A few years ago I discovered Erik Larson through his amazing book Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America...moreA few years ago I discovered Erik Larson through his amazing book Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. That book expertly combined the narrative of the 1893 Columbian Exposition with a disturbing tale of a serial killer on the loose. What I started reading with some interest became a page-turner, one I literally couldn't put down until I had finished reading it.
Larson uses that same method in his latest book, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin. Now, I'm something of a Teutonophile anyway. I lived in Germany for all of 1993 and 1994, and then went back to visit in 2008. I know Germany and Germans, and love the country. I'm also a history teacher, and while World War II isn't my specialty, I already know a lot about it. So I was skeptical about reading a book that I thought would be a simple retread of events I already knew about.
Thankfully, Larson uses a very narrow focus here, looking at only two years: 1933-1934. He's telling two different stories, as he did with Devil in the White City, but they're even more tightly woven here. The "American Family" of the subtitle is the Dodd family, chosen by FDR (and a committee) as our ambassador to Hitler's New Germany. William Dodd has been a professor in Chicago, but he's from Virginia, and his great love is writing about the Old South. He's chosen as an ambassador partially because he was a student in Germany, and was fluent in the German language, customs, etc.. He thought he knew what FDR expected of him, and was confident he could both express American interests there, and bring the spiraling extravagances of the embassy under control.
His wife and adult son and daughter accompany him to Berlin. The wife and son are almost invisible in the story, but Dodd's daughter Martha is...not. She partially comes with the family to escape an ill-fated marriage, even though technically she's still married. Martha...sows some wild oats in Berlin. Berlin in the 1920s and early 30s was known for its decadence, and Martha is as liberated in every way as it gets. I was actually taken aback by how many suitors she had in a relatively short time, which punctures our own ideas of the world our grandparents lived in. Martha loves this freedom, and even loves the Nazis...at first.
The other story being told of course is exactly how Adolf Hitler and his lieutenants went from being the victorious political party to being the absolute rulers of Germany. This part of Germany's history is often rushed through and misunderstood, but Larson takes the time to explain the different groups roiling under the swastika. The Gestapo, the SS, the SA, the regular army...all competing to see who could be the most brutal. The major players of the Third Reich--not just Hitler, but also Himmler, Goebbels, and Goering, all make appearances in Garden of Beasts, and through Dodd's encounters with them, we see more of their personalities, their strengths and weaknesses than we get from traditional history books.
Larson makes good use of letters, diaries, newspaper articles, and other contemporary accounts to tell this story. It's difficult to remember, but many people (Americans included) approved of what the Nazis were doing--they were bringing order to chaos, pulling Germany out of the Great Depression, and had policies that were only a shade removed from what the United States and other western countries were doing. Watching William and Martha Dodd uncover the truth of the Nazi regime mirrors the process that the world would also go through. For the Dodds, that recognition happens just before the Night of Long Knives; for the rest of the United States, it wouldn't happen until some time later.
One thing that bothered me about the book is that Larson makes frequent reference to extraordinary photos, or funny ones, or tragic ones that changed the narrative--and then doesn't include them. There's generally one photograph at the beginning of each new part of the book, but it's not always the same ones that he's referencing within the chapter. I certainly don't expect or require pictures in my books, but when Larson makes such a big deal out of it...show me the picture! A minor annoyance, but still.
This was a fast read for me, and an enjoyable one, in a way. It's also disturbing, with flashes of violence, and a despair that comes when you're reading a book where you're sure most of the of the characters you're meeting are doomed. Larson doesn't pull punches, but his retelling of history isn't bleak or depressing, either. If you're interested in the time period, and want more insight into how Hitler was able to get so far with his agenda, check out In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin.
An astounding history of the Great Migration--Wilkerson uses three different Africa American families who move from the South to California, New York,...moreAn astounding history of the Great Migration--Wilkerson uses three different Africa American families who move from the South to California, New York, and Chicago in the early part of the 20th Century, and then follows them in their lives outside the South. An impressive undertaking--I loved how Wilkerson inserts herself and her experiences in the lives of these men and women as she goes. A wonderful way to do history. (less)