Before the Monsters Declared Their True Nature

Near the end of Erik Larson’s wonderful In the Garden of Beasts, William Dodd, then ambassador to Nazi Germany, composes an official memo to the State Department regarding Hitlers recent spate of violence.

Nothing more repulsive than to watch the country of Goethe and Beethoven revert to the barbarism of Stuart England and Bourbon France.

Afterwards, he sat down to write in his personal opus – a magisterial history of the Confederate South, “losing himself in another, more chivalrous age.”

The irony of these statements is brutal.  The American ambassador, disturbed by Hitler’s brutality, pining for a more genteel age… One where a significant proportion of the United States population was treated slightly worse than livestock.

This contradiction epitomizes Larson’s book and, indeed, the entire historical era where a small window existed to stop Hitler before he could wreak havoc on the world.

Larson’t book illuminates the period in 1933-34 where Hitler consolidated his power over Germany sowed the seeds of the future destruction he would orchestrate.  This is viewed through the eyes of the US Ambassador to Germany and his family who arrive in Berlin to see the country devolve from a vibrant cultural center to a terrifying police state.

As Larson points out in his introduction, “there are no heroes here, at least not of the Schindler’s List variety.”  The protagonists of the age were unwilling or unable to stand up to Hitler.  Ambassador Dodd, while himself an outspoken critic of Hitler, harbored his own distrust of Jews.  The State Department was mostly concerned with securing the repayment of Germany’s debt to American businesses.  Those with genuine distaste for the Nazi regime and all it’s ugliness viewed it as inevitably short lived.  All of these factors led to the disastrous policy of appeasement which allowed Hitler the time and territory with which to wage war and genocide.

Larson captures this age with uncanny clarity.  His descriptions of the various players – from Roosevelt to Hitler to Goering – are detailed and thorough.  But his real talent, as in his previous book The Devil in the White City, is in capturing the mood of a city, one that transformed from excitement to suspicion to terror.  Berlin of the 1930’s comes alive on Larson’s page, the beautiful and the ugly.

Just as the city had two sides, those that populated it did as well.  There were Nazi’s capable of kindness and there were foreign diplomats guilty of cruelty and indifference.  Minor acts of heroism sat side by side with petty viciousness and nastiness.  It was, among other things, this muddled and toxic atmosphere which allowed the Nazi’s to expand the way they did, capitalizing on the confusion, weaknesses, and hypocrisy of their opponents.

From our perch in the present, it’s easy to pass judgement on the past.  Hindsight is 20/20 and all that.  But, the truth is always more complicated than a narrative can express – as Larson puts it in his introduction, “Always, there is nuance, albeit sometimes of a disturbing nature…These were complicated people moving through a complicated time, before the monsters declared their true nature.”

Read this book.

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4 comments

  1. I’ve just finished Half Blood Blues which is about a couple of black American Jazz musicians & what the Germans called a Mischling (The half blood of the title) set in Berlin & Paris around the period just before & leading into the war which deals with it from their perspective & would make an interesting tie-in. Thanks

  2. Pete, thanks for the review. I purchased this book on my Nook a few months ago and haven’t gotten around to finishing it yet. I get super uncomfortable reading about Nazi Germany, probably because I know it won’t be a happy ending. But it’s Larson so I am sure while grim it is still enjoyable. 🙂

  3. I have had this one on my ereader for a while. I tried reading it and got too freaked out to finish it. Ever since Sophie’s Choice I have really shied away from books about the Holocaust (I was totally traumatized after reading it, but it was such a great book). I love Erik Larson and will probably talk myself into reading it at a later date. Thanks for the review. 🙂

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