I finished Erik Larson’s unbelievably great In the Garden of Beasts. I’ve read and watched a lot about Nazi Germany, especially the period leading up to World War II, including most of William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. I also took a history class that focused explicitly on that time period. I have always been transfixed on how a culture that created so many great minds, from Beethoven to Goethe, could become perverted on seemingly every level. As screwed up as the Weimar Republic was from a political and economic standpoint, the political period before the Third Reich, it had a lot to offer culturally. What I have never read, and I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, was something with a novelistic quality that actually made one feel like they were there.
One of the most intriguing things about the Nazi Leadership is that they have become, through the looking glass of history, more than human. They have become monsters when they were really men, even if they were men who possessed monstrous qualities. While this book doesn’t completely close the gap between man and monster, it does as good a job as I have seen. (Although there is one particular passage with Hermann Goring that is so strange that it seems unreal.) These men are presented at dinner parties, private meetings, etc. The book also makes the history of this time period accessible to those that might not have as great of a grasp of it as I do. (Though I am by no means an expert. I have simply read more than I imagine the average person to have read concerning this historical moment.) It is written more like a novel than a history book and it is a true page turner.
There is a lot to recommend this book, but I want to focus on few things. The first is that even the main protagonists are flawed. This would be Ambassador William E. Dodd and his daughter Martha. Larson does not attempt to trim away their moral failings. However, this does not mean that, for their time period, they weren’t largely decent people. Ambassador Dodd was one of the few to recognize the true threat of Hitler. One of the things that Larson tries and succeeds in doing is to create a sense of the world as it was at that moment. You can’t judge Ambassador Dodd by what we know now. (Martha is a bit more complicated, but one could argue that she was also young and naive.) A low level of anti-semitism was common in that period, even in some people that were otherwise decent. (This does not completely excuse it as there are those, even in that period, that were not. But I think the gay marriage debate is a good prism to view this through. Even many people that were on the side of gay rights were often pushing civil unions instead of full marriage equality as short as a couple years ago.) But in getting a sense of the failings of even some of the more decent people in this time period one gets an idea how Hitler, before his full qualities were shown, was able to rise to power. (One last aside: These kinds of things are endlessly debated amongst historians. Hitler’s true nature was displayed in his autobiography, but because of other things going on, which are too numerous to mention, many people of that time period believed that Hitler would be more moderate once he had real power.)
Another thing that is really interesting, if not new in this book, is how big money stood in the way of challenging Hitler early on. Germany owed America a large amount of money in debt. It has been widely documented that many of the now called one percenters had sympathies with Germany. However, this book shows the continued pressure that Dodd was under to get Germany to pay its debts. Because of this many of those in the foreign service, who were Ivy League graduates with ties to the upper class, tried to undercut Dodd when he chose to take a tougher stand against Germany that also risked the debts going unpaid.
If this time period interests you, and it should, this is actually a great place to start. It’s not an overview by any means, but it is a vivid description of a time period when the world was on the verge of total insanity. I could only think that this book would make you want to learn more. At the very least it gives you an entrance point to this period in a highly compelling way.
There are rumors to make this into a movie. If I would direct this movie I would choose the following two scenes to start and end the film, as a way of showing what Germany was and the destruction that Hitler brought to it. Strangely enough for a country that was so cruel to people, they were extremely kind to animals, with laws preventing cruelty to those of the domestic variety.
Opening Scene: Ambassador Dodd went to school in Leipzig, Germany, during his university years. He found Germany charming, although he did sense its taste for militarism. But overall these were very fond years for him. Later in the book Dodd remarks on how well cared for the horses in Germany were before World War II. His specific remake is:
“Only horses seem to be equally happy, never the children or the youth,”he wrote. “I often stop as I walk to my office and have a word with a pair of beautiful horses waiting while their wagon is being unloaded. They are so clean and fat and happy that one feels that they are the point of speaking.”
I would start the movie with Dodd as a young man in his idyllic Germany. I would make the focus of this scene Dodd noticing those beautiful animals which he later remarked upon.
Closing Scene: For the final image I would create a scene based on the following paragraph (As the once city beautiful city of Berlin is left in total ruin):
Five years later, during the final assault on Berlin, a Russian shell scored a direct hit on a stable at the western end of the Tiergarten. (The Tiergarten is a large park in Berlin.) The adjacent Kurfurstendamm, once one of Berlin’s prime shopping and entertainment streets, now became the stage for the utterly macabre – horses, those happiest creatures of Nazi Germany, tearing wildly down the street with manes and tails aflame.
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