Thursday, August 25, 2011

Book Club: In the Garden of Beasts

Our most recent read for our neighborhood book club was Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts. The book is set in 1933 when William Dodd, a scholar, becomes America's first ambassador to Hitler's Germany. Larson chronicles the year that becomes a turning point in history -- Hitler is the newly appointed chancellor and few in Germany believe his government will endure.

I had picked up the book at Costco and skimmed through it for research purposes before our group selected it. What better inspiration for fictional antagonists than real-life monsters? I did begin reading the book more thoroughly but I was sidelined by family events, so I assessed it based on my cursory perusal.

From my personal perspective:  In follow-up to Connie Willis' To Say Nothing of the Dog, I read her Hugo Award winning Blackout/All Clear pair of books set in World War II London during The Blitz. The  Oxford historians in Willis' books visit London during The War to conduct research, already aware of what was bombed when and the end result of the conflict. The "contemps" (contemporaries) of course know none of this and live from day-to-day just as we do in our own lives. Reading Larson's book was similar. He had access to letters and journals written in 1933 by people living in the moment with no knowledge of what was to come. Which of course creates tension for the reader. Knowing the Titanic was sunk only makes you that more anxious to learn the outcome of the characters (real or fictional).

So -- knowing the result of Hitler's rise to power with the henchmen who rode his coattails -- it was remarkable to learn that so many people thought that Germany was undergoing a thrilling rebirth and revival of spirit. The German people turned their heads and chose not to see or comprehend what was really happening. The stories of brutality and repression were "exaggerated" or "isolated incidents." The foreign press was blamed for misrepresenting Germany. If an American visitor was beaten for not giving the "Hitler salute" it was the result of a misunderstanding. The official U. S. government stance at the time was the German oppression of certain citizens was a domestic matter and none of our business.

We discussed how this could come about in Germany and whether it could it occur here. The U.S. and Germany of the period had such different psyches. Ours was one of rugged individualism and Manifest Destiny. The Germans had a much smaller, densely settled nation that was culturally and socially regimented. Germany had also taken quite a beating following World War I and it was probably no wonder that the people tightly grasped at indications of recovery and prosperity while ignoring the negative. We hoped our system of checks and balances would prevent any one branch from dominating our own government (read Fletcher Knebel's Seven Days in May for a thriller about an attempted U.S. military coup).

What surprised us was the animosity between the members of Hitler's inner circle. I have to admit, we are all of an age when history was taught as a series of dates and events. We've had to learn "the good stuff" outside of school. This book delivers on the juicy, insider revelations. Hitler's mesmerizing pale blue eyes. Goebels' chilling "smile." Goring's costume of the hour. And not a one of the inner circle was a tall, handsome, blond Aryan. Go figure.

Our second surprise was Martha Dodd's loose morals. The petite, blue-eyed blonde socialized with the Nazi elite, had numerous affairs, left behind a secret marriage in the States, and was the object of a potential match for Hitler. Why she wasn't considered a liability we did not comprehend. We interpreted her rock star lifestyle to be a danger not only to herself but the Amercian diplomatic mission in Germany. How did her staid parents let her carry on in such a manner?

The saddest part of the tale was Dodd's failure to complete his book on the American Civil War. His life's goal and ambition was never realized. The ambassadorship in Germany proved to be anything but a quiet and easy assignment that would allow him to work on his book. In addition, we were repelled by the good-old-boy culture of the State Department where someone as intelligent and conscientious as Dodd was criticized.

I have to say that -- the more things change the more they stay the same. In 1933 the world was struggling with the Great Depression and out-of-reach economic recovery. The immigration issue of the day was the influx of Jewish refugees competing for jobs with Americans. Anti-Semitism was rampant and openly displayed.

Most of all, we were amazed by the volume of research conducted by Larson. His end notes were often as fascinating as the narrative. Because of or in spite of the level of detail he provided, the book remained a page turner and never bogged down. Granted, most of us were fascinated by Martha's antics. But the insider observations of history's most notorious villains was fascinating given our 20/20 hindsight.

Definitely not a "light" read given the subject matter and knowledge of what followed. But  an interesting perspective on a pivotal year in world history!

Our next book is Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin. I read this one ten years ago but I am again loving Atwood's descriptive writing.

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