Wednesday, May 23, 2012

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

I spent most of eighth grade learning about the Holocaust. We reverently devoured the words of Anne Frank, a girl to whom we could relate and admire for her tenacity and humor.  We watched Schindler's List. We learned new phrases such as "D-Day" and "Lend-Lease Act". As a culminating experience of the unit, we visited the Holocaust Museum in St. Louis. I remember seeing pictures of emaciated concentration camp prisoners for the first time. Never before had I understood "starving" as anything other than a hyperbolic term used hungrily after a day spent running around outside. Photograph after photograph displayed gaunt figures staring at the camera, grotesque piles of dead prisoners, crematoriums. As with millions of others in my generation, I have since wondered, "How did this happen?"

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.

Currently Reading:
  • Gilded Lives, Fatal Voyage: The Titanic's First Class Passengers and Their World by Hugh Brewster
  • The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can: Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live  Longer by Gretchen Reynolds
  • Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff
Books read in 2012: 49


Jonathan Wilhoit said...

The history of WW2 (and the years surrounding it) fascinates me. Great review.

Also, my history teacher in 10th grade had us watch footage that those original GIs shot when they liberated concentration camps. Unedited, uncensored. Every person ahould be made to watch that, to understand the evil and the horror of what went on so such a thing never happens again.

SarahRTW said...

Overall, a thorough and well-written review. Great job. This definitely sounds like a worthwhile book for people to read. Thanks!

Ryan said...

Do you listen in my MP3 downloads? I listened to an interview with the author of this book the other day while I was running. I totally forgot where i was going and got lost all because the Dodd story was so engrossing. Now I have to read the book!