Tuesday, April 18, 2023

In the Garden of Beasts

 In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin (2011) by Erik Larson

Synopsis [from the book flap]: The time is 1933, the place, Berlin, when William E. Dodd becomes America's first ambassador to Hitler's 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 Goring 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.

My Take: An unsettling look at how swiftly fascism could change a nation--and how the world (in general) refused to recognize it until it was too late. Dodd, the historian, saw signs of what was to come, but even he didn't want to believe that Germany could go down that dark path in the 20th Century. He thought that surely diplomatic pressures and calls for restraint would have effect. As we know, they didn't. Of course, looking back, after the fact, it's easy to judge and ask why didn't democratic nations make a better effort to curb the rise of Hitler? As Larson says in his prelude: One has to put aside all we know--now--to be true, and try instead to accompany my two innocents [Dodd & his daughter] through the world as they experienced it. These were complicated people moving through a complicated time, before the monsters declared their true nature.

That's a difficult thing to do, but Larson makes a very good job of--giving reader's a real sense of how things appeared to the Americans when they first came to Germany and then the changes that happened before their eyes. 

First line ("Das Vorspiel"): Once at the dawn of a very dark time, an American father and daughter found themselves suddenly transported from their snug home in Chicago to the heart of Hitler's Berlin.

First line (chapter one): It was common for American expatriates to visit the U.S. consulate in Berlin, but not in the condition exhibited by the man who arrived there on Thursday, June 29,1933.

Last lines: "In that case, diplomacy would no longer be a service, but a pleasure. And it might end in marriage!" 

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