Dan Walker's Reviews > In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson
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's review
Dec 29, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: history
Recommended to Dan by: Bryon Palmer
Read from December 26 to 29, 2011 — I own a copy , read count: 1

This was a very fascinating book that I could barely put down. Erik Larson knows a good story when he sees one. This is the first book of his that I have read, but it won't be the last.

I knew very little about Hitler's startling rise to absolute power, and this book is an excellent starting point. It is viewed primarily through the eyes of the new American ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, and his daughter Martha. This is a fresh, first-hand account of that troubling part of world history.

What is startling is to learn just how naive, even ambivalent, most people were about the Nazis. It took Martha months to finally acknowledge that the regime was truly evil, even though she was living at the very center of events in Berlin. Much of Hitler's successful rise to political leadership was apparently enabled by the SA "Stormtroopers," who bullied anyone who got in his way. But these thugs set Hitler up for much embarrassment in the international community, as evidenced by how hard the Nazis worked to keep the true stories of SA brutality out of the international press. Equally fascinating, and easily missed in the book if you do not pay attention (page 252), is how easily Hitler sold these supporters to buy absolute power.

However, this is a story about that time period, and not a history book. And what this book has that history textbooks generally skip is sex, and lots of it. Men loved Martha, and she loved them. For example, authors Carl Sandburg and Thomas Wolfe are both favorite sons of WNC, where I live. But I was startled to learn that both men had affairs with Martha! Interestingly, that fact gets little publicity around here! But Sandburg and Wolfe get little play in the long list of admirers and lovers that Martha had, which ranged from foreign diplomats to the highest levels of the Nazi party.

And since this is a story, and not a history book, I'm not sure that it totally answers the question that Mr. Larson raises at the very beginning: there was a time when, apparently, Hitler could have been stopped. Why wasn't he? The answer is at least partly because Hitler was so willing to use brutal force, even against old friends. But there must be more reasons than just this.

Mr. Larson also raises the question as to why FDR's administration didn't speak out more boldly in defense of freedom. Again, this question isn't really answered. Apparently it was because FDR hoped that Hitler would pay off German bonds held by American citizens. But this was a false hope - Ambassador Dodd figured this out fairly early on. So despite the fact that Dodd and consul general Messersmith before him clearly understood the Nazis, FDR and the State Department were totally clueless, even criminally inept. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain has been heaped with scorn for attempting to appease Hitler. But the (ignored) historical fact is that Mr. Chamberlain has to stand in a pretty long line behind those who tried it first.

And parenthetically, don't give me any excuses that it was really the doltish American people that held FDR back. We can hardly claim that the President is the leader of the free world if he can't even take a stand against one of the most evil men in history.

But not only does Mr. Larson not answer the question as to why FDR didn't take a stronger stance, he contradicts himself at the end of the book by saying that neither Dodd nor the ambassador that followed him could have done much. This is a strange conclusion, especially since Larson presents clear evidence that the Nazis cared mightily about their international image, and the US had them cornered more than once. But instead of just letting events take their course, the US actually HELPED the Nazis avoid international embarrassment by surpressing as much information as possible. Like I said, criminally inept.

Another fascinating subplot was learning about the bureaucracy's hold on power. International relations for the US were essentially run by a small group of insiders, often for their own benefit. They were usually independently wealthy, came from the same cities, and graduated from the same universities. For them, international diplomacy was a great way to see the world and enjoy the pleasures and perquisites of power, while doing very little to earn them. Naively, Dodd attempted to reform this group. He failed. Helps one understand just how useless the far-larger bureaucracies of government today really are.

One interesting aspect of Mr. Larson's writing style is his use of foreshadowing. He frequently announces in advance the ultimate fate of characters he has just introduced in the book. You would think this would be a spoiler, but I found it actually heightened the tension, because now I was wondering about how fate fell upon them.

We all know that the Nazis hated Jews. However, my personal theory is that in some ways the Jews were just a tool. Larson references the poor state of the German economy, but mercifully doesn't resurrect the claim that Hitler rejuvenated it. But you also learn about the extremely extravagant lifestyles adopted by the Nazis (and the SA), as well as the ramped-up spending on the military. This kind of consumption is impossible without either a booming economy or large inflows of foreign financing, and preferably both. I don't believe either source was available to the Nazis. So they had to steal the money. The Jews were hated AND apparently wealthy (the Dodds rented a magnificent mansion from one). My theory is that the Jews were the source of much of the money used to finance the Nazi regime. And that was another strike against the German economy. Killing wealthy and productive members of your own economy doesn't strengthen it. I'm suspicious that Hitler started WWII at least partly because he needed to steal even more money to keep the Nazis afloat.

A suggestion for future editions: include a table of prominent Nazi and German leaders. I recognized most of their names, but a table showing what their respective duties in the German government were and listing each one's power base would have helped my understanding immensely. Incidentally, a power base was critical for surviving within the cruel and traitorous Nazi regime. One of Martha's boyfriends, an ostensibly high-ranking member, fled more than once for his life.

So I've been very critical and wordy, but I think that that demonstrates how good the book was. It can certainly be read for the simple enjoyment of a good story, but for me the knowledge gained triggered strong reactions. I hope it does for you too.

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