I don't mean how did it happen militarily or geopolitically. Those contexts, we learn in school. I suppose I mean viscerally: what did it mean to be in Germany in the moments when collective consciousness began to realize that Hitler was more than an overzealous man attempting to restore Germany to glory? What did Berlin look like, smell like, feel like as everything started to change? Who fought it from the beginning? Who supported Hitler at first and then tried to back out, swimming against the current in vain? How come Hitler's actions did not incite more outrage from his citizens? Was it indifference? A misjudgment of the situation? Or, as I have always suspected, abject terror?
Erik Larson attempts to answer these questions is his book In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin. This work of narrative nonfiction follows the Dodd family. William Dodd is chairman of the history department at the University of Chicago. Larson describes Dodd as a Jeffersonian democrat who loves spending his leisure time at his small farm in Round Hill, Virginia and who is tirelessly working on a four-volume series of early southern history called The Rise and Fall of the Old South. He finds that his efforts to work on this tome are constantly thwarted by other menial, academic duties. Frustrated, he requests to become a diplomat. Apparently, it is that easy. Lickity-split, Dodd and his family are on their way to 1933 Berlin, where presumably Dodd will now have plenty of time to devote to antebellum history.
With Dodd are his wife Martha, and his two grown children, Bill and Martha. However, the story mainly focuses on William and daughter Martha, as well as the people they encounter. Young Martha uses her father's post as an opportunity to reinvent herself while relieving herself of an ill-planned and short-lived marriage. Soon, she is gallivanting with Nazi soldiers, Russian diplomats, and Jewish writers and artists. William Dodd dedicates himself to honorably representing the United States, although everyone pretty much ignores him; he is derided by officials both German and American.
Larson masterfully illustrates the subtle, incremental changes that occur in Germany in 1933 and 1934. He shows a wide spectrum of beliefs and behavior, from those who leave Germany as quickly as possible, to those who speak out against Hitler and demand their voices heard, to those who convince themselves until too late that the Nazis are a necessary inconvenience with a habit of roughhousing rather over-exuberantly. Most importantly, he shies away from hero or villain portrayals of the everyday people about whom he writes. He shows each person in all of their stark, messy humanity. Larson is a meticulous researcher and a divine storyteller.
The people in this story are fascinating and compelling. I have not yet encountered another book that approaches World War II in quite this way. I strongly recommend this book.
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