Thursday, January 5, 2012

First of all, I think apologies are in order for my lack of posting lately - which I'm going to blame on a confluence of events and of course not accept any responsibility for it.

Just kidding. I do have a huge backlog of books (well, not huge. Like four.) that I want to post about, but I just finished In The Garden of Beasts, and man. I don't know - good book, but something about it just bothered me.

So. Erik Larson is the author of The Devil in the White City (HH Holmes, the Chicago World's Far serial killer), and Larson's specialty is nonfiction that reads like historical fiction. I don't mean this in a bad way at all - he's certainly a deft and entertaining writer, and he does a thorough job of sourcing, but he definitely leans on the side of narrative versus historical fact.

So! Garden of Beasts is about Ambassador William Dodd, the American ambassador to Germany in the early 1930s, during Hitler's consolidation of power.

Ambassador Dodd was a rather bizarre choice of ambassador - a quiet, introverted, rather poor history professor whose overarching loves were his unfinished manuscript of The Rise and Fall of the Old South and his farm in Virginia. Dodd originally hailed from North Carolina, the son of subsistence farmers, and rose to a professorship in Chicago through fortitude and determination.

Disappointed at his inability to work on The Old South because of the demands of his position, Dodd got the idea that a nice, quiet ambassadorship somewhere in Europe.


Why did Roosevelt call Dodd? Roosevelt's first five candidates all turned the ambassadorship in Berlin down, and Dodd certainly didn't fit the ambassador mold - not the least of which was not having an uninterrupted supply of personal wealth to finance the lavish lifestyle of the "pretty good club," as the Foreign Service elite called themselves, while living on an ambassador's relatively meager salary.

Dodd accepted Roosevelt's call and packed himself, his wife Martha, their adult daughter, also Martha, son Bill, and their Chevrolet - a symbol of Dodd's pledge to live within the means of his new salary - and set off for Berlin.

Much of Garden focuses on Martha (the second), and for obvious reasons - girl was a walking scandal. A short list of her conquests includes a minor member of French nobility, a slew of authors and poets (W.I River, Thomas Wolfe, and Carl Sandburg among them), a few financiers, a NKVD member and Soviet operative, and a rack of Nazis. Martha even attended a dinner with Hitler, at the invitation of one of his inner circle, who hoped to steer Martha and Hitler into a relationship. Already secretly married when the Dodds departed for Berlin, Martha definitely put some mileage on the couches in the new ambassadorial residence.

Dodd arrived in Berlin during a period of great tension in Germany, when Ernst Roehm's Storm Troopers and Hitler's army were beginning to wrestle for control, German nationalism was becoming increasingly intense, legal restrictions on Jews were fast becoming codified, and attacks on Jews, Americans, "non-Aryans," and anyone unlucky enough not to whip out the Heil quickly enough were