Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Facing the Hard Truths: Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts

From the vantage point of the present day, it seems odd that anyone, other than hardcore racists and anti-Semites, could ever find anything positive to say about Nazi Germany. But back in the 1930s, many people in the West, for various reasons, only sometimes having to do with negative feelings about Jews, did indeed feel receptive to the rise of fascism. For many, it was a movement which they excused as a force that was instilling German confidence, making for a vibrant society and, not incidentally, in a world mired in a great depression, seeming to embody a prosperous economic model that was worthy of emulation, Those views were certainly held by William E. Dodd, the newly appointed – and neophyte – U.S. Ambassador to Germany. It is his slow, horrifying realization that all was not rosy in that seemingly idyllic country that forms the basis of Erik Larson’s powerfully gripping book In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin (Crown Publishing, 2011).

Dodd assumed his post just a few months after the Nazis took power in 1933, and was instantly thrust into controversy as he was not a typical choice for diplomatic life. President Roosevelt, who hadn’t been President for too long himself, wanted someone who would not be afraid to criticize the Germans and make America's displeasure with Nazi excesses felt. But Roosevelt 's support was not consistent and eventfully turned lukewarm. One of the book's revelations is how ambivalent and crassly political he could be. (As a Jew, I've never held the President in as such high regard as most Canadians and Americans since he, even less than Winston Churchill, did comparatively little to rescue the Jews of Europe from Hitler. If, as Larson states, Roosevelt was “appalled by Nazi treatment of Jews,” his failure to finally act is all the more damning.)

Dodd – a scholar, writer and teacher, who had studied in Germany as a youth, and had fond memories of his time spent there – was also a man of modest income, startling in a diplomatic community almost always comprised of wealthy and connected men who paid for their own expenses while posted abroad. Along came Dodd, who insisted on maintaining a modest façade in his new home in Berlin, watched every pfennig he spent, and expected his fellow diplomats in Germany to do likewise – one of his many acts that irritated his colleagues to no end and soon saw them begin to agitate in Washington to have him removed as Ambassador. But In the Garden of Beasts is most fascinating for its bird's eye view of Nazi Germany from someone who was in a position to see and learn how the Nazi high command behaved behind the scenes.

Author Erik Larson
Larson – whose previous non-fiction books examined the rise of America’s first serial killer during the time of the 1893 Chicago’s World’s Fair (The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, 2003); and connected the lives of legendary murderer Hawley Crippen and Guglielmo Marconi, the brilliant inventor of the telegraph (Thunderstruck, 2006) – has long been fascinated by the often unlikely connections between people and events. But those books dealt with material little known by most ordinary readers. In the Garden of Beasts tackles Nazism, the (over) familiar subject of countless books, films and theatrical productions, and still manages to make it seem fresh and new. He does this by layering a fast-moving novelistic sheen on his historical material, and through his highly skilled writing brings his stories to vivid life. And the impact that Dodd and his unique, free-spirited daughter Martha had on Berlin high society and on the highest ranking Nazis, including Hitler himself, makes for a page turner to rival the best high octane thriller.

I know quite a lot about Nazi Germany, but I didn’t know much of what Larson reveals in In the Garden of the Beasts. Or rather, I didn’t always think of the contradictions he brings forth so clearly in the book. On one hand, the Nazis took a seeming disinterest in the thuggish actions of the SA, the Nazi party militia whose rank and file were prone to viciously beating up innocent American tourists (and no doubt European ones, too) whenever they felt proper respect, such as a salute, was lacking in their presence. Despite continuous reassurances whenever Dodd, or the feisty American Consul General in Germany, Walter S. Messersmith, complained about the ill treatment of their nationals, the outrages still continued to occur on a regular basis. Yet, on the other hand, when a Jewish group in New York decided to stage a mock trial of Adolf Hitler, the shit literally hit the fan as the Nazis tried everything in their power to prevent the Madison Square Garden event from taking place. They failed because, as the Americans rightfully pointed out, they could not and would not stifle the free speech acts of the local citizenry. It’s an illuminating example of how the Nazis both disregarded international opinion and took it very closely to heart, too. They didn't like it when someone elsewhere in the world attacked their views or acts, but thought nothing of doing whatever they pleased in their own country: two very opposing reactions to the outside world. It’s also evidence that if that outside world had made a much bigger fuss about what was happening to Germany’s Jews at the time, they might have prevailed in stopping some of it from occurring. (The Nazis, in the early days, despite their virulent anti-Semitism would have been quite happy to dump their Jewish population on Western shores instead of setting out to exterminate them. The lack of genuine concern about the Jews gave them all the ‘moral’ justification they needed for the genocidal Final Solution.)

William Dodd and his family arriving in Hamburg in 1933
Other startling and offensive opposite reactions include the fact that there were laws on the book prohibiting, with jail time as a threat, any abuse of animals and small children. This at a time when Jews were already being sent off to concentration camps and slowly, inexorably moved out of their long and rightful place in German society, academia and the professions. Just as disturbing is the rank anti-Semitism infesting the American diplomatic corps, including, at least at first, Dodd himself, who harboured the common prejudices of Jews most Americans held at the time. He even suggested in one of his cables to Washington that Messersmith might be Jewish (he wasn’t) since the man was so intent on getting in the Nazis’ face whenever he felt it was necessary to do so. Dodd though, prompted by a terrible example of Nazi hatred he and his family witnessed in Nuremberg, began to change his views when he could no longer ignore nor stomach what was happening to Jews in Germany. Eventually, upon his return to the states, he became one of the most outspoken critics of German intolerance and American indifference regarding the so-called “Jewish Question.”

