'In the Garden of Beasts': Erik Larson plumbs terror in Nazi Germany
A review of "In the Garden of Beasts," by Seattle author Erik Larson ("Devil in the White City"). It's an eerie and disturbing chronicle of an American family's year in Berlin during Hitler's rise, writes Seattle Times book editor Mary Ann Gwinn. Larson will discuss his book at several Seattle-area locations in May and June.
Seattle Times book editor
Erik LarsonThe author of "In the Garden of Beasts" will discuss his book at these area locations:
• At 6:30 p.m. May 21 at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).
• At 7 p.m. May 31 at the Central Branch of the Seattle Public Library (206-386-4636 or www.spl.org).
• At 7 p.m. June 1 at Seattle's University Book Store (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com).
'In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin'
by Erik Larson
Crown, 464 pp., $26
Today it's hard to escape history in the making — anyone with a smartphone can follow a revolution. Though instant access presents its own dilemmas, surely it's better than what happened in Nazi Germany in 1933 and 1934, when a bunch of sadists and psychopaths took over a country and the rest of humanity sat on its hands.
This is the terrain of Seattle author Erik Larson's new book, the eerie and disturbing "In the Garden of Beasts." A nonfiction chronicle, based on the lives of an American family who spent a year in Berlin as Hitler rose to absolute power, Larson's book raises the question the world still struggles with: How do we know implacable evil when we see it? When is enough enough?
Larson, an expert popular historian, has explored evil before, notably in his best-selling "Devil in the White City," the true-to-life story of a serial killer preying on the margins of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. "Beasts" and "Devil" share other attributes, notably a fairy tale, dreamlike backdrop. Chicago's faux classical "White City" rose up like a mirage on the shores of Lake Michigan. In "Beasts," baroque, decadent Berlin — its verdant parks, its fabulous nightlife — is the theater for love, sex, political skulduggery and terror. And like "Devil," "Beasts" has its victims — Berlin's Jewish citizens, struggling to breathe as the Nazi noose tightens.
Into this turmoil dropped William E. Dodd and family. Dodd, a University of Chicago professor and a lover of Germany from his student days, was in search of a sinecure where he could complete a book. He approached a friend in the Roosevelt administration about an appointment as an American ambassador. After a few wiser and/or more cautious candidates turned down the position of ambassador to Germany, Roosevelt gave Dodd the job.
Dodd had no preparation for the position. He had no family money (in those days, most diplomats bankrolled the lavish social occasions required of diplomacy), little in the way of social grace and no experience negotiating with bullies. In his astounding naiveté, Dodd thought he could exercise a "moderating influence over Hitler and his government," Larson writes. Dodd and his family — his wife, son and daughter Martha — sailed for Berlin.
If Dodd was naive, Martha was oblivious. Newly separated from her first husband, Larson writes that "she looked the part of a young American virgin, but she knew sex and liked it, and especially liked the effect when a man learned the truth." In the course of Martha's Berlin stay, she would have affairs with a French diplomat, the married head of the Gestapo and a first secretary of the Soviet embassy (and NKVD agent). In her memoir, Martha recounted her early infatuation with the Nazis: "The excitement of the people was contagious and I 'Heiled' as vigorously as any Nazi ... I felt like a child, ebullient and careless, the intoxication of the new regime working like wine in me."
Larson vividly re-creates the dreadful drumbeat of events of that pivotal era, as the Nazis consolidated their power. Jews and other "undesirables" were stripped of their livelihoods, property and basic civil rights. In one nightmarish mob scene, Martha and two male traveling companions witnessed the near-lynching of a woman who had a relationship with a Jewish man.
America's government remained largely silent. Larson offers some possible reasons: The burden of the Depression; the Roosevelt administration's fear of being charged with hypocrisy, given America's treatment of its black citizens in an era of lynching and disenfranchisement. But it's hard to credit how policymakers could have failed to read the cards, as the Nazis remade the entire country in their image: Hitler himself told Dodd that "If they (Jews) continue their activity, we shall make a complete end to all of them in this country."
As his nightmare term rolled on, William Dodd developed some spine, and the scales dropped from Martha's eyes. The narrative of "Beasts" climaxes with the weekend of June 30, 1934, now known as "The Night of the Long Knives," when Hitler rounded up most of his political opponents and had them murdered. Hans Gisevius, a member of the Gestapo who would later turn against Hitler, witnessed the purge, as men were marched in, handed a slip of paper and summarily shot: "The written word cannot reproduce the undisguised blood lust, fury, vicious vengefulness, and, at the same time, the fear, the pure funk, that the scene revealed," he wrote.
The French ambassador told Dodd that "I would not be surprised any time to be shot on the streets of Berlin." Yet, a few weeks later, the U.S. Department of State was still advising Americans that it was safe to travel in Germany.
As a suspense narrative, "Beast" achieves mixed results: It's hard to warm up to the well-meaning but outmanned Dodd and his feckless, flirtatious daughter. But as a work of popular history, "Beasts" is gripping, a nightmare narrative of a terrible time. It raises again the question never fully answered about the Nazi era — what evil humans are capable of, and what means are necessary to cage the beast.
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