Thursday, November 6, 2014

Book Review: In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson (2011)

Cover of In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson, 2011.

Erik Larson, author of The Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts.
Berlin. The name of the city conjures up numerous visions-the decadent nightlife of the Weimar Republic, immortalized in Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, the bombed-out ruins of Hitler’s bunker, the drab gray concrete of communist East Berlin and the infamous Berlin Wall. Erik Larson’s excellent 2011 book In the Garden of Beasts gives us a riveting account of Berlin at the very start of Hitler’s rule. The main character of In the Garden of Beasts is William E. Dodd, the ambassador of the United States to Germany from 1933-1937. 

Dodd was an odd choice for ambassador, as he was a history professor at the University of Chicago. He had become a good friend of Woodrow Wilson’s during Wilson’s successful run for President in 1912, and he later wrote a biography of Wilson. Dodd was not well suited to the job of ambassador. He didn’t enjoy the social obligations that were a large part of being an ambassador, and he doesn’t seem to have gotten along well with anyone on his staff. Because he wasn’t independently wealthy, Dodd didn’t fit in with the other U.S. diplomats, and many of his colleagues undermined him in their letters and reports. 

When Dodd arrived in Germany in July of 1933, Hitler was Chancellor, but he was not yet the all-powerful dictator he would later become. At that time Paul von Hindenburg, the elderly President of Germany, still had the power and authority to remove Hitler as Chancellor and declare martial law. But it was obvious to Dodd and other foreign observers that the Nazis were the dominant faction in Germany. 

In the beginning of his service in Berlin, Dodd did not see the danger that the Nazis represented, and like many other observers thought that either Hitler’s government would quickly collapse, or that the Nazis would eventually moderate their extreme views. Obviously, as we know all too well, neither of those things happened.

In the Garden of Beasts focuses on Dodd’s changing attitude as he sees more of the brutality of the Nazis’ rule, and he gradually understands that Hitler is not a man who can be dealt with rationally. The book also deals with Dodd’s family, who accompanied him to Germany. Specifically, it focuses on his spirited daughter Martha, who was 24 when the Dodds arrived in Berlin. Martha was quickly entranced by the Nazis, as she only saw what she interpreted as good things, like a renewed sense of national pride in Germany. Martha attracted many suitors, and she had a close relationship with Rudolf Diels, who was then the head of the Gestapo. While she was in Berlin, Martha also fell in love with Boris Winogradov, a Russian who was a member of the NKVD, the precursor to the KGB. Martha only needed to sleep with a member of Stasi, the brutal East German secret police, to complete her trifecta of notorious authoritarian secret police forces. 

The climax of In the Garden of Beasts is Hitler’s June 1934 purge of the SA, the brown-shirted “Storm Troopers” led by Ernst Röhm, who had been a long-time ally of Hitler’s. Röhm’s brown shirts tended to be a rowdy bunch who were likely to randomly beat up American citizens for not giving the Hitler salute during parades. (This behavior, and the German police’s reluctance to punish the SA members, led to many headaches for Ambassador Dodd.) Hitler was facing pressure from President Hindenburg to reign in the excesses of the SA, or else Hindenburg would strip Hitler of his title and declare martial law. Röhm was at the same time pressuring Hitler to let him take control of the German army. Hitler’s purge of the SA, known as the “Night of the Long Knives,” led to the murder of many key SA leaders, including Röhm. The official Nazi story was that Röhm was trying to overthrow Hitler, which was untrue. Hitler claimed that the purge was necessary to protect Germany from traitors. In purging the SA, Hitler satisfied Hindenburg, and at the same time did away with a key rival within his own party. When Hindenburg died in August of 1934, Hitler persuaded his cabinet to pass a law merging the offices of President and Chancellor, and thus when Hindenburg died, the last real threat to Hitler’s power died too. Hitler and the Nazi party now had total control of Germany. 

Larson is able to craft a non-fiction book that also has a fast-paced narrative, which is a difficult feat to pull off. He creates vivid portraits of the many fascinating and bizarre characters that populated the early days of the Third Reich. I have only two criticisms of In the Garden of Beasts. One is that, like Larson’s previous book The Devil in the White City, In the Garden of Beasts doesn’t have a separate picture section. Larson paints such great portraits of Berlin and the people who inhabited the city at the time that I wanted to see more pictures of what these people looked like. My other criticism is that Larson skates over the fact that Martha Dodd was a spy for the Soviet Union after she returned to the United States in 1937. She and her second husband Alfred Stern were indicted on charges of espionage in 1957, and they fled the United States and never returned. Larson does not say that Dodd was indicted on charges of espionage; he merely writes “as pressure from federal authorities increased, they moved again…” (In the Garden of Beasts, p.361) But that omission doesn’t detract from the many pleasures that In the Garden of Beasts provides the reader. I learned a lot more about a fascinating time in world history, a brief window in which Adolf Hitler might easily have been removed from power, which would have changed much of the history of the 20th century. 

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