Berlin from a few months after Hitler became chancellor in 1933 until just before the beginning of World War II.

Because the Dodd family interacted with Nazi leaders like Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, and Goring, the book provides insights about these people *as* people, not just as historical or political figures. Other key diplomats, journalists, politicians, and writers in Berlin also come into the scope. But just as key as the insights provided about the "important" people are the insights about the common German people and their reaction (or lack thereof) to the societal and legal changes Hitler instituted.