In The Garden Of Beasts Book Review

April 3, 2012 6:21 pmViews: 55

Erik Larson's In The Garden Of Beasts is the aptly titled book that chronicles the rise of Hitler and the decline of German civility during the tenure of US Ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, beginning in 1933 through 1937. It is a remarkable look at the refusal of US and German leaders to realize what was happening around them leading up to Hitler's reign of terror and WWII. Ambassador Dodd valiantly worked to sound the alarm of Nazi aggression and mistreatment of its own citizens while American business and political leaders were more concerned with the large debt owed us by Germany. Unfortunately the ruling class in the United States at that time completely missed the brewing storm of hatred and propaganda consuming the German culture.

By providence I was lead to this book via a blog known as Jesse's Café Américain I read on occasion. In The Garden of Beasts is the perfect title in light of the fact that the powers that be in Germany at the time made it a point to give society an outward appearance of beauty and prestige whilst they were rotting on the inside. The Tiergarten in Berlin surrounded by the buildings and apparatus of politics was a thing of beauty many used to find solitude in during the high stress times of running a country and building a war machine. In the midst of the concrete jungle of New York City it could be likened to Central Park, though not as large. The beauty of the Tiergarten provides a stark contrast to the actual policies and delusional thinking in the minds of men who used the park as a place of refuge.


After Germany's humiliating defeat (though German generals were never required to admit defeat) in WWI, those bent on German nationalism, including Adolph Hitler, refused to accept that defeat and quickly blamed Jews and Communists for the war failure. German politicians who signed the armistice agreement of November 11, 1918 became known as November Criminals to those that advocated a strong Germany. In July of 1921 Hitler became leader of the National Socialist Party known more commonly to the world as the Nazi Party. While Hitler would need 12 more years to become Chancellor in 1933 and another year and a half to become the all powerful Führer in August of 1934, by the time Ambassador Dodd and his family arrived in August of 1933, HItler's regime was more than firmly established in the Capital of Berlin.

What Ambassador Dodd found himself involved in upon his arrival in Berlin (besides no arrangements for him and his family to get to Berlin from after leaving their ship in Hamburg) was the futile job of trying to persuade the few German rulers and especially Hitler, through several direct meetings, that something must be done about Germany's reputation. Dodd stressed that the German standing in the world was being damaged by it's mistreatment of Jews and by the frequent beatings of American citizens. Those Americans who had been assaulted just happened to violate protocol by not giving the Nazi salute, by being with Jews or by simply being at the wrong place at the wrong time when the thuggish Nazi Brown Shirts happened to marching through town.

The irony in all this for Dodd was that he, being a rather simple man and not accustomed to the lavish lifestyle of a foreign diplomat, had to entertain German government and military officials, as well as various members of the German and American press and elitist social groupies as though he were a social elitist. The irony goes deeper when the protocols of mingling with such a crowd called for diplomacy while entertaining the very people who were plotting and devising their monstrous schemes that would one day mean the horrid deaths of millions.

While 20/20 hindsight is all well and good for us, no one at the time could have predicted the exact hellish nightmare the Nazi regime would become. However, the warning signs were certainly there indicating what they were capable of as promises to clean up their act in meeting after meeting with Hitler and those controlling the SS and SA to protest violence on American citizens, for the most part went ignored. Censoring of the press and laws continuing to give the repressive Nazi's unchecked power to do as they pleased were also signs that spelled serious trouble. The treatment of Jews also began the weigh heavily on Dodd when he could no longer ignore the state orchestrated boycotts of businesses, the banishing of all Jews from almost any public activity and inhumane treatment of persons just because of their heritage.

Everything changed in Germany and Hitler showed his true colors in what has become know as the "Night of Long Knives" on which SA head Ernst Röhm and many Nazi storm trooper leaders were shot without charges or trial. Röhm, was unhappy that his brownshirts would not become part of the German army and talked of a "second revolution" thus the need for them to be silenced. Although Röhm and his SA brownshirts helped put Hitler into the position he had by intimidating and brutalizing his opponents, they now threatened Hitler directly and had to be dealt with. Originally a term used to describe Soviet sympathizers, "useful idiots" comes to mind when we speak of the Nazi brownshirts. Quite despised by German society because of their brutish and murderous tactics along with their drunken parties, Hitler simply used them for a purpose and then purged their ranks when they were no longer beneficial to him.

For Dodd this incident now proved that Hitler's rule was beyond repair and even though he stayed in Berlin 3 more years, he never met with Hitler again nor did he attend any more Nazi Party rallies. More disillusioned, he attend to the diplomatic duties of some parties and helping American citizens still wanting to reside in Germany. All the time Dodd had hoped these murders would shock the German populace, yet no outrage against this lawlessness or any of the other atrocities ever emerged. Amazingly, the German people accepted every new draconian decree with little fanfare unaware of the mass murder and scorched earth it was leading to.

In The Garden Of Beasts is a great book and an instructive volume that serves as a warning to those that are willing to be taught by a history that is so often ignored. It is a failing of human nature for us to blindly believe that the worst will not happen when warnings abound, while it is then ironic to be shocked by the inevitable behavior and atrocities that display the deep depravity man can involve himself in.

The elitists of Germany with their dancing, high society parlors and lavish dinner parties essentially fiddled while Rome burned in their ignorance of what was going on around them. Much as the United States does today with misguided diplomatic efforts, we waited way too late to apply the right kind of pressure and finally enter the war effort to stop Hitler's madness.

In light of where our nation is heading these days and the not yet equal to Nazi madness that is seemingly taking over our rulers in Washington, In The Garden Of Beasts is an essential read.

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