by Libby Sternberg
Friends and family will be shocked to learn that I read Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts in hardcover. I own a Kindle, you see, and am editor-in-chief of an ebook company. I'm on the ebook train big-time. But the growth of the ebook industry doesn't mean print books will go away, and Larson's book perfectly illustrates how the rancher (wild ebook lovers) and the farmer (staid print book lovers) can be friends. That is, how print and ebooks can coexist with diehard fans of either format buying from both.
Of course, one of the reasons I bought this in hardcover was price. The hardcover version was the same price as the Kindle version -- leading to a lot of nasty comments from readers on the amazon website, by the way -- and I decided I wanted this nonfiction book as an object, not just as the story it tells.
I would give the book a solid 3.5 out of 5 stars because Larson doesn't really cover a whole lot of new ground or offer new insights into the early days of the Nazi regime. Rather, he tells in an almost novelistic fashion a gripping "babes in the woods" story of a naive college professor, William Dodd, thrust into the role of US Ambassador to Germany in 1933. Dodd and his family find themselves "in the garden of beasts" -- a play on words since the embassy was near the Tiergarten, which is German for garden of animals/beasts. And we all know who the real beasts were at that time.
Which brings me to Dodd's daughter, Martha. In many ways this book is really about her. She was something of a hedonist, flitting from love affair to love affair, not realizing she was being used (among her lovers - the head of the Gestapo and a Soviet spy), at first embracing the new Germany with its shiny Nazi order (what's a few beaten and bruised innocents in the face of such dazzling order and optimism!). She really comes off as a very unattractive character, someone who believed herself a literary and cultural connoisseur but who was probably more of a poseur than anything else (later records revealed what some of her Nazi and Soviet friends really thought of her, and it's devastating). Her later life, summarized at the end of the book, is no more flattering and sadly pathetic.
Meanwhile, back to our pal, the ambassador -- a Woodrow Wilson-loving Progressive, Dodd had this notion that ambassadors should live exemplary egalitarian-looking American lives, forgoing their personal riches (many ambassadors at the time were from wealthy families -- uh, maybe like today, too) and living off their salaries at their posts to demonstrate to foreign peoples how everyone in the USA valued....well, I don't know...simple lives?
As you can imagine, this approach played really well with a regime whose leaders were sociopathic bullies.
Like his daughter, Dodd went to Germany with a lot of sympathy and love for the German people. He'd studied in Leipzig and remembered affectionately his lederhosen-wearing days. (Actually, I don't know if he wore lederhosen, but let's imagine he did.) As soon as he arrived, though, he had to deal with the unsettling issue of Americans being beaten up on the streets when they failed to salute as various SA and other military parades went by. Despite regular occurrences of this sort, though, Dodd refused to issue a travel warning through the State Department, not wanting to upset the Nazis, convinced that he just needed them to feel part of the brotherhood of man, teaching the world to sing...no, wait, that's a Coca-Cola commercial. Anyway, he was timid and remarkably blind to the implications of Nazi actions, even when they occurred right in front of his eyes.
To his credit, the veils were lifted from his eyes eventually, and he spoke out about the dangerous situation in Germany and the Nazi persecution of the Jews. "Eventually" being the speaking tours he did after he left the ambassadorship in the late 1930s.
While he was ambassador, Dodd had to deal with several adversaries, the State Department being one. Having a sister-in-law who worked in the foreign service for many years, I have to say the stories of State Department backstabbing -- which seemed to rise to the level of an Olympic sport in this book -- didn't surprise me. From my reading of other histories, neither did the casual anti-Semitism that permeated the ranks. (Dodd himself suggested to Hitler that perhaps he should handle the Jews the way we did in the US, which was giving them some positions but not letting them dominate a sector. What a guy!)
For me, one of the most ironical moments in the book occurred when Martha Dodd brags about her family's lineage as slave-holding southerners. The totalitarian who hears the story is shocked -- she's proud of the fact her family owned slaves?
While Larson doesn't break a lot of new ground in this book, he does add to a discussion that's been going on for some time now -- how could a cultured society tolerate the rise of a totalitarian regime headed by sociopaths? It's a question worth analyzing over and over again, and those with smug answers--such as the "Nazis = right-wingers" canard I discussed in the previous post -- should be surprised at how easily liberals and even progressives tolerated anti-Semitism and, on occasion, embraced or at least admired the new world order National Socialists offered German citizens.