Wednesday, 1 February 2012

In the garden of beasts

 A bookclub reading, this was the third of four books I'll be reading on WWII and I believe the hardest to digest.

Its title theme is Berlin's Central Park, the Tiergarden, which used to be a former royal hunting reserve (the metaphors with the "huntings" carried out during the Nazi regime are just endless...)

In the Garden of Beasts, the first thing I noticed was the writing style of the author, which is simply excellent:  each character is fully developed, for the most part with substantial evidence and with only minimal personal contribution, to the point that it really was overwhelming and difficult for me to continue reading about one naive father and one even more naive daughter thrown into the lion's den - Hitler's Berlin.

The story begins just prior to the appointment of Dodd as ambassador to Germany.  The US is still in the Great Depression era, with the result that noone wishes to take up this post in Europe, a post to primarily make sure that Germany would repay all the bonds to the US (100 million dollars - even by today's standards, a respectable sum).  Dodd is the nth choice to go there, and already here I see (in my mind at least) the difficulty in accepting him as a serious personality:  He accepts the post, thinking it will enable him to finish his book. 

I can not describe enough the length to which Larson went to accumulate all the information to capture this era just before the full outburst of the Nazi regime.  It's astonishing to read how "clueless" people in the US but also in Europe were when it came to the first indication of  violence and the race towards absolute power.  It's even more disturbing that people tended to agree with this attitude, claiming that "we sort of don't like the Jews anyway"

In this turbulent situation, Dodd is rather passive, a caricature more of a diplomat, who regards these incidents of violence as "one-off", given that they are carried out by "16-year olds who will soon tire and fade into history"

Did Dodd really had the qualifications for that diplomatic post?  I think not.  An academic who can only think about his work, tends to live in a bubble and not take notice of situations happening just under his nose.  Did he actually do more damage?  In the beginning at least, yes.  He is shown to actually tone down some of these violent attacks and trying to hush them (calling them "nuisances"), fearing reaction from the US.  Once he retires from his diplomatic post in Germany, his stance is different, and a lot more vocal to the atrocities of the Nazi regime (was he successful?  Nope - people still did not want to listen.  Lesson for the future...)

One word about the writer:  while it was clear from the beginning that Larson is supportive of Dodd, his writing and presentation of evidence is so well thought-out and objective, that it allowed me to form my own opinion (I tend to dislike Dodd, in case you hadn't realised).

One other character I thoroughly disliked:  Dodd's daughter, Martha.  I can understand that young girls at that time, the debutantes, strived for excitement and attention, but this one was naive beyond any limit.  She seizes the opportunity of being an ambassador's daughter to go to dances, meet with Nazi authorities, and she becomes so dazzled with their charms that she can only see the good they will do to the emerging "New Germany" (that's before she turns to Soviet intelligence and communism).  Obviously, I'm speaking from a point where I know how the story ends, but I did try to imagine how people felt at a time when the first bouts of violence were actually carried out. Certainly the information flux would not be as developed as it is nowadays, but surely in the circles of diplomacy news would travel fast.  Was there no warning sign?  How would people content themselves thinking that "... reports must be exaggerated, surely no modern state could behave in such a manner".

I highly recommend this book, not only for the true story of the Dodd family during the first years of Nazi Germany, but also for a rare insight into the society of that time (in the early '30s only 1% of the German population were actually Jewish - how could they be held responsible for taking jobs away from the rest?), which decided to blindly believe what they wanted and to let the situation get out of control and end horribly.  There are many details I found interesting - the struggles among the various groups within the Nazi government, Haber's rule for cyanide gas, inside information on the Reichstag trial and a very good piece of advice (from Dodd himself) for the future: "... warn men as solemnly as possible against half-educated leaders being permitted to lead nations into war"...

Also read for the European Reading challenge


  1. This seems like a very interesting book. As you say it is difficult to judge the perceptions of the people pre WWII. I am sure future historians will say the same about the world today; global warning, recession, euro crisis ....

  2. Thanks for including this review in the European Reading Challenge. You are the second participant to review this book and it sounds very good.

    Rose City Reader




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