Tuesday, October 11, 2011

IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS: LOVE, TERROR, AND AN AMERICAN FAMILY IN HITLER'S BERLIN – Erik Larson


Erik Larson's bold writing style and ability to make me feel like I am reading fiction once again served to keep me glued to my book. Years ago both of my adult book groups read Devil in the White City. Like that book, this one was so interesting it was hard to put it down. Also like Devil, reading this book lead me to side trips on the Internet to educate myself about people and history that either I forgot or never learned. But I like that. I also enjoyed the footnotes that led me often to other information to fill out my “history lessons.” I liked the interweaving of a family story with the gathering storm in German politics between 1933-1937.

In 1933 while rumblings of Nazi misbehavior were rolling along among certain circles in the US and in Europe it became hard to find an ambassador to Germany. The norms of the time had been to fill ambassadorships with upper class, wealthy, and highly educated persons of note. None coming forth or agreeing to take Berlin resulted in it being offered to a little-known college professor, William Dodd. Dodd accepted, thinking that the job would not be too taxing and he would have time to finish a history manuscript that he hoped to publish soon. Dodd took along his wife and his two grown children. According to diaries of both Dodd and his daughter the family seemed to think that it would be like a long vacation.

Dodd was a bit of a disappointment to the Germans and to other Americans in Germany for he was frugal to the point of embarrassment and seemed to be inadequately informed about what was expected. Dodd's daughter, Martha was a bit scandalous with her flippant attitudes and her penchant for partying and having numerous lovers, among them a head of the Gestapo and a Russian spy. This was early in the Hitler regime. George Messersmith working in the embassy, and other journalists, were sending information about Nazi atrocities to the US government but they were generally being ignored. According to Larson, Messersmith tried many times early on to get Dodd to understand. However, the Hitler elite was skilled at covering up and making excuses for what they are doing and Dodd did not take him seriously.

Dodd's family was wined and dined by the Nazis. Life was easy and fun. It took “The Night of Long Knives” in 1934 when Hitler arranged to get rid of his political enemies before the family began to see the monstrous truth. When Dodd began to send warnings home he was at first ignored and deemed to be too imaginative and over-reactive just as Messersmith had been before him. He was told that what he was reporting wasn't of interest to America, he was to focus on Germany's debt to the US and try influence the Hitler regime to make reparations. It was creepy and thrilling as well to read about Dodd's family interacting with what we know today to be monstrous evil-doers such as Goebbels and Goering.

If you read this book you will see and feel how one immersed in Germany at that time could have gone on a while not knowing how bad it was or was going to get. But also you will feel the frustration of those who do know not being able to make anyone listen. You will also feel the families intense growing horror as they witness frightening events unfolding in their neighborhood.

A good read, with a great map in the front, and good footnotes. It is dark but worth it.

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