Note:

This blog is now retired. My new site is at: Predictably Irrational.

Monday, May 14, 2012

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson

Erik Larson is truly a gifted writer. My first novel by him was The Devil in the White City, which was incredible. And this one was just as amazing.

Larson's talent is that he writes non-fiction. But when you read this (you=me), it reads like a literary fictional novel. And I realize that he does this on purpose, when I read on his website, why he doesn't like to include too many pictures in his books:
What I don’t like are photographs inserted in nonfiction books, especially books like mine that are meant to be read as if they were novels. 
I felt like a history buff reading this, knowing the 'characters' of 1933, 1934, 1935 Berlin. I needed engagement, to talk to pedantic minds like me, with my newfound knowledge. I found one in my colleague, and we spent a good half hour sharing details of Nazi Germany. I was in heaven.

What Mr. Larson educated me, in fine fashion, is that newly elected president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, was desperate in finding a U.S. Ambassador for the Berlin office in Germany. But it wasn't the plum job: there was that newly appointed chancellor, Adolf Hitler and those Storm Troopers, who were reputedly arresting, beating and murdering communists, socialists, and Jews.

Eventually, William Dodd, a history professor from the University of Chicago, would get that call. He wasn't on the short list. He wasn't even on the long list. But because Dodd wanted an ambassadorship to finish his series The Rise and Fall of the Old South, his name ended up on Roosevelt's desk.

And for us Triangle folks: William Dodd was from Clayton, North Carolina. :)

So the Dodd family: William, his wife Mattie, son Bill Jr. and his infamous daughter Martha, head off to Berlin in 1933. And this is where Larson's novel takes us. And it is amazing how descriptive Larson is: I would be transplanted into 1933 Berlin, into Dodd's world. I would meet Goebbels, Hitler, Goring. I would see the sympathetic eye that Dodd would have over the "Jewish problem" and then how he would see the maniac that Hitler and his party truly were and how Dodd would warn Roosevelt, the U.S. about the problem these men, the Nazi party would be; how the U.S.'s isolationism stance would not suffice. But no one would take him seriously due to the nature that, IMHO, that he was just a history professor that became a stand-in ambassador.

The protagonists of this story are William Dodd and Martha, his daughter. Martha is a beautiful woman who apparently has a highly sexual appetite. She sleeps with more men than Madonna in her life but these are pretty powerful dudes. But she's also slept with men like Thomas Wolfe and Carl Sandburg. She was a big Nazi sympathizer, until the purge...also known as the Night of the Long Knives.

This was June 30, 1934 when Hitler ordered the executions of top German military leaders of the SA, as well as most of the SA. Many were taken from their homes then brought together with other SAs and executed in a firing range. The SA was a paramilitary group (the brownshirts) that helped give rise to Hitler and the Nazi party. Another military group, the SS, formed from the SA and with Hitler's paranoia, he feared the SA was trying to overthrow him and thus, the SS decided to 'purge' the SA. There seemingly was no real proof that there was ever a true plot to affect Hitler's new regime.

William Dodd had met with Hitler on several occasions, mainly, to deal with the acts of violence against Americans. For instance, during SA parades, American tourists would stand, watching as the marchers would go by. However, it was mandatory in Germany for bystanders to Hail Hitler when the SA marched by. Technically, this was OK for tourists to not have to do but of course, the SA were fucked up and at least one soldier would come over and beat the crap out of anyone who was not saluting the marchers.

Hitler would always apologize 'sincerely' and promise to take care of it. Dodd was known to have written back to the Secretary of State how pleasant Hitler was about it. But after the purge:
I have a sense of horror when I look at the man.
From this moment on, Dodd would refuse to attend any function that had any Nazi attendee. This would incense the U.S. government, of course. But Dodd was consistently writing how the U.S. needed to do something about Hitler and the U.S. would continue to ignore his sentiments. Eventually, Roosevelt would remove Dodd as ambassador and his replacement, Hugh Wilson, "sought to emphasize the positive aspects of Nazi Germany". He groveled at Nazi Germany's programs and blasted America's press as being 'Jewish controlled'. Sad isn't it?

What is even more sad, I found, that anti-Semitism was pretty prevalent in the 30s. It wasn't just Hitler, although his madness was something I doubt anti-Semitism was what anyone had in mind. There was a Jewish problem - people thought too much about Jewish being a problem. It's too surreal to think that people think that way. I'm so glad we are out of that era but we really aren't, are we? I think we are still in it. Some parts of our world still have a Jewish problem. And reading about how Hitler stripped away Jewish rights reminds me of what we are doing to gay humans, right here in the US of A.

Slowly but surely, Hitler stripped away Jew's rights to work in this business, then in that business. Eventually, they had separate benches they could sit out at bus stops: painted yellow. Then they were taken out of their homes. At one point, repeating back how to spell something over the phone was changed, so that Jewish names were no longer used:
The Ministry of Posts ruled that henceforth when trying to spell a word over the telephone a caller ould no longer say "D as in David," because "David" was a Jewish name. The caller had to use "Dora." "Samuel" became "Siegfried." And so forth. There has been nothing in social history more implacable, more heartless and more devastating than the present policy in Germany against the Jews," Consul General Messersmith told Undersecretary Phillips in a long letter dated September 29th, 1933
George S. Messersmith is my hero. He was never a Nazi sympathizer and was always a humanist in at least this cast of characters. We need more people like him in this world who serve in our governments.

One more quote I want to add... During Hitler's regime, most novelist's exiled out of Germany. A few stayed. Those that did had their books reviewed by Nazis. So whatever was released in Germany was released based on whatever the Nazi's deemed appropriate. Most of these novelists were reviled by those that left Germany. Thomas Mann wrote, of those works that came from Nazi Germany:
It may be superstitious belief, but in my eyes, any books which could be printed at all in Germany between 1933 and 1945 are worse than worthless and not objects one wishes to touch. A stench of blood and shame attaches to them They should all be pulped.
I have been fascinated by this era and thirst for more. I'm waiting for Hitlerland: American Eyewitnesses to the Nazi Rise to Power from the library now. I had asked for advice from a book group, for a 'part two' to this book, something to give me more about what takes place after Dodd's life, and the onset of WWII.

BTW, as I always do, I started researching each individual, events, etc. from this novel. According to wikipedia, over six million Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. *Six million*. Isn't that incredible?  Reading further, the numbers are actually around 11-17 million people because the genocide includes others that didn't fit the bill: homosexuals, disabled, other-non-Aryan types.

I used to think, if only we had known, we would have stopped him. But my rosy-colored glasses are off. I've just learned that clouds are not made of soft, cotton balls. We did know. We know today of genocide happening. And we still do nothing.

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