In the Garden of Beasts

Looking back on history, it is almost impossible not to wonder what was the international community thinking not doing more early on to stop the Nazis from military build up, persecution of their own people or expanding in other countries. I’ve read two books recently that help explain this. Here’s the first one.

Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts follows the American Ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, and his family as they immerse themselves into life and society in 1933 Berlin. Hitler has recently become chancellor, and America is concerned with the repayments of government and bank held loans that were initially given in the 1920s to help rebuild Europe. Dodd’s task as assigned to him by President Roosevelt, and the Secretary of State is to ensure these loans will get repaid in full.

In the Garden of Beasts

Dodd is set up to fail as no one understands, or maybe won’t accept, the true nature or plans the Nazis at this point, or rather they are choosing to believe their intelligence is wrong, as no one would ever plan to break a treaty quite like this, or go to such great lengths to punish select groups of citizens.

The Nazis are not, however the only issue facing Dodd and the American plans for peace and financial repayment. Dodd brought his family, including two grown children with him. His son was not tied down to a job, and his daughter, in the midst of a divorce catching attention in the States, saw the opportunity for adventure and family time.

This book is not about the rise of Nazis Germany, but how idealistic, optimistic people were hopeful of inaccurate rumors, and were slowly turned to see past the show put on foreigners, and brought face to face with the reality around them.

Dodd’s daughter Martha, smart, funny, and true stereotype of the 1920’s American woman, in her mid 20s, is immediately welcomed into a society of artists, writers, journalists, and intellectuals, as if she were leaping into the Paris of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Another way to look at this group: Nazi officials, Soviet officers, Jews, Czechs, Brits and Americans. It is her story that is the center of this book. How better can you show the changing view of the world and Germans themselves, than through the eyes of a young, naïve women, determined to see the best in everyone and prove those at home wrong.

“There began to appear before my romantic eyes... a vast and complicated network of espionage, terror, sadism and hate, from which no one, official or private, could escape.” ~Erik Larson, In the Garden of Beasts (from Martha  Dodd’s personal writings)

While Martha’s story, and the changing experience of the whole family living in Berlin during this constantly changing and shifting time, is fascinating, I got much more out of the book. The greatest lesson was how much textbooks got history wrong, or haven’t (okay its been awhile, maybe didn’t) give the whole truth of what Western powers knew in terms of Germany’s intent and plans. After some of the books I’ve read recently, I have a better understanding of what they knew. So the question is really were they just reluctant to believe it, or did they really think they could diplomatically solve these major world problems without another war?

Why does the topic of the Nazis fascinate us so much? Phillip Kerr tries to explain this in his review of In the Garden of Beasts in the Washington Post:

“With the Nazis you have a proper villain: Adolf Hitler. You have some heinous crimes, and here you can take your pick: the Holocaust, waging aggressive war, etc. You have a story arc that even the dumbest studio exec can understand, with a beginning, a middle and an end, and gosh, they’re even in that order. You have some unlikely hero figures: Churchill and Roosevelt, though not, I think, de Gaulle. And, best of all, at the end of the story, the villain is completely destroyed. Good triumphs over evil in a series of epic battles that Tolkien might have imagined. Victory is total. Everyone — even the long-suffering population of Germany — is glad. Ding-dong! The witch is dead.”

Yes – this is why this time period makes for great story telling. Yet, there is more to the obsession that seems to refuse to go away. Richard J. Evans wrote in the Guardian in February that it comes down to some very basic reasons:

  1. “The Third Reich represents racism’s most extreme form: in Nazi Germany everything came down to race.” Everything came down to race and ancestry. Marriages voided, art banned, books burned because of race.
  2. “…the Nazis came to power in a modern European society, a society of great cities, classic buildings, bustling urban streets; economically advanced, technologically sophisticated and culturally literate, the land of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, of Richard Strauss, of Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht, of Goethe and Schiller…”
  3. The trials were quickly forgotten, and people moved on with their lives, in nearly every part of the world, especially in Germany. But in the 1960s and 1970s documents became available, research was happening. By the 1990s those who had been educated and entered professions during Nazi rule were retiring and new young professionals taking their place – and these people had nothing to hide, like their predecessors.

It took nearly 40 years to begin to unravel the involvement of ordinary people, diplomats and general army in the Holocaust. As more research comes out, it becomes harder to understand how men like Chamberlain and Roosevelt would have allowed Hitler as length on his rope as they did.

In the Garden of Beasts gives you the overwhelming sense that no one believed they would truly follow through on much of their rumored or broadcast intent. Given that much of the world was also a little gun shy with the memory of the Great War, and the debt from it, still looming large in the collective memory, certainly the best option was to avoid another all out war, that no one (except Germany) was really prepared for.

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