In the Garden of Beasts is also a highly complex, nuanced tale, in that many of the key players of the time, and not just Dodd, don’t fit the usual parameters of hero and villain. I’m not referring to Hitler, Goebbels and Himmler, of course – they’re as evil as expected – but to someone like Rudolf Diels, the first head of the Gestapo, Germany’s fearsome secret police. As depicted by Larson, he’s not quite the rabid true fascist believer you might expect him to be, but more of a pragmatic man. Though hardly a saint, he occasionally even did the right, moral thing. And he was clearly trying to navigate his way through the corridors of power while trying to survive attempts on his life by Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s ruthless head of the SS, the state paramilitary police, responsible for many of the war crimes committed in Germany. Diels, whose fate is an ironic one, may likely have been romantically involved with Martha, one of the many tantalizing tidbits Larson doles out in his terrific book. That type of a romance, if it occurred (the evidence is inconclusive), is a significant breach of diplomatic protocol, one that could have destroyed Dodd’s career.

Rudolf Diels
A sexually adventurous woman, at a time when women were rarely allowed to act forthrightly in public, much less in a seductive manner when their family was in the public spotlight, Martha is the probably the most interesting character in a book chock full of compelling personalities. Among her many romantic conquests – which included authors Thomas Wolfe and Carl Sandburg, a family friend – was another controversial figure, a NKVD (Russian secret police) agent named Boris Winogradov, a dashing Russian who could have stepped out of a Chekhov play, who fell madly in live with her. Theirs was a tempestuous relationship, but not one Martha took quite as seriously as he did. Her many relationships, and her deep infatuation with Nazism and Nazi Germany, put her front and centre in many peoples’ lives, to the detriment of her father (who didn’t interfere in her love life even as he worried about it), and the delight of his enemies. (Martha, who dispensed with her anti-Semitic attitudes a little more quickly than did her father, didn’t stay in love with the Soviet Union for too long either, however. One trip through its dreary landscape was enough to convince her that it was not the embodiment of a Utopian dream, though her interest and attraction to communism lasted longer.)

In addition to all the back and forth doings of Martha and her beaus (she would have fit quite nicely into the environs of Downton Abbey), the reader is also witness to the detailed and quite intricate political machinations taking place in Germany during Dodd’s sojourn there. These include the increasing violent tensions between Hitler and Ernst Röhm, the profane, coarse and increasingly out-of-control head of the SA, whose flamboyant homosexuality was overlooked by the Nazis due to his longstanding association with the Fuhrer and the Nazi party; and Hitler’s manoeuvrings against the German president Paul von Hindenburg, who had appointed Hitler as Chancellor of Germany. It becomes quite apparent, to Dodd and us, that the German populace were fully prepared to support Hitler at the outset, even as he suspended their human rights and took away their civil liberties. No allusions to anything in the present day should be assumed here; Larson in an afterward makes quite clear his deep unease in how both sides of the U.S political spectrum have appropriated the term fascism and other similar designations to denigrate their opponents. (Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama have been so labelled.) If Larson’s book should do anything, it ought to dispel those loathsome and simplistic connections between then and now.

I do have a few quibbles with In the Garden of Beasts, mostly having to do with faulty chronology, around people’s ages or the percentages of German Jews living in Berlin. Those tiny errors may be the result of parts of the book being rushed or, more likely, indicate that Erik Larson is lousy at math. And as a completist, I do wish that we found out more about Dodd’s son, William E. Dodd, Jr., known to all as Bill. Dodd’s wife, Martha (Mattie) is referenced a few times, mostly in relation to his disquiet at being in Berlin but Bill, except when he is present at some important time or place, barely makes his presence felt in the book. It’s been suggested to me that there wasn’t more to be told about him, but considering how voluminous Larson’s bibliography and footnotes are (more than 70 pages), it seems unlikely. We only find out what happened to Bill upon the family’s return to America, but nothing else about his actual life in Berlin. Surely he had romantic and political entanglements of his own? I would also have liked to find out what happened to the French and British ambassadors to Berlin, André François-Poncet and Sir Eric Phipps, who like Dodd (and more than their governments), showed courage in boycotting most official Third Reich events.

Those are minor faults in a book that is receiving and deserves its almost universal acclaim. I work in a large bookstore in Toronto, and not only has In the Garden of Beasts been praised by all, its success has goosed sales of The Devil in the White City, too, a gratifying development for me. (If I prefer the latter book, it’s only because I found it to be to even more educational and informative. Both books are equally riveting.) More than most writers, even specialists in history, Larson has the knack of bringing history to life in a way that makes one want to do further research on the subject. We don’t have an equivalent today of people excusing tyranny and hatred as they did with the Nazis, but we do have too many instances of blinders being put on in relation to Iran, Hamas, Hugo Chavez and their ilk. In the Garden of Beasts is the perfect illustration of the folly of overlooking uncomfortable realities. Its events may have taken place many years ago, but its harsh lessons are just as relevant today.

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches regular courses at Ryerson University 's LIFE Institute, where he just finished teaching a course on the work of Steven Spielberg. He is currently teaching a course there on the films of Sidney Lumet, which began on Friday, Feb. 10, 2012.

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