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Monday, May 14, 2012

Stark Reality

One of the first eBooks that I purchased for my eReader was In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson. I had read his The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America a number of years ago and was enthralled and terrified by its hair-raising tale of a serial killer during the 1893 World Exposition in Chicago. Larson jumps ahead some forty-odd years and offers yet another hair-raising account of the ambassadorship of William E. Dodd, a humble history professor, to Germany in 1933, when Adolf Hitler began his rise to power and his subsequent reign of terror.

Equally as well-written as The Devil in the White CityI was also intrigued, enthralled, and appalled by In the Garden of Beasts. So much so, that I carted my eReader into work and shared the first few chapters with my officemate. Mike recently emailed me asking if I had yet blogged about the book—he had just finished reading it and wanted to trade notes. I asked what he thought and here is what he wrote:

I thoroughly enjoyed the book and learned a lot from it, even though it doesn't seem as substantial as The Devil in the White City. But that's not surprising, since In the Garden of Beasts is primarily about just one year, 1933, and is a shorter book.

First of all, I had no idea that the USA was so anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic in the 1930s. It's disturbing. Roosevelt evidently couldn't do much to help the Jews in Europe at that time because it would've been politically suicidal.

This book also depicts the State Department at the time as an elitist club of condescending Ivy League jerks. William Dodd didn't fit in their club because he was frugal and taught at the "lowly" University of Chicago. So those in the State Department wouldn't support Dodd, and frequently 
mocked him because he wasn't rich. They undermined him and his efforts. I found this rather pathetic!

Dodd had no diplomatic experience, yet his first position as an ambassador was to Nazi Germany! Think about what an astonishingly difficult task that was and how little support he got. You'd think that President Roosevelt would have known better than to send a complete neophyte on such a difficult assignment. Yet, Dodd did a fairly good job. He would not compromise on his values and refused to suck up to the Nazi's or the Ivy Leaguers in the State Dept. I came away from the book admiring Dodd.

No matter how many books and movies I read and watch about the Nazis, I am always stunned by their brutality, cruelty, corruption, paranoia, and psychosis. Almost unbelievable and never less than completely disgusting. They finally got what they deserved, but not before they destroyed millions of lives.  Early in the book, there is an image of an American physician's flayed skin; I'll never get that out of my head. Beasts, indeed!

The Nazi movement could have been stopped. I didn't not realize before reading Larson’s book that German president Hindenburg could have ended Hitler's reign. It’s a shame that he didn't. In fact, as the author points out, Hindenburg was apparently senile by 1933 and made several decisions that facilitated Hitler's consolidation of power.

What was also very interesting to me is how the book showed how tensions among the Nazi's would dominate the mood of the entire city of Berlin; the feelings of doom and fear that resulted from their reign seemed to overwhelm just about every citizen, even during peace time. I wasn't aware of the horrifying concepts of denunciations and coordination. It is just unbelievable how the fabric of Germany [culture] was so quickly destroyed by the Nazis. Old friends would turn each other in for minor or imagined infractions. And I was amazed at the depiction of human cruelties that were inflicted.

The protagonists are quite well defined. For example, Goring—what a dandy! Apparently, Hitler turned on him just before the end. If the Allies hadn't gotten Goring, the Nazis would have. Instead of being executed, he committed suicide. A coward to the end.

And then there is Martha, Dodd’s daughter. Despite her several poor decisions, I quite liked her. She seemed lively and smart and fun. She must have really been something, seeing as how so many men fell madly in love with her. She also seemed way ahead of her time in terms of sexual liberation. I admire the bravery that it took. Like her father, she stood by her convictions. I wish things had turned out better for her, although all-in-all she seemed to have had a varied and interesting life.

Martha's meeting with Hitler was just amazing. Imagine if she had fallen for him! Her father's meeting with Hitler was just as creepy. I know Dodd has been criticized recently for how he portrayed to Hitler that anti-Semitism was okay, as long as it didn't result in violence or
oppression. But I think Dodd knew that directly criticizing Hitler would not accomplish anything, so he tried to placate him slightly.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book was learning about a few Nazis where weren’t homicidal maniacs—Rudolf Diels and Putzi Hanfstaengl. Diels was head of the Gestapo for a while, so undoubtedly there's blood on his hands. However, you have to cut him some slack since the more ruthless Nazis wanted him out of the way, and since he testified against the Nazis after the war. It's a neat story that he rose to a position of prominence after the war and wrote books about his time as a Nazi.

And what can one say about Putzi, a character so odd and comical? He tried to set Martha up with Hitler! Lucky for Putzi, he survived the war because, apparently, the Nazi's tried to kill him. I read an interview with him online from 1958. He actually supplied intelligence to the British and USA during the war. That probably kept him from being prosecuted after the war.

I fully concur with Mike’s comments. Both of us agree that In the Garden of Beasts is must read for everyone, especially in this day and age.

Thanks, Mike, for this guest review. I couldn’t have said it better.

4:30 pm edt          Comments

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June J. McInerney, the host of this Literary Blog, is an author, poet, and librettist. Her currently published works include a novel, a book of spiritual inspirations, two volumes of poetry, stories for children (of all ages) and a variety of children's musicals. Her titles include:
Miss Elmira's Secret Treasure: A Novel of Phoenixville during the Early 1900s
Colonial Theatre: A Novel of Phoenixville during the Roarin' 20s 
Phoenix Hose, Hook & Ladder: A Novel of Phoenixville during World War I
Columbia Hotel: A Novel of Phoenixville during the Early 1900s
the Schuylkill Monster: A Novel of Phoenixville in 1978
The Prisoner's Portrait: A Novel of Phoenxville during World War II
Rainbow in the Sky
Meditations for New Members

Adventures of Oreigh Ogglefont
The Basset Chronicles.
Cats of Nine Tales
Spinach Water: A Collection of Poems
Exodus Ending: A Collection of More Spiritual Poems

We Three Kings

Beauty and the Beast


Noah's Rainbow

Peter, Wolf, and Red Riding Hood



Originally from the New York metropolitan area, June currently lives near Valley Forge Park in Pennsylvania with her constant and loving companions, FrankieBernard and Sebastian Cat. She is currently working on her sixth novel.

June's novels can be purchased at amazon.com, through Barnes and Noble,
at the Historical Society of the Phoenixville Area,
the Gateway Pharmacy in Phoenixvile, PA

For more information about her musicals, which are also available on amazon.com,