Sunday, June 30, 2013

In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson

Barnes & Noble

The time is 1933, the place, Berlin, when William E. Dodd becomes America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany in a year that proved to be a turning point in history.

A mild-mannered professor from Chicago, Dodd brings along his wife, son, and flamboyant daughter, Martha. At first Martha is entranced by the parties and pomp, and the handsome young men of the Third Reich with their infectious enthusiasm for restoring Germany to a position of world prominence. Enamored of the “New Germany,” she has one affair after another, including with the suprisingly honorable first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels. 

But as evidence of Jewish persecution mounts, confirmed by chilling first-person testimony, her father telegraphs his concerns to a largely indifferent State Department back home. Dodd watches with alarm as Jews are attacked, the press is censored, and drafts of frightening new laws begin to circulate. As that first year unfolds and the shadows deepen, the Dodds experience days full of excitement, intrigue, romance—and ultimately, horror, when a climactic spasm of violence and murder reveals Hitler’s true character and ruthless ambition.

Suffused with the tense atmosphere of the period, and with unforgettable portraits of the bizarre Göring and the expectedly charming--yet wholly sinister--Goebbels,
In the Garden of Beasts lends a stunning, eyewitness perspective on events as they unfold in real time, revealing an era of surprising nuance and complexity. The result is a dazzling, addictively readable work that speaks volumes about why the world did not recognize the grave threat posed by Hitler until Berlin, and Europe, were awash in blood and terror.

For all of its dehumanization and repugnance, WWII fascinates me.  No matter how much I read, I can't wrap my head around the atrocities committed by the Nazi Party.

I usually read accounts of the war from the early 1940s, so I was interested in this book's focus on the 1930s.  There were so many people -- American, German, and Russian -- that I hadn't heard of before.  At times, it was hard to remember who was who, but Larson does a good job of reminding you who each person is and how each relates back to William or Martha Dodd.

This book focuses on the lives of the Dodds during the nearly five years they spent in Berlin.  Larson doesn't delve into the lives of Dodd's wife and son; instead, he produces an interesting juxtaposition between father and daughter.

William.  Poor, old, boring William.  I don't think descent into war would have changed if someone else had been the Ambassador, but Dodd was certainly not the right person for this position.  He was an introvert who preferred reading and writing to participating in the social niceties required of such a post.  And he certainly didn't have the cojones to stand up to his superiors back in the States, much less those who reported to him in Germany.

His daughter Martha, however, was his complete opposite: flirtatious, ambitious, and the life of the party.  She was power-hungry, selfish, and held no qualms about going from lover to lover & pitting them against each other.

Neither protagonist was very endearing.  Since this is a book about the beginning of the Holocaust, that's not too unexpected.

Erik Larson covers a vast amount of information; wait until you're in a position to concentrate before delving into this non-fiction account.

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