Friday, September 9, 2011

Dispatch From The Field: Joe Weighs In On Larson's Latest

Erik Larson is back. The author of Thunderstruck and Devil In The White City is back, this time, in pre-World War II Germany. William E. Dodd was appointed American Ambassador to Germany  in 1933. He was a University of Chicago professor, not a rich man, not a showy man. He went to Berlin with a pledge of living within his means, to exemplify to the world that the Depression affecting the United States, was affecting all of its citizens. His thinking that living beyond one's means was obscene, and somewhat of an affront to the common American. Unfortunately for Dodd, he was appointed to Berlin just as the Nazi Party was truly coming into their own, with Hitler beginning to consolidate power and turn his country toward war. Dodd entered a corps of embassy officials, generally independently wealthy and not afraid to spend far beyond their meager salaries to throw lavish parties.

The story generally follows two people: Ambassador Dodd in his quest to convince the American government that Hitler and his cronies are a force to deal with now, and if in so doing, the world might be saved much suffering; and his daughter, the beautiful and free-spirited Martha. She is in her 20's, and is fond of parties and men. Although technically married in the United States, she does not allow that to stop her from dating a number of men in Berlin, including Rudolf Diels, the head of the Gestapo in Berlin, and Boris Winogradov, a member of the Soviet Union's embassy to Berlin. These two men would excite, frighten and change Martha's life for good. And the effects of her seeing them would be felt all the way to Washington.

Erik Larson does a great job of setting up the seemingly mundane, yet underlying sinister feel of Berlin in 1933. The title of the book refers to the Tiergarten, Berlin's huge and beautiful park right in the center of the city. This is where Berliners went to stroll and take in fresh air, where behind-the-scenes diplomatic deals could be brokered without fear of Nazi wire-tapping, and where high-ranking Nazi officials could be seen taking their horses for early morning strolls. It was here one could forget most easily the sudden, yet somehow hard-to-pinpoint changes taking place in Germany. The closing of Jewish shops, the Hitler-greeting, a general attitude changing.

Through the eyes of his American subjects, Larson removes the hindsight with which we invariably view this period of history. The United States of America was at that time very isolationist, not wanting to get involved with a sovereign country's internal affairs. Its people were dealing with their own internal woes, namely the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. The last thing a president wanted to do was to involve the U.S. in a war. So, the official American position was that the Nazis were an internal German issue, and since they were their rightful government, we would deal with them, working for a lasting peace. This often frustrated Ambassador Dodd, who, by working directly with the Nazi leadership was often frightened at their lack of humanity, their childish disregard for the normal way of doing things, and their refusal to see things in any other way than their own. Premonitions that would ring true very soon.

In The Garden of the Beasts is a very interesting and quick read. I was immersed in the Berlin of the early 1930's through Larson's flowing prose. He moves his story along with almost a soap opera's pacing. He provides a unique view of a topic that really doesn't get old, and still shines light on the goings-on of our own time.


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