Friday, July 26, 2013

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

I never made it through Devil in the White City so didn't have high hopes for this one.  Still since the book takes place in pre WWII Germany I figured I'd give it a try.  I've always been fascinated with that time frame, specifically Germany and wondered how Hitler was allowed to rise to power and while this book stops in 1937, it does help explain it.

This is a non-fiction book but reads like fiction.  Larson weaves the story based largely on accounts of the people who lived during this time - his main sources seemingly their personal diaries.  William Dodd is a history professor at the University of Chicago when he is offered the position of US ambassador to Germany in 1933.  He is an unlikely choice for many reasons and initially reluctant to go, as he sees the tension building in Germany with Hitler gaining power.  At the time Hitler is the Chancellor of Germany and there is still a President - Hindenburg - in power.  However, Hindenburg is elderly and ill, and is recuperating for much of the Hitler's early rise.  Jewish leaders and rabbis in the US had already received accounts of discrimination against the Jews, and some Jews were emigrating from Germany even in the early 1930s.

Despite all the tension, and hoping for an easy pre-retirement to work on his book Dodd decides to accept the offer.  He moves to Berlin with his wife, Mattie, and two grown children - Bill and Martha.  One funny thing about this book is that Dodd's wife is hardly ever mentioned.  I guess she was for the most part busy playing the non-interfering role of an ambassador's wife.  She plans dinner parties and occasionally they travel together but for the most part the book focuses on Dodd and Martha's experiences in Berlin.  Martha was a young recent divorcee and certainly enjoyed a fresh start in a new city.  While she knew the behavior that was expected of an ambassador's daughter, she ignored the rules and lived life on her own terms.  At first she sided with the Nazis being a young idealist not seeming to understand what all the fuss was about.  She was seduced by their uniforms and in some cases the men in the higher ranks.  She played the international field - along with the Germans, she also had a long lasting relationship with a young married Soviet diplomat and others.  While the State Department was certainly aware of her actions no one ever managed to rein her in.  I think both sides were hoping to gain information through her relationships.

The surprising part of this account to me was what was portrayed as the "Jewish problem" in the book.  Of course we all know the gruesome details of the Holocaust, but what surprised me was how long the Americans allowed the Germans to discriminate against the Jews as the US was also anti-Semitic.  Obviously the US did not go to the extremes that the Nazis eventually did, but Washington certainly was dominated by WASPs at the time, and Jews were not welcome in most circles.  During Dodd's first meeting with Hitler Dodd sympathizes with Hitler on the Jewish problem, but quickly learned that the problem was being dealt with in very different ways on opposite sides of the Atlantic.  To his credit, Dodd does his best to keep the State Department and FDR apprised of developments within Germany hoping to spur a US reaction, but much of it falls upon deaf ears for a variety of reasons.

I'm not sure that I can say that I enjoyed the book, given all I learned, but I do enjoy learning by reading.  Two different things.  Again, this read like a fictional work, and while I glossed over Martha's parts in the book, her experiences definitely made this book that much more real and enjoyable to me. There were times when I read of precursors to Hitler's rise to absolute power that I wanted to cry and needed to throw the book down and walk away, but I appreciate the details that were included in the hopes that they are not repeated.

About 6 months ago my 9 year old daughter started hearing bits and pieces about the Holocaust and ordered the Diary of Anne Frank through Scholastic Books.  I paid for it, but advised her that she should probably read it with us.  At the same time, her siblings are way too young to be having this read aloud to them.  I think I need to reread it, and then let her read it.  At the end of each night she could mark how far she got, so I can keep up with where she is and answer any questions she may have along the way.

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