Wednesday, June 8, 2011

The Unprofessional Book Review: In The Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

“I have always wondered what it would have been like for an outsider to have witnessed firsthand the gathering dark of Hitler’s rule. How did the city look, what did one hear, see, and smell, and how did diplomats and other visitors interpret the events occurring around them? Hindsight tells us that during that fragile time the course of history could so easily have been changed. Why, then, did no one change it? Why did it take so long to recognize the real danger posed by Hitler and his regime?” -Erik Larson
In the Garden of Beasts is Erik Larson's superb follow-up to his gripping and haunting historical tale The Devil in the White City. Anyone familiar with White City will recall that the book was set in the romantic locale of late 19th century Chicago during the World's Fair. The excitement and fabulously optimistic atmosphere in that book was set in dramatic contrast against the murderous and horrifying serial killer, H.H. Holmes, who also chose to call that city home. I never thought Larson could ever match the greatness of that book, frankly. I'm not entirely sure he does that; rather, I would call it a tie.

Enter 1930s Berlin, which is the setting of In the Garden of Beasts which is named after the Berlin home of the main protagonist of the book, U.S. Ambassador to Germany, William Dodd. As the main protagonist (along with his philandering daughter, Martha, who receives her own parallel story told in the form of alternating chapters), Dodd is a former history professor with a strong desire to finish writing his history of the civil war. Initially, he thinks Berlin, 1933 will provide the ideal time for him to finish writing it. Anyone who knows history, however, knows that 1930s Berlin was anything but a calm time for a U.S. ambassador to Germany.

(In the footnotes of the book, Larson recommends the following Youtube video of authentic footage from circa 1930 Berlin which he used for some reference in his descriptions of the city.)

As I said, Dodd's Berlin home was located in what was known as the Tiergarten, or Garden of Beasts. Larson vividly paints the picture of a life in uncertain Berlin, in a time when Hitler, in his first year as Chancellor of Germany, had not yet shown his murderous hand to the people of Germany or the rest of the world. This is at first a very romantic Berlin, complete with elaborate dinners, schmoozing with dinner guests, and touring the countryside of Germany in convertibles. These are days which initially seem to belie the whispered stories of secret police and Jewish oppression. Soon, however, the Dodds forge relationships with Nazis, Soviet spies, and Jewish landlords who are eager to capitalize on the U.S Ambassador's presence in their own shrewd dealings.

In the Garden of Beasts beautifully paints a picture of a nation on the brink of something unknown and terrifying. The air of the book is electrified and crackles with paranoia. Especially in the latter half of the book, you wonder if Dodd's outspoken opposition to the Nazi agenda hasn't possibly doomed him. When Dodd finally meets Herr Hitler face to face, Larson captures the situation in such a way that you feel that you, too, are meeting the man himself face to face.

Larson's flair for the dramatic is constantly put in check by his interest in painting things as they happened. He is very committed to only using quotes which come from reliable sources. As he explains in the introduction to the book, he only uses quotes which come from real documents. And there are a lot of them.

As an American, my history of World War II always began with Pearl Harbor and D-Day. The Germany in this book is absolutely foreign to me. I needed to see what Germany was like in the ten years prior to WWII, and so this book filled a great void in my historical knowledge.

Ultimately, the greatest strength of In the Garden of Beasts is the ground-level picture that emerges of a pre-war Germany. This book was so interesting that since reading it I have begun to read Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich which I see as in many ways offering a more top-down supplement to the personal story we see told here within the pages of Larson's book. The climactic event of the book is the infamous (though apparently not to me, before reading this book) so-called Night of Long Knives, in which Hitler personally charges up the staircase of a hotel, gun in hand, calls his political enemies out of their beds, and has them executed on the spot. In the end nearly a hundred (that could be a low number) of his political opponents end up dead or in prison. Once Hitler shows his hand, the book draws to a close as Germany is forever transformed into another sort of beast.

1 comment:

  1. In the end, this criticism doesn't substantially take away from the book's overall power. Thanks to his trademark research and powerful writing style, Larsen gives the reader a vivid portrayal of Nazism's early years in power. There's a reason why this book is going to be on everyone's best seller lists this summer. It is a well-written, thoughtfully presented depiction into a subject that still cries out for an answer.
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