Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Review: In the Garden of Beasts

In the Garden of Beasts, written by Erik Larson, is subtitled: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin. It doesn't disappoint. The book was written from the perspective of William Dodd, America's Ambassador to Germany from 1933-1937, during Hitler's rise. The book begins with an opening quote from -- of all things -- Dante's Inferno. "In the middle of the journey through our life I came to myself in a dark wood where the straight way was lost."

And so begins a thoroughly absorbing tale that draws richly from -- among other sources -- the actual diaries of Ambassador Dodd and his daughter, Martha (more on whom later). Dodd, not FDR's first pick for the post, faced many obstacles. William Dodd, a personal friend of Woodrow Wilson and a tireless campaigner for FDR -- he warned in the 1936 election that the defeat of Roosevelt would result in a fascist dictatorship -- was a professor of History at the University of Chicago, not a member of the foreign policy class, whose members made life difficult for him. Dodd graduated from Virginia Polytechnical Institute and got his PhD from the University of Leipzig. In accepting the ambassadorship he actually managed to encounter that fascists dictatorship that he thought he had so narrowly escaped with the election of FDR.

Dodd is, at first glance, an odd choice for an ambassador to Germany -- a hugely important post -- at a pivotal moment in the history of its relations with the United States. In retrospect, however, Dodd proved quite prescient -- though grudgingly -- about Hitler and the Nazi party's ultimate, filthy ambitions. The epilogue -- titled: "The Queer Bird in Exile" -- shows Dodd, after his ambassadorship was over, stripping up public sentiment against Hitler's Germany. If Dodd began as cautiously optimistic about the regime, he ended his life as a tireless opponent of its evils.

Charged primarily with recouping the debt of American banks, Dodd stumbles into one of the most hideous regimes in the history of the world. It seems that the ambassadorship was the role that the professor of History from Chicago with a PhD from Liepzig was born to play. It appears to have been his destiny to face and record -- at close quarters -- the rise of Adolf Hitler. Hitler's strategy in the early days was to say to the ambassadors of the great powers what they wanted to hear, allowing Germany to regroup and rearm itself from after the crushing defeat in the first Great War. Larson's sketch of Hitler -- from the eyes of Dodd -- is unremarkable, even banal. That so many millions had to perish to extinguish Hitler's idiot regime for the dysfunctional troika of Hitler, Goering and Goebbels.
If Ambassador DOD was dry and professorial, Martha Dodd is a study in contrasts. "Quite sexual" is how Larson describes her. Lithe and blond and at the height of her sexual powers Martha -- who arrived in Berlin estranged from her banker husband -- has affairs with National Socialist Party press chief "Putzi" Hanfstaengl, Soviet intelligence officer Boris Winogradov, the young biophysicist Max Delbruck, the third secretary of the french embassy Armand Berand and flying ace Ernst Utet. She is also, we learn, an immensely loyal daughter who lived a good long life.

Dodd travelled in an old Chevrolet and lived, unlike his predecessor, on his salary. Though comfortably middle class, Dodd was not independently wealthy. The reality hat he had to live on his salary -- and made a point that during the depression all foreign service officers should do the same -- was an intractable point with the ambassador. Dodd's war against opulence became in time a veiled war against the "Pretty Good Club" itself -- the old boys network of American foreign policy. Aas a result the old boys -- the embassy's counselor Gordon, the obnoxiously undermining consul general mMessersmith and various undersecretaries of state for his region -- made Dodd's already difficult task more difficult. Those factors, and the nagging doubt about whether or not he'd ever finish his magnum opus history of the old south, no doubt took years off his life. But what a life it was.

"It reads like a movie," David Patrick Columbia told me as he gave me the book. And it really does. For an historian, Larson has a jeweler's eye for lovely detail as when he writes about the ambassador's residence:

"The family's overall favorite room was the library, which offered the prospect of cozy winter nights beside a fire. It was walled with dark, gleaming wood and red damask, and had a great old fireplace whose black-enameled mantel was carved with forests of human figures. The shelves were full of books, many of which Dodd judged to be ancient and valuable."

The stormtroopers march throughout the tale, attacking all who do not offer the signal hail. Larson paints in vivid detail a portrait of the Nazi's and their enablers at their lowest:

"From a distance they heard the coarse, intensifying clamor of a still larger and more raucous crowd approaching on the street. They heard distant music, a street band all brass and noise. The crowd pressed inward in happy anticipation, Reynolds wrote. 'We could hear the roar of the crowd three blocks away, a laughing roar that swelled toward us with the music.'

