In the Garden of Beasts
Murder. Espionage. Love affairs. International spies, a beautiful protagonist, behind-the-scene-details-of-American-politics, eyewitness accounts of Hitler and the Third Reich.
It’s all here. Erik Larson’s gripping portrayal of Hitler’s rise to power begins in 1933 Germany, and it’s told through the eyes of William E. Dodd, America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany.
- Why did the United States wait so long to deal with Hitler’s rise in power?
- How was Hitler able to turn the average German citizen into a hate-filled accomplice?
These are questions that Larson brings to the forefront in his book.
After all, it was Ambassador Dodd, stationed in Berlin between 1933-1939, who watched with alarm as evidence of Jewish persecution mounted and who carried the news back to President Roosevelt. It was Dodd and his family, who were the Americans on the scene, witnessing the escalating signs of Hitler’s ruthlessness and ambitions, go unheeded until it was too late.
I can’t find enough adjectives to adequately describe this reading experience. Larson’s story unfolds with an intensity of a Hollywood thriller, only with more chilling, nuanced characters and with a horrifying ending.
That’s because this is a true story.
The Vanity Fair described this book, “like slipping slowly into a nightmare,” and I think it comes close to capturing the reader’s experience; in these chapters, we see how the twisted, perverse logic that fueled Hitler’s rise, seeps into the daily fabric of German life; and we watch this happen through the eyes of Ambassador Dodd and his beautiful, fun-loving daughter Martha, who at first, refused to believe the rumors about the hidden violence going on in Berlin during these years.
There’s a lot to like about this book. Larson paced his book so it reads like a novel and he excelled at constructing the big picture, while intersecting small human stories. I learned about the quiet government campaign called Coordination (Gleichschaltung) —which gradually turned the German people to Hitler and against the Jewish people.
- Telephone callers who could no longer spell a word over the phone by saying, “D as in David,” because David was a Jewish name. The caller must instead say Dora. And “Samuel” must be changed to “Siegfried.” And so forth. This was one of the ominous little laws that went strangely unquestioned.
- The fanatic Hitler salute that everyone was required to make, even in the most mundane situations. Children to teachers. Shopkeepers to customers. Everyone in pre-war Germany was forced to make this salute. And foreign tourists who chose to ignore this rule? They were eventually attacked on the streets.
- Astonishing acts of violence by rogue Storm Troopers against innocent people—Jews and non-Jews-that were ignored by German police.
Erik Larson research included travels to Germany, and an immersion into this era through diaries, letters, government documents, books, and photographs, all of which helped him recreate the Dodd family.
But the storyline focuses on the mild-mannered American professor-turned Ambassador, and his young, glamorous, daughter Martha, who was known for her sexual dalliances, her beauty, and her eventual spying.
It is through Martha’s world that we come to know the Berlin night-life, the handsome Storm Troopers (later known as Gestapo) and their violent outbursts, the infamous members of the Nazi Party, daring members of the underground, and yes, Hitler himself.
History fascinates me. But reading about an era filled with such repugnant, evil events startles me into caring about the world I live in and it gives me a richer context to understand the headlines that I see every day. Delving into Germany prior to World War II, satisfies something inside me that wants to make sense of such malevolence and chaos. In hindsight. Maybe it’s the therapist inside me. But I like to think that the more we understand our past, the less chance we have of repeating our mistakes.
What are you reading?