Mar 17, 2012

In the Garden of the Beasts, Book Review

 In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson is as chilling as a horror story, but anything with Hitler and his sycophants at the fore makes a story fiendish.  The name of the the book is taken from the Tiergarten, a central park of sorts in Berlin that means "garden of the beasts" which provides an easy metaphor for the Nazi gargoyles.  The main character, William E. Dodd, is the US ambassador to Germany.  Professor Dodd is a bit of an oddball to his ambassadorial colleagues.  He eschews the opulence of the office and adheres to his Jeffersonian ideals of frugality.  This makes him many enemies in the Harvard educated ambassador pool who refer to themselves as the "Pretty Good Club," which is a purposeful misnomer, ambassadorship is a really good club, filled with clout and gilded international parties.  But Dodd has the backing of the one person who matters, President Roosevelt, who sees in Dodd an intelligent historian who can spread the message about American ideals through his actions as well as rhetoric.  Dodd at first looks at Hilter as a blip in history that will soon be removed, as does many others, including the US State Department.  He continues for a brief period to regard Germany through an idealized lens fashioned by his stint as a college student in Liepzig.  In fact Dodd is idealistic about other things too.  His life's work is a 3 volume manuscript entitles The Old South.  This work on the antebellum American south is always haunting his mind and he routinely wishes that he could retire to his farm in Virginia and finish it.  One wonders why he took this job; you sense that he fears finishing the book and retirement more than he dislikes the thankless job of dealing with the Nazis.  In one of their few face to face meetings Dodd's expertise in southern history enables him to lecture Hilter on defeat after Hilter rages about France's unfair treatment of Germany after World War I .  Dodd calmly draws on the example of the Confederacy and replies "defeat in war is always followed by injustice" which causes a rare moment of silence from the dictator.

Larson soon introduces one of the most interesting characters of the book, Dodd's intelligent, beautiful and flirtatious daughter Martha. A polar opposite of her bookish father.  She is a recent divorcee and finds herself liberated in the waning, unrestricted Weimar culture of Berlin.  She sleeps with many Nazi officials, including Rudolph Diels, the scarred, former head of the Gestapo who is portrayed as a surprisingly sympathetic character.  But Martha find a soul mate in the doomed Soviet embassy official Boris Winogradov (most any Soviet official can be refered to as doomed before Stalin's purges).  Some of Larson's best writing revolves around their relationship.  Martha eventually becomes a communist and a minor spy for the Soviet Union.  Another strength of the book is the author's depiction of the Nazi leaders, especially Hermann Goring who is described as the "hind end of an elephant."  Dodd and his family connect with the corpulent and congenial leader and attend some of his lavish parties, including one where he reveals his plan, alongside an unresponsive bison, to open a game park of archaic German animals, which was one of the Nazi's ridiculous themes of Aryan mythologizing.

The story reaches a crescendo and its climax with Hitler's murderous rampage against his rivals in the SA now known as the "Night of the Long Knives".  This reveals  the Nazis as the violent thugs that they actually were  and Dodd begins a crusade to warn the US and world, which unfortunately falls on deaf ears to the detriment of all but especially the European Jews.  Although the book is not as seminal as his The Devil in the White City, Larson deftly wields the slow build up to this climax and shows again that he is a masterful storyteller.

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