The noise grew, accompanied by a shimmery glow that fluttered the facades of buildings. Moments later the marchers came into view, a column of SA men in brown uniforms carrying torches and banners. 'Storm Troopers,' Reynolds noted. 'Not doll makers,'

Immediately behind the first squad there followed two very large troopers, and between then a much smaller human captive, though Reynolds could not at first tell whether it was a man or a woman. The troopers were 'half supporting, half dragging the figure along the street. 'It's head had been shaved bald,' Reynolds wrote, 'and face and head had been coated with white powder.' Martha described the face as having 'the color of diluted absinthe.'

They edged closer, as did the crowd around them, and now Reynolds and Martha saw that the figure was a young woman -- though Reynolds was not completely certain. 'Even though the figure wore a skirt, it might have been a man dressed as a clown,' Reynolds wrote. 'The crowd around me roared at the spectacle of this figure being dragged along." 

This disgusting spectacle gets worse:

The genial Nurembergers around them became transformed and taunted and insulted the woman. The troopers at her sides abruptly lifted her to her full height, revealing a placard hung around her neck. Coarse laughter rose from all around. Martha, Bill and Reynolds deployed their halting German to ask other bystanders what was happening and learned in fragments that the girl had been associated with a Jewish man. As best Martha could gather, the placard said, 'I HAVE OFFERED MYSELF TO A JEW.'

As the storm troopers went past, the crowd surged from the sidewalks into the street behind and followed. A two decker bus became stranded in a mass of people. Its driver held up his hands in mock surrender. Passengers on the top deck pointed at the girl and laughed. The troopers again lifted the girl -- 'their toy,' as Reynolds put it -- so that the riders could have a better view. 'Then someone got the idea of marching the thing into the lobby of our hotel,' Reynolds wrote. He learned that the 'thing' had a name: Anna Rath."

It is passages like that that paint in vivid detail utter ugliness of what man is capable of doing.

This book resonates strongly with me. I was born in Uganda in 1971, a nation that was just a few years independent of colonial British rule. My father was Uganda's ambassador to the United States and then the United Nations. As Britain's empire disintegrated, they chose an illiterate former boxer turned soldier into the country's first president. His name was Idi Amin. The precedent was perhaps the Tiberius-chosing-Caligula formula: apres moi le deluge. After Amin, perhaps the old boys will look fondly back on Britannia. It took Amin -- a man who modelled his expulsion of Indian merchants on Hitler's treatment of the Jews -- just eight years to run the economy into the ground.

But what was -- and is -- to me most intriguing of Amin's fall is the mood. As a child in the late 1970s, at embassy get togethers in our living room in Manhattan, the mood was one of an almost fantastical paranoia. What is going on in Uganda? Who is a spy? Who will be recalled back and killed by a firing squad next? This mood, peculiar to tyrannies in tragic decline, is perfectly captured and distilled in the pages of the latter half of Larson's In the Garden of Beasts.

I have been both fascinated and repulsed by tyrannies. Fascinated: because of my history; repulsed: for the bigness of the moral evil. The psychological decline of the dictator infects the land like the plague in Oedipus Tyrannus or the startling AIDS rate in Mugabe's Zimbabwe. In both those cases the economies lied in ruin, not unlike the Germany at whose bosom Hitler, the modern day viper, found nourishment. How could so many German's -- all those laughing Nurembergers -- have enabled Hitler's rise? Democracies, no matter how civilized, descend into tyranny after economic collapse. Economic collapse it seems is a symptom of a nation's broken psyche.

Sound familiar?

Before you convict me of making elliptical allusions to our present sorry economic state we should all take to heart Santayana's warning: "those who do not learn from History are doomed to repeat it." And vigilantly guard against something like this ever happening again.


Susan Anton said...

Great review, i think these stories need to be kept fresh in our minds --and if my memory serves me correctly-- despite the sensible words of Elie Weisel that no more imagery should be known in works of fiction. Altho this book it is not fiction, it seems to be untold tales which seem unreal that 1) They happened and 2) WE didn't know sooner. The time is always ripe to expose ppl condemning the innocent to deranged methods of control and dominance. Ron's comparison to Uganda was powerful!!

Fitting that my scrambled word allowing a post would bed "CultR"!

Ron said...

Thank you so much, Susan

xo, Ron

Rohitpal said...

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Ron said...

Thank you for your kind comments Rohitpal!

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Ceska said...

The story is much more interesting around the periphery. Larson lays bare the constant infighting among U.S. foreign service officials as to how to deal with the Nazi rise, and FDR's chronic temporizing and hollow promises. The glimpses of Nazi officials are sometimes worthwhile new information, but add little perspective to what has already been written. Goering was a strutting buffoon and Himmler a quiet menace. We knew that.

Perhaps Larson's best focus is his clear illustration of how a population can go largely oblivious and unperturbed as its government descends into chaos and tyranny, a horrible precursor of what was to follow.