Monday, June 20, 2011

Everyman in Hitler's Berlin

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

This is the tale of William E. Dodd, the U.S. ambassador to Germany in 1933-37, a somewhat naive academic appointed by Roosevelt after the post had been declined by four others. Dodd, Chair of the history department at University of Chicago and author of Woodrow Wilson's biography, desired nothing more than an undemanding position which would allow him time to write his master work "Rise and Fall of the Old South".

The Dodd family, including 2 adult children (Martha, age 24, is a key figure here, partly due to the detailed diaries she kept) was determined to live in Berlin modestly, in deference to Americans suffering during the depression. This included shipping their beat-up Chevrolet to use abroad, at a time when Hitler's men flaunted their power in giant black touring cars.

Hitler's appointment as Chancellor in Jan 1933 was followed immediately by a brutal spasm of state-condoned violence, as storm troopers rampaged, beating, arresting and sometimes murdering tens of thousands of communists, socialists and Jews. Dodd and other diplomats watched these events, imagining that they couldn't continue, that Hitler could not possibly maintain power, and seizing on any sign that he was moderating. We see infatuation with the regime, fruitless efforts to work with it, and either gradual or quick realization of the significance of what was happening.

Eventually it was clear to all those posted in Germany that whatever Hitler said or didn't say about wanting peace, Germany was actively re-militarizing in violation of the Treaty of Versailles.

We have the benefit of hindsight, so it's a fascinating challenge to put oneself in the place of these diplomats. They naturally socialized with high Nazi officials such as Goebbels and Goring. Daughter Martha, always a fun girl, had affairs with the head of the Gestapo and the future head of the KGB simultaneously.

This is an excellent book, a slice of time containing maybe a few too many diplomatic communiques, but compelling all the while.

1 comment:

  1. This story is the least compelling that Larson has tackled. I had high hopes but the story never climaxed or really had an interesting twist or ending. I love Larson and his work but this was not up to par.