Thursday, September 20, 2012

Lost in Bookland

In the Garden of BeastsPardon my recent absence. Along with trying to enjoy the last gasp of summer, I’ve been trying to balance my political readings with a fantastic book, In the Garden of Beasts, that just completely grabbed me. I finished it today, and here is my Shelfari review. I gave it five stars and I “favorited” it, so that should tell you how much I liked it!

"What I did not realize as I ventured into those dark days of Hitler's rule was how much the darkness would infiltrate my own soul."

~~ Erik Larson

I've enjoyed Larson's books since I read The Devil in the White City several years ago (a book that prompted me to buy about five more on the 1893 Chicago World's Fair), and this book is no exception to his unique ability to tell a true story in a narrative style.

I don't need to buy a lot of books about Nazi Germany this time around. I read dozens of books about it in high school and college, and even studied it a bit from the unique perspective of a student of the German language. This book, however, provides the viewpoint of the American ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, during the early years of Hitler's rise to power, as well as that of his wife and two adult children, Bill and Martha.

It's hard to describe the personal touch and perspective that Larson is able to provide using diaries, letters, and official papers. He is able to bring the city of Berlin to life in a vibrant yet poignant way. Larson traces the pathway of the Dodd family from the college professor's surprising appointment as ambassador, to Martha's initial infatuation with the city and its beautiful and industrious blonde denizens, to the family's eventual dismay and disgust at the encroaching brutality in the city and country.

This book left me with profound sadness and a deep sense of unease. A country with a proud history and heritage was hijacked by madmen; the insidious loss of freedoms, rights, and basic human decency was frightening to encounter, even in the pages of a book. The clampdown was incremental yet progressive, and it seems that many people were able to tolerate such abuses of freedom in the hopes that they would eventually ease.

Others were not so tolerant, and sensing the violence that was brewing, fled the country. Scientists, artists, writers, dissidents...both Jewish and non-Jewish. Those who were left saw their words censored, or censored themselves in order to survive. People were unable to speak freely for the fear that a servant or neighbor would turn them in; paranoia was rampant, and the early optimism of Hitler's unification of Germany turned to fear and loathing.

Ambassador Dodd saw early on that Hitler was not what he seemed on the surface. He had no interest in peace, and was in fact ramping up the military at a rate obviously designed for warfare. Dodd tried to warn President Roosevelt and the State Department, and tried to break the U.S. out of its isolationist mindset. After four years as Ambassador, he was replaced, and spent several years traveling and giving lectures about the dangers of a militarized Germany with a madman at the helm. Of course, he was eventually proven right, although I'm sure it didn't give him much satisfaction to see Germany plunge Europe and eventually much of the rest of the world into war.

This was a disturbing book in many ways. To see the lives of ordinary people, whether citizens or diplomats, torn apart by ruthless leaders and bloodthirsty tyrants was almost unbearably sad for me. Larson was able to bring a personal aspect to a 70 year old story and to make these people live and breathe again. The almost too easy loss of freedoms still resonates today, and can and should be read as a cautionary tale.

Recommended very highly.