Thursday, June 23, 2011

In The Garden Of Beasts: Larson's 1930s Berlin

Eric Larson makes his money on juxtaposition; bringing two seemingly unconnected stories together in surprising ways. That strategy is what made The Devil In The White City such a riveting read. (Thunderstruck also employs the dueling stories strategy, though to a lesser degree of riveting, I've heard). But in his fantastic new narrative non-fiction, In The Garden of Beasts, the juxtaposition is more in regards to how two people see the same story differently. That story: the darkening storm of Hitler's reign in 1930s Berlin.

William Dodd, a University of Chicago history professor, was the first American ambassador to Hitler's regime, arriving in Berlin in June 1933. A liberal with a strong sense of history, he saw the story for what it was: terrifying. But his flighty, romantic 24-year-old daughter Martha became enthralled with Berlin. She loved the city and the German people immediately, and refused to recognize the mounting signs of trouble.

Today, it's easy to look back and be perplexed by appeasement. Didn't anyone sound the alarm? Weren't the warning signs clear? It seems like they very well should have been — and to Dodd, they were. But he was not a career diplomat, and as an outsider, he had no support from the entrenched old boy's network at the State Department. In fact, he was FDR's fifth choice for the German ambassadorship — he'd been hoping for a much quieter post, because all he really wanted was to finish his life's work, a multi-volume history of the American south. Adding to Dodd's difficulty was America's general bent toward isolationism after the Great War and the fact that the country was in the midst of the Great Depression, and it's easy to see how Dodd's warnings went unheeded.

Larson alternates between Dodd's diplomatic struggles and Martha's exploration of Berlin, and its men. She dates several, often concurrently, including the head of the Gestapo and a Russian diplomat/spy. At one point, a German minister even sets her up on a blind date with Hitler himself — the theory being that the Fuhrer dating the daughter of the American ambassador would quell what were becoming increasingly tense German/American relations.

Throughout, Larson tells us these stories based directly upon fantastic primary sources, namely Dodd's and Martha's diaries. Martha was an aspiring novelist, so her writings contain rich detail of the city and her other adventures around Germany. As an historian, Dodd wrote with an incredible level of detail, too — down to conversations between himself and many of Hitler's henchman.

This is a fantastic book — clear, precise, and fast-paced, especially as you become increasingly horrified by Hitler's machinations. I'd humbly submit that the two most important criteria for judging a narrative non-fiction book are how interesting it is from start to finish (i.e., that there are not too many detours or superfluous or silly detail), and how much you learn from it. If you'll buy that, then believe me when I tell you, In The Garden of Beasts is top-tier reading. It'll appeal to a wide range of readers, from serious historians to beach readers. It's highly recommended.

14 comments:

  1. This has been on my TBR pile for awhile but your review just pushed it to the top. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Oh I really really want to get my hands on this book. I love Larson’s writing and every book of his I’ve read so far I’ve thoroughly enjoyed. Great review. It’s made me even more excited to read it. Hoping to get it as a present sometime in the near future…maybe Christmas…

    ReplyDelete
  3. Wow, sounds interesting. I don't know about that melodramatic title though. It seems so easy to look back on history and say, yeah, Hitler was bad, Nazi's were "beasts." But at the time it wasn't so clear. It seems like Larson is able to show that through Martha's character, but I still don't know if I buy it. I guess I'll have to check it out. I'm fascinated by WWII and Nazi Germany.

    ReplyDelete
  4. @Jen - Enjoy it - it's really good.

    @llevinso - Which other Larson books have you read? I've heard mixed reviews about all his others except for The Devil in the White City.

    @IngridLola - The title's a sort of play on the English translation of Tiergarten (Berlin's Central Park): "animal garden." Dodd lived near the Tiergarten and often took walks in the park to clear his head. You're right, at first brush, I thought it seemed melodramatic, too - but I bought in once I realized the meaning.

    ReplyDelete
  5. You've sold me. My mom works at a book store and I just had her order it for me.

    ReplyDelete
  6. This sounds really interesting, Greg. I've always found WWII fascinating in a disturbing way. I really want to read this one.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I enjoyed The Devil in the White City and knew I'd get around to reading this eventually. Your review makes me want to read it as soon as possible. Thanks!

    Grace at Feeding My Book Addiction

    ReplyDelete
  8. That juxtaposition has been so widely imitated I'm tired of it and am glad to hear that he does something a bit different in this one.

    ReplyDelete
  9. I got to get my hands on a copy of this, it sounds A+

    ReplyDelete
  10. If the vehicle was bought on credit you may be able to claim against the credit company EU Neuwagen instead of the dealer. This can be useful where the dealer has gone out of business or has no money to compensate you.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Good jockeys will do well on good horses, but not on broken-down nags. Both Berkshire's textile business and Hochschild Kohn had able and honest people running them. The same Interim Management Provider employed in a business with good economic characteristics would have achieved fine records. But they were never going to make any progress while running in quicksand. I've said many times that when a management with a reputation for brilliance tackles a business with a reputation for bad economics, it is the reputation of the business that remains intact.

    ReplyDelete
  12. While I read this book I found many things very disturbing. The idea that an entire country and much of the world could allow the take over is frightening ! Yet do we not still allow modern day Hitlers to still gain control? Dodd saw the horror and no one cared because of political affiliations. More people should read this book then look at the evening news or a newspaper, maybe just maybe we need to open our eyes.

    ReplyDelete