Sunday, January 01, 2012

Book 70: In the Garden of Beasts

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

While I've heard raves about The Devil in the White City for years, it wasn't until Larson wrote a book related to World War II that I was interested enough to actually read one of his books. In this book, Larson explores the first years of Hitler's regime as seen through the eyes of the American ambassador, William Dodd. Dodd was an unlikely fit for this position: he was a historian and his goal was to complete a series on the Old South. He originally became interested in civil service because he hoped it would give him more time to focus on writing his book because he could not find the time while serving as a professor. He had hoped to get a position in a small country, and the position in Berlin was certainly not what he had hoped for or wanted. After a discussion with his wife, he took the position, and his adult children accompanied their parents on this trip.

Among other American diplomats and ambassadors, Dodd was seen as an oddity, and they disagreed with many of the things he was doing: most ambassadors tended to be from money, and would live lavishly to impress whichever country they were serving in. Dodd refused to do, and planned on living within his salary. He also hated parties and late nights, which made him a rather odd fit. While in Germany, there were forces abroad and at home working against his appointment. Dodd had spent time as a student in Germany, so while he was at first excited to return, he also began seeing how Germany had changed. One of the problems is that it was hard to tell what was really going on in Germany: on the one hand there was quite a bit of mob violence, but things did seem to be calming down. Dodd attempted to be very diplomatic in his first months in Germany in the fall of 1933. He was hesitant to warn Americans against traveling to Germany, and many American tourists actually didn't see the dark side on short visits. However, the facade would crack for some - groups of Nazis would beat people that didn't return Hitler salutes, even if they were Americans.

Larson spends half the book focusing on Dodd and his growing awareness of Germany's descent into madness, his refusal to show support to the Nazi government (for example, he and the ambassadors of many other countries made the decision not to attend annual rallies in Nuremberg), and his problems dealing with the Germans as well as his own lack of trust in some of the other Americans. The other half concerns Dodd's daughter, Martha, who becomes involved with a series of men while in Berlin. She dates a high Nazi official, as well as a Soviet spy, and has various other suitors. At first Martha is very excited and enamored with Germany but as time wears on, she begins to see the dark side. It seems like Larson tried to use Dowd to tell the political piece and then used Martha to tell the more personal side, though Martha's story is anything but typical. In fact, while it is hard to tell how much Dodd knew about Martha's personal life, everyone else certainly seemed to know, and her behavior was viewed as rather scandalous.

With hindsight, it seemed like it Dodd long to see just how bad the Nazis were, but in reality, he was far ahead of his counterparts in realizing that their regime would eventually lead to war. At first he believed the Germans when they said they wanted peace, but in only a few months, he would realize and report that they only wanted peace in order to prepare themselves for war. Overall, I quite liked this book since it discusses World War II from a viewpoint that is new to me. I never would have thought to look into the story of the first American ambassador to Hitler's regime, but it was definitely a good way to see how the world viewed Hitler's rise.

1 comment:

Sverige said...

Fantastic review! Now I'm really excited to read this! The way you describe it I think it'll be something I'm really interested in.