Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Book Report: In the Garden of Beasts, by Eric Larson

As you all know, Dear Readers, I’m a history buff with a particular interest in the World War II era. As such, I found Erik Larson’s book In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin to be a marvelous depiction of diplomacy and the search for normality in a time of sheer insanity.

The book tells the story of William E. Dodd, who was actually nobody’s first choice to be America’s first ambassador to Nazi Germany. He was a low-key scholar and Germanophile with a common touch, who disdained the expensive trappings of his office (for instance, he preferred driving his old Chevrolet sedan rather than the giant limousines favored by most of the diplomatic corps and the Nazis with whom he had to interact), and he was one of the first to recognize the deadly danger posed by Hitler’s Germany. He walked an unpleasant tightrope between his growing unease with the German government’s brutal and often illogical behavior and the incessant pressure from the State Department to avoid antagonizing that government, and push it at every opportunity to pay back its loans from American banks. His position was complicated by the activities of his flamboyant daughter Martha (which included affairs with both senior Nazi officials and a Soviet NKVD agent) and by the disdain in which he was held by most of the old-school, aristocratic diplomats of the State Department … and, indeed, many members of his own staff at the Berlin embassy. If truth is stranger than fiction, then this is a strange and engrossing story indeed.

From a linguistic perspective, I enjoyed the double meaning of the book’s title. “Garden of beasts” is a literal translation of the German word “Tiergarten,” which is generally translated as “zoo;” it also is a clever reference to life in Berlin under the Hitler regime. The Tiergarten itself was (and is again) a beautiful and bucolic park and zoo beloved by Berliners and by foreigners to find privacy and peace in the middle of a vast city that thundered every day with the belligerent parades and demonstrations of the Nazi party.

I lived in Berlin* from 1980 through 1982, and am familiar with many of the historical locales which appear in the story. Agnes and I married in Berlin, and we left the city in December of 1982 and haven’t been back since, although a visit is high on our travel agenda … especially now that my historical interest has been piqued by this wonderful book.

For history that reads like the most exciting and intriguing fiction, read In the Garden of Beasts. It has my strongest recommendation.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.


* Technically, I lived in West Berlin, as the city was still occupied, divided and surrounded by the infamous Berlin Wall, so my experience in the eastern half of the city, where many of the old government buildings were located, is sadly limited.


eViL pOp TaRt said...

It sounds like an interesting book, Bilbo. I'll see if a copy is available.

Were you in Berlin when the Berlin Wall came down?

Bilbo said...

No, Angel - I left seven years before that happy event. However, one of my coworkers was still there, and sent me chunks of the Wall and snips of rusted barbed wire as mementos of our time there.

Linda Kay said...

Bilbo, we've been to the zoo in Berlin and found it a fabulous visit. We have a small chunk of the wall, brought back from Germany by my husband's boss, who went there to visit relatives. I'd love to read this book, as visiting Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic has really caught my interest.

Mike said...

So the wall coming down was over 25 years ago now. It doesn't seem that long ago to me.

Clarissa said...

It sounds like an awesome book. I will read it soon.