Monday, September 30, 2013

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

This strong narrative documents the career of William Dodd, a historian by vocation in the role of the American Ambassador to Nazi Germany in the beginning of Hitler's rise in the 1930's.  It also follows the promiscuous behavior of his daughter, Martha as she is first lured by the seductive nature of the nationalistic momentum of the German people following their leader and then romantically linked to a Soviet spy.

Dodd is given a mandate directly from President Roosevelt to represent the values of the USA in stark contrast to what was happening in Germany.  The lengthy reports being submitted by the Consul General about the violent attacks on Jews become politically sensitive because the USA does not want to interrupt domestic issues.  What makes this a very interesting read is that Dodd himself and his daughter have genteel antisemitic tendencies and initially can identify with Germany's irritation of their "Jewish problem".  What unfolds in this narrative is, however, Dodd's evolution starting out as a neutral diplomat and turning into a tough social critic of Germany, rejecting Nazi terror and brutality.

The title is a double entendre because it refers to the section of Berlin in which houses the Zoo and where the Ambassador lives and where much of his political activities occur.  Moreover, it reveals the brutal nature of the Nazis as beasts.  The reader is introduced to the cast of brutal characters: Hermann Goering, Josef Goebels, Heinrich Himmler and Hitler himself.  In Dodd"s only meeting with Hitler, he experiences Hitler's flash temper with his piercing stare.  As time goes on, Dodd becomes more and more revolted and repulsed by the violent nature of the regime.

One gets a glimpse of harsh American politics through the developing opposition to him as Ambassador because he refuses to temper the truth about Nazism.  His own antisemitism wanes as a result of his constant witnessing of innocent people being beaten.  At first seeing Jews being beaten, his (and his daughter's) immediate reaction supposes justification and reason.  When an American is beaten, however, by mistake, the Ambassador must lodge a complaint.  These events go unreported back home in the USA.  Dodd eventually is eased out of his position because of his refusal of doctoring and tempering the truth.

Dodd goes down in history as an honest reflection of American values of justice and seeking the truth. His daughter, however, is more embarrassing than a reflection of American values.  She is seen as being seduced by Nazi men and then by a Soviet.   One of her first loves is the first commander of the Gestapo, Rudolph Diels.  Diels comes off human and actually is out maneuvered by Himmler who takes over as Gestapo chief. She enjoys the wild hedonism of the Nazis and falls in love with a Soviet diplomat who is a spy.   Nevertheless, she too, transforms into a critic of the Nazi regime.  The brutality is too much to stomach.

The book ends at the beginning of the end for European Jewry and thus is a heartbreaking read.

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