Saturday, January 7, 2017

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

Title: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin
AuthorErik Larson
Pages: 448
Release Date: May 10, 2011
Publisher: Crown
Genre: Nonfiction; History
My Rating: 2/5

Erik Larson, New York Times bestselling author of Devil in the White City, delivers a remarkable story set during Hitler’s rise to power.

The time is 1933, the place, Berlin, when William E. Dodd becomes America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Nazi Germany in a year that proved to be a turning point in history.

A mild-mannered professor from Chicago, Dodd brings along his wife, son, and flamboyant daughter, Martha. At first Martha is entranced by the parties and pomp, and the handsome young men of the Third Reich with their infectious enthusiasm for restoring Germany to a position of world prominence. Enamored of the “New Germany,” she has one affair after another, including with the surprisingly honorable first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels. But as evidence of Jewish persecution mounts, confirmed by chilling first-person testimony, her father telegraphs his concerns to a largely indifferent State Department back home. Dodd watches with alarm as Jews are attacked, the press is censored, and drafts of frightening new laws begin to circulate. As that first year unfolds and the shadows deepen, the Dodds experience days full of excitement, intrigue, romance—and ultimately, horror, when a climactic spasm of violence and murder reveals Hitler’s true character and ruthless ambition.

Suffused with the tense atmosphere of the period, and with unforgettable portraits of the bizarre Göring and the expectedly charming--yet wholly sinister--Goebbels, In the Garden of Beasts lends a stunning, eyewitness perspective on events as they unfold in real time, revealing an era of surprising nuance and complexity. The result is a dazzling, addictively readable work that speaks volumes about why the world did not recognize the grave threat posed by Hitler until Berlin, and Europe, were awash in blood and terror.

I can understand why Erik Larson might delve into the subject of the American ambassador to Germany, pre-WWII: Hitler is coming to power etc etc, what did the American ambassador think about all this etc etc, what did the Nazis think of the American ambassador etc etc. I get it. It could be interesting. I can only suspect that after devoting too much time to the average and uninteresting Dodd family Larson was like, "fuck it, I'll try to make a compelling story and see if people take the bait because I'm a bestseller." I'm not buying what you're selling, Larson. This book was boring af.

William Dodd had no interest in being an ambassador to Germany. He did it because FDR personally asked him (unbeknownst to Dodd, after many others turned FDR's offer down). Dodd also hoped that the workload would be minimal so he could finish a book he started on the American south. It wasn't. Soon after arriving in Germany with his wife and twenty-something-year-old children, Dodd showed regret. "I have worked twenty years on the subject and dislike to run too great a risk of never finishing it. Now I am here, sixty-four years old, and engaged ten to fifteen hours a day! Getting nowhere. Yet, if I resigned, that fact would complicate matters. It defeats my history work and I am far from sure I was right in my choice last June," Dodd whined to a friend. Dodd asked for permission to take a three month vacation only 6 months into the new job.

That's not to say Dodd is lazy. Or unintelligent. He was horribly idiotic sometimes (example: On Hitler: "fundamentally, I believe a people has a right to govern itself and that other peoples must exercise patience even when cruelties and injustices are done. Give men a chance to try their schemes."), but he was also incredibly humble, steadfast, and wise. The only memorable act I can recall of Dodd is a super passive aggressive, albeit wonderful, speech he made to the American Chamber of Commerce in Berlin, in 1933.

Dodd referenced moments in English and French history to basically say "the Nazis are doomed." "In conclusion, one may safely say that it would be no sin if statesmen learned enough of history to realize that no system which implies control of society by privilege seekers has ever ended in any other way than collapse." To fail to learn from such "blunders of the past," he said, was to end up on a course toward "another war and chaos." Did I mention Joseph Goebbels and Alfred Rosenberg were in attendance? We repeat history, always. Just like we are now drawing comparisons to the rise of Hitler and Trump, but whatever.

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