Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Why Didn't Anyone Do Anything Sooner?

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

I had a whole pile of books I intended to read last week, but they all fell to the wayside as soon as I heard In the Garden of Beasts was coming out.  Erik Larson is famous for writing The Devil in the White City, a nonfiction thriller about a serial killer that used the 1983 World's Fair in Chicago as a way to find his victims.  The book was on the bestseller list for years, and I read it a few years ago.  Larson is a good writer, and he knows how to pace his nonfiction in a way that's informative but not boring.  I haven't read any of his other books (also about real murderers), but I wanted to seek this one out because I'm really interested in German history, particularly the history of Berlin (which, I should note, happens to be my favorite place in the whole world).

In the Garden of Beasts is centered around the Dodd family.  William Dodd was a history professor in Chicago who found himself stuck with the appointment of American Ambassador to Germany in 1933.  Dodd, his wife, and their two adult children all moved to Berlin, hoping for the experience of a lifetime.  Well, they certainly got it.  They moved to the city only months after Hitler became chancellor.  Stormtroopers already had control of the city, and secret prisons and labor camps had already sprung up around the country.  Unfortunately, Dodd's advisers only cared about one thing: Germany paying its post-war debts back to the U.S. 

While Dodd is trying to figure out how to talk reason with the Nazis and working to avoid stepping on toes, his twenty-four-year-old daughter, Martha, was having the time of her life.  Intelligent, well-spoken, and attractive, Martha had affair after affair with all matter of men in America.  This lifestyle only increased once she arrived in Berlin.  For her first year in Berlin, she found the Nazi idea of revolution to be intriguing and even romantic.  She had an affair with Rudolf Diels, a prominent Nazi and the first Gestapo leader.  (Diels turns out to be one of the most interesting figures in this book, both a monster and martyr, as he always remained an outsider in the Nazi party and eventually testified against his former party comrades).  She also had a long-lasting and intense love affair with Boris Winogradov, a Soviet spy who would change the rest of her life.

Larson balances the two stories of Dodd and his daughter in order to get a fuller picture of Berlin at this important moment of history.  While I couldn't help but feel sorry for (and at times a little angry at) Dodd, I couldn't find much love for Martha.  She's an absolutely fascinating figure, but she comes off as naive and unlikable a good deal of the time.  A lot of the Americans in Berlin made note of her bad reputation, and I couldn't help but agree with them despite my more feminist insticts.  Girl needed to learn to stop being so reckless.

I found In the Garden of the Beasts to be at its most fascinating when examining the American response to Nazi actions.  This book's events take place before the "Final Solution" and the Nazis' most heinous crimes, but it's not hard to see how they grew more and more evil over time.  If Americans had only looked a little harder at what was happening in Germany, who knows what would happened?  George Messersmith, the U.S. Consulate to Germany at this time, wrote long, in-depth reports on Nazi crimes, including the surprisingly frequent attacks on visiting Americans - both Jews and Christians - who did not properly show respect to parades and salutes.  But the foreign service officials in Washington D.C. refused to acknowledge how bad the problem was.  Larson also writes about the startling antisemitism that ran so deep in America at the time.  Even the most sympathetic characters in this book seem to hold some kind of grudge against Jewish people.  Larson demonstrates how beliefs like antisemitism and isolationism led to American ignorance to Nazi terror.  This book explores a time in history that doesn't make anyone look like a hero.  It's an important lesson to learn.

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