Wednesday, June 20, 2012

In the Garden of Beasts

There comes a time in every readers life when they ask "How many Holocaust books can I stand to read?"  This particular non-fiction book delves into the events during Adolf Hitler's rise to power as witnessed by the American Ambassador William E. Dodd, who arrived in Berlin in 1933 with his family.  If you're only going to read one book in your lifetime about this dark, but significant historical period, In the Garden of Beasts is not the book to read.   The author, Larson, makes the assumption that the reader knows what happened once the war started and how events unfolded.  There are references to the camps, but since the book is about Dodd and his experiences those horrific details aren't delved into.

This focus on the experiences of Dodd and his colorful family (mostly his daughter Martha) is an interesting view.  Larson doesn't take a stand as to weather or not Dodd is a hero or a bumbling fool who could have been more adamant about what he was seeing in Berlin.  It is clear that it was a complicated world and that the messages from the Hitler camp was that they wanted peace.  Sure, there was the slight Jewish Problem but mostly that issue was handled away from the everyday life of "regular" people.   The slow and steady crimp of the freedoms and liberty were so (forgive the phrase) well done that no one felt the need (or ability) to protest.  Those that did, as we know, were promptly dealt with.

As a group, we felt it was an accessible book but hard to read at times.  Hard, not because of the subject matter but because the events were happening and it is so obvious to us with the luxury of knowledge that something needed to be done.  Dodd was in the position to influence the American participation but his focus on diplomacy was maddening.

Larson suggests that Dodd was sent to keep relations with the Germans in good standing because they owed the US money and if the relationship broke down then the likelihood of being repaid dwindled.  It all comes down to money.

Dodd and his adult daughter Martha are the most well drawn characters in this book.  His wife and son are present, but as they didn't keep their own diaries their perspective and participation seem to be to the side.  Martha was busy while in Germany.  She "dated" a number of men, had affairs and was excited to dine with Hitler.   After the truth about what was happening and about to happen in Germany came out I doubt Martha was so thrilled with her encounter.

Perhaps it is because Erik Larson is a local author, but most of us encountered strangers who felt the need to comment on this book when we were seen reading it.  It was good, but not the end all be all WWII political account.