Sunday, March 3, 2013

In the Garden of Beasts--Book Review

Erik Larson's book In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin has been on the NY Times best-seller list for 42 weeks.  William Dodd, a professor at the University of Chicago is asked by President Roosevelt in mid 1933 to serve as ambassador to Germany some six months after Hitler took over.  The book is, by subtitle at least, about Dodd and his family who all went to Berlin during this time. In actuality the book is only about Dodd and his daughter Martha.  While Dodd's wife Mattie and son Bill are also in Berlin there is barely a mention of their activities.

Dodd had spent time in Germany years before, but what he witnesses beginning in 1933, as we know now, was an unfolding horror show as Hitler begins to show the world what a madman he was.  And as the infection takes hold, much of Germany's population becomes diseased.

In hindsight it is difficult to understand how the United States could have been so willing to tolerate Hitler's behavior.  The treatment of Jews, let alone the shocking anti-semitic government endorsed rhetoric, was clearly horrible even in the very early years.   Dodd was concerned early on.  His warnings could have been louder, but he offered them to those at the state department, yet neither he nor his warnings were respected.

The book is as much about Dodd's daughter as it is about Dodd.  Martha is not portrayed sympathetically even if it was the author's intent to do so.   I, personally, have no problem with what would certainly in 1933 be referred to as promiscuity. I do have a problem with her myopia and caprice.  When she is in love with a Nazi, the new Germany under the Nazis is not so bad according to her. She falls for a Communist and then Communism has its virtues.  How you could have lived in Germany in 1933 and witnessed the incomprehensible ways Jews were treated, and still thought the Nazis had brought something positive to Germany is difficult for me to digest regardless of how alluring your lovers might have been.

Some things are puzzling about the book.  The detail regarding Dodd's comings and goings and, certainly Martha's, is extensive.  How come there is next to nothing about Mattie, Dodd's wife until the very end when they are back in the United States.  According to the narrative, Martha had a different lover nearly every fortnight, yet there is no discussion at all about how Dodd reacted to his daughter's engagements.  As I have written before here and in other blogs, I have no issue with sexual activity between consenting adults, but this was 1933 and Dodd and his wife are likely to have felt differently.  Yet next to nothing about this. The butler comments, but not Dodd or Mattie. And you'd think from the story that Bill Jr. was not even living in Berlin at the time.

I liked this book, but not as much as apparently many others who have kept it on the best seller list for such a long time.  The author writes well and makes non fiction seem like a story, a credit to his ability to relay the narrative.  Also, the detail in some areas is just something to marvel at.  Hitler's shallowness comes out clearly as does the political infighting among the Nazis.

A park near where Dodd was staying was called, when translated, The Garden of the Beasts. The double meaning is obvious.  Beasts were in control of Germany and there among them was an American family whose patriarch at least was witness to the evolution of how the beasts gained traction.

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