You know that mantra “Study history or repeat it?”
Studying history isn’t going to be enough to avoid repeating it. Learning from history is what will prevent us from falling into the same old cycles. In the Garden of the Beasts by Erik Larsson is a tricky book to classify insofar as history goes. It’s a stunning portrait of life in Germany while Hitler came to power. And it’s very unsettling, because the burden of learning from this is placed almost entirely on the reader.
In the Garden of the Beasts follows the family of William Dodd, the American ambassador appointed to Berlin as Hitler was on the political rise. He was appointed because of some light connections to Roosevelt’s White House, and frankly it’s hard to imagine someone less qualified for a delicate diplomatic gig. Dodd is an academic from the University of Chicago who sought out the job because he wanted time to finish his History of the South.
Amazingly, Dodd actually believed that a diplomatic post would give him more time to write and research than his professorial job at UChicago. Such an assumption seems astoundingly ill-founded since experienced government workers were turning down this post; however for the first few months of Dodd’s tenure, it seemed he might be able to get through the post with minimal embarrassment. He irritated the upper-class Germans with his insistence on living with the barest necessities (by diplomatic standards), but if this had been a novel, there might have been hope that he would be able to adjust to his position.
Unfortunately, this story was not fiction, and the events of the regime didn’t wait for Dodd to catch up.
The story mostly focused on Dodd and his daughter Martha, and while I found both their stories fascinating, I found Dodd to be one of the most infuriating players in the convoluted chessboard that was the German political arena at the time. And I’ll admit this is harsh on my part, because unlike him, I know where the German police practices and movements went. He had no way of knowing that the indignities the Jewish people were suffering would lead to the gas chamber, and yet the willful blindness he exercised in the beginning of his tenure made me want to shake him.
The German government was paranoid about how it was perceived by other countries, and frequently would complain about foreign correspondents reporting on the increased persecution of Jews and the increased martial laws in Germany. Dodd would actively try to suppress these reports coming to the United States, and then was amazed when no one believed him when he later tried to convince those in the White House that the Germans were becoming dangerous. He apparently was ‘a firm believer in the inherent rationality of man’ (this despite being a history professor, which in my opinion is a field of study designed to destroy all faith in the rational capacity of humankind), and thought that the Germans would eventually right themselves despite increasing evidence to the contrary.
Yet despite my frequent frustrations with Dodd, and with his daughter Martha- who initially bought wholeheartedly into the propaganda that Hitler was selling- the narrative itself was fascinating and unnerving. Tempting though it was to look at the government’s actions and ask why no one realized what was coming, it was very easy to see how people could shut out the implications of the laws. One of the best aspects of this book was how palpable the setting felt, and there was a certain level of desperation in the German people’s enthusiasm for life and the new regime. It was that desperation that I found most unsettling. There’s something unhappily relatable in the impulse to believe that things must not be that bad and that things will get better, especially if you’re surrounded by others who believe the same thing.
In addition to this amazingly depicted setting, the supporting characters were fascinating (and in some cases, even more frustrating than the main ones). I was a particular fan of George Messersmith, who was quite adamant about opposing the Nazis and was infinitely less irritating than Dodd, even with his ambitions. There were several other characters that could have had entire books to themselves, such as Bella Fromm, who was in the interesting position of being a female Jewish correspondent in an increasingly hostile Germany.
By far, however, the best aspect of the book is the glimpse of the steady diplomatic decay in Germany- and the amazing blindness with which the governmental actions were greeted. Even with infuriating main characters, this is a book I’ll be reading again, both for the nuances of the environment, and in the hopes that maybe I can be a bit more charitable to a man who was in a very difficult position, and who did his best while in that role.