Monday, August 17, 2015

Book Review: Erik Larson, In The Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin, Crown Publishers, 2011


By Laina Farhat-Holzman

Erik Larson has the remarkable ability to write solid history as though it were fiction. He selects issues so significant that they are page-turners, but there is nothing in his books that cannot be substantiated by the letters, memories, or other documents of the participants of the events at the time.

For example, his Dead Wake, the account of the sinking of the Lusitania, reads like a thriller: a German submarine hunting a British ocean liner with a number of important American passengers on board in the tense time during World War 1. It is very enlightening to see the increasing ruthlessness of the Germans in that war in which they violated every former rule of civility; we also see the ruthlessness of Winston Churchill who will sacrifice America civilians to bring America into the war. We watch an American President, Woodrow Wilson, whose judgment is clouded by bereavement, then love, then a stroke. Leaders are human beings. And finally, we see the hubris of the day's modern scientists and engineers, who considered the Lusitania (like the Titanic), unsinkable. Larson accomplishes all this with one book.

The Garden of Beasts may be even more important for our understanding of one of the most important mysteries of the 20th century. How could a country as cultured, educated, and sophisticated as Germany permit itself to be taken over by a group of thugs with scarcely a murmur?

It did not happen with scarcely a murmur. The takeover was far more complex than that, and this book provides us with an inside view of a seminal year, 1933-34, in which this takeover could have gone either way. The main inside view is that of a particularly able observer: William E. Dodd, Chairman of the History Department of the University of Chicago, appointed by President Roosevelt as Ambassador to Germany after Roosevelt was turned down by several other more likely (wealthy) candidates.

Dodd was certainly not one of the usual old boys' club appointees. He was, however, a distinguished historian, had gone to the university in Germany and was fluent in German, had fond memories of the country, and promised to be eyes and ears for the president of the weird events of the new Nazi regime roiling Germany. He also promised to live on his salary, unheard of in diplomatic circles where diplomats brought their own money.

He set out for Berlin with his family, including another important eye-witness, his grown daughter, Martha, a well-educated and sexually-liberated airhead who “fell in love” with a succession of beaux including the newly appointed head of the Gestapo, the French Ambassador, and a Russian who turned out to be the head of the NKVD. Although her romantic judgment was poor, her diary entries and those of her lovers are extremely interesting!

The title of the book is also significant. The Garden of Beasts is a translation of Tiergarten, the main park in Berlin, around which most of the embassies were located and where Ambassador Dodd walked each day. It was one place where people could walk and talk without being overheard.  It was also a place where someone observed: Germans love animals! Their dogs and horses are so loved, fed, talked to! Much better than they treat their children and each other.

The Dodds arrived in Germany with mixed views of the Nazi government. Dodd was skeptical from the start, quite certain that this was a temporary anomaly. However, Martha was, as were many Americans of her class at the time (such as Charles Lindberg), an enthusiast. She loved what she considered the vitality of the “new Germany.” The blond, healthy, young Germans striding around; the cleanliness; the seeming return to work from the desperation of the prior depression; all this seemed good to her.

And like her class of Americans, she was theoretically anti-Semitic. She didn't hate Jews; just thought that “they had too much power” in the United States. But this dislike didn't stop the Dodds from renting an amazing mansion in the Tiergarten region for next to nothing! Lovely mansions were available in that neighborhood that belonged to Jews suddenly deciding to leave Germany. How fortunate.

Dodd left his post in 1937,  just before “Kristalnacht,” in which Germany's intentions for the Jews left no doubt. In this book, the Dodds, particularly Ambassador Dodd, goes through a transformation from mildly anti-Semitic to a Paul Revere, by the end of  his tour of duty in 1937, warning that the Nazis were going to take on all of Europe and planned to murder all the Jews. He was greeted with disbelief by the American isolationists---only to be proven right by 1941.

The most surprising revelations in the book are those about the “Night of the Long Knives” in 1934, which was the night in which Hitler supposedly acted with speed to wipe out the particularly thuggish Brownshirts, the Storm Troopers, who were supposedly plotting against him. Reading the diaries and memories, this is not what happened at all. This was one of those moments in which events could have gone in either direction. There had been rumors all Summer that the Army was going to get rid of Hitler. Democratic forces in the country were protesting the seizure of power by both Hitler and the Storm Troopers. It was starting to seem that Germany might be coming to its senses. But then events changed.

The Brownshirt “plot” was not so. Hitler fabricated it to seize an opportunity to grab total control over Germany. He not only got rid of his armed enemies, he got rid of all his democratic enemies as well, (including one unfortunate music critic, whose name was mistaken for somebody else). This purge set up such a regime of fear that until 1945, nobody ever got out from under.

How thugs can take over a regime is also contemplated by Martha's lover, Diels, the first head of the Gestapo---a man by far not the worst of those to come later. Diels commented later that his organization seemed to draw in every psychopath in Germany, something that was frightening even to him.

One description stays with me: that of frogs in a pot of warm water. They do not realize that the water is coming to a boil until it is too late.  This was Germany during that fateful year.

One last thought about a civilized country going bad: I have a hard time reconciling Germany's actions in both World War I and II in being the first to break the rules of civilized behavior. Germany was the first to use poison gas. They were the first to use submarines to attack civilian ocean liners. The first to use dirigibles to drop bombs on cities. All this in World War I. In World War II---the first to bomb urban targets and, of course, genocide (Turkey did it first, but they were not European).

Larson is a master writer. This is an important book.

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