Tuesday, June 5, 2012

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

History has proven that for tyrants and evil to prevail, it begins insidiously, while well meaning folks look the other way and tell themselves, that nothing will come of this.  Erik Larson"s newest historical narrative, makes that point in this excellent book, published in 2011, 365 pages supplemented by 83 more pages of sources, acknowledgements and  indices.  This is our June book club selection; I will be anxious to discuss it next week when we meet. 

The Garden of Beasts is part of what is known as the Tiergarten in Berlin, near the ambassador's office and similar to  the Central Park in New York.  It was where people could go and talk privately without being fearful of spies and  devices.  The drama weaves starting in 1933, the early days of the rise of Hitler in Germany and William Dodd has been appointed American ambassador to Germany, some speculate this was a fluke by President Roosevelt known for not paying the best of attention to his advisers.  But Dodd, a bland history professor from Chicago who longs to complete his 4 volume work on The Rise and Fall of the Old South, accepts the appointment and so journeys to Berlin with his wife and  adult  son and daughter.  Margaret Dodd, the daughter, a recent divorcee is a case study in immorality, flash, flirtation and considers the time in Berlin as a grand adventure.  Part of her activities in Berlin cascade her into various involvements and affairs with many men one after another including Rudolf Diels, first chief of the Gestapo and Boris Winogradov the Russian communist who charms and courts her, even wanting her to return to Russia with him. 

Ambassador Dodd is clearly a misfit in the ranks of the diplomats and the ambassador corps which is predominantly home to the idle rich and those who dabble while living lifestyles of the rich and famous.  Dodd is neither and alienates most of the embassy staff upon his arrival with his vow to live only on his salary, his demand for frugality and his dislike for pomp and gatherings.  He is ridiculed behind his back for walking to meetings and driving his old Chevrolet while others lavishly use chauffeurs and limousines.  His inconspicuous manner and modesty, lack of a fortune to support expenditures place him at a big disadvantage, although he never realizes nor acknowledges this.  Dodd is the weird duck in the midst and it is a wonder that he survives a few years but he believes that he is there to do his best serving as Roosevelt agreed, "a lone beacon of American freedom and hope."  Clearly he is no judge of character having spent his career in academia because he does not recognize that he has no support among the rest of the  State Department, the Consul or the politicos.  He is not  a member of what they call themselves, The Pretty Good Club, nor would he ever consider that lifestyle.  I felt sorry for him and often though, "just throw in the towel and go home to Chicago....." However,  Dodd is perceptive enough to see the dangers ahead though no one, believes him.   There is espionage and danger all around and yet Dodd remains above it, relies on his immunity or has determined he is in this for the duration.

There is a tribute to Dodd, Pg. 356...."...history....will record that in a period when the forces of tyranny were mobilizing for the extermination of liberty and democracy everywhere, when a mistaken policy of appeasement was stocking the arsenals of despotism, and when in many high social and some political circles, fascism was a fad and democracy anathema, he stood foursquare for our democratic way of life, fought the good fight and kept the faith, and when death touched him his flag was flying still...." 

We see the rise and interactions and mistrust amongst all the sinister Nazi characters Rohm, Goebbels, Goring, Hitler, Himmler.  There are some fascinating and shivering experiences with all of them.   Pg. 116 describes Diels, the Gestapo chief..."he entered....seeping in like a malevolent fog."   I was fascinated and horrified at the tactics and wondered, how could a people be so blind to the atrocities, something I ponder whenever I read about this era of history.  Bad enough that the Germans ignored it all but the isolationist attitude in the US waxed the way for Hitler to emerge and continue.   

I wondered how we came to select this book through recommendation  of Joan one of our members and then reading the acknowledgements I saw that  Mildred Fish Harnack, a friend  of Margaret's in Berlin was arrested by the Nazi's and executed at Hitler's direction.  She was the only University of Wisconsin (UW) alumna to be guillotined at Hitler's command.  Bill, Joan's spouse is an avidly devoted UW alumni and likely found this great historical read through a UW affiliation.  I am glad he did. 

I give this book a 5***** out of 5 possible.  Great subject, good writing, history and research well done.