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Poisoned fruit: Book review of ‘In the Garden of Beasts’ by Erik Larson

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1933 was a pivotal year; many would say it was springtime for Hitler and Germany. Deutschland was happy and gay! Well, that might be a misstatement. It was the year Adolf Hitler took office as Germany’s chancellor which was the first concrete step toward his dictatorship. At the time of his elevation many of his opponents thought the Nazi regime would quickly crash and burn once mainstream Germans experienced their methods of control. As history proved, that didn’t happen.

Erik Larson, mostly known for his book, The Devil in the White City, takes on the tale of U.S. Ambassador William Dodd who was stationed in Berlin from 1933-1937. Dodd and his family, particularly his beloved daughter Martha, had a front row seat in watching Germany cannibalize itself through intrigue and treachery. It was a time which not only left minority groups, most notably Jews, gypsies and those labeled mentally deficient, were killed but also high ranking Nazi party members of whom Hitler had grown suspicious. The movie, stage musical, and then movie musical, The Producers, might sing, “We're marching to a faster pace. Look out, here comes the master race!” but no one was laughing after a few years of Nazi rule.

Dodd was as earnest in the way only Americans can be. Born to a lesser branch of a once mighty southern family, he grew up poor but was able, as we of the heartland still say on occasion, “pulled himself up by his bootstraps” and gained an education then became a respected man of the university gentry professor ilk. He took great pride in advising such notable personalities like Woodrow Wilson. In the early thirties Dodd found himself struggling to write an anthology of southern history while teaching at the University of Chicago. Thinking that a job in the diplomacy field would free up some time to write his beloved anthology he uses his connections to obtain a position within the Roosevelt administration. Normally someone of Dodd’s experience isn’t considered ambassador material for a place like Berlin, but no one of greater importance wanted the position so thus Dodd and his country gentlemen ways packed up his bags and set forth to Hitler’s Germany with his wife, son, and daughter in tow.

Larson focuses on Dodd’s and his daughter Martha’s experiences in Germany. It is easy to see why Larson picked Martha as a focal point since she was a bit of an American Jezebel arriving in Berlin as a married woman on the brink of divorce but still dating up a storm with French diplomats, naughty Nazis, and a Soviet communist spy named Boris. For much of her time in Germany she defends the Nazi regime thinking that they are doing a fantastic job righting the wrongs of the past and that criticism of their violence is exaggerated. Any evidence to the contrary was written off so Martha could continue to enjoy the fruits that her high status femme fatale act afforded. At one point someone actually tries to set her up as a potential love interest to the mighty mustached man himself. Eventually Martha sees the light after several of her friends and lovers are directly affected by the episode dubbed Night of the Long Knives.

Larson states plainly during the introduction that there were no heroes in his tale and he is right. Historians will continue to debate if any one nation, newspaper, or diplomatic corp could have stopped Hitler’s aggression. Was William Dobb the right ambassador at the wrong time or the wrong ambassador at the right time readers can only speculate. Larson reveals the diplomatic faux pas he committed that ended costing him clout within the diplomatic corp, such as trying to bring frugality to a system that at the time had much bigger fish to fry. Yet he was given an impossible task of placating a sociopath while trying to promote peaceful solutions. Throw in issues such as money German owed U.S. banks, along with a worldwide Depression and a U.S. food shortage and it is no wonder poor Dodd never found the time to write about his beloved South. Sadly, Dodd’s concerns about the Nazi regime were put on the back burner in Washington until they literally burned down the metaphorical house.

I found In the Garden of Beasts a far more entertaining book than I originally perceived. Larson has a way, as he proved in Devil in the White City, of drawing readers into his non-fiction as if they are reading a novel. You feel for each of these historic people (well, maybe not so much Hitler) because they are drawn up in three dimensions. It would be easy to hate Martha for her gaiety as the spirit of Berlin turned to dust around her if you weren’t cheering for her to take every advantage her father’s ambassadorship afforded her – she who was not of the manner born and girls just like to have fun. Reading the book offers up conversation on topics that are both historical and pertinent to life in America today; even the footnotes were interesting.

I recommend In the Garden of Beasts although it doesn’t sound much like a warmer weather read I think anyone would be surprised at how much they become wrapped up in the story and hate to see the Dodd Berlin era end.

Happy Reading!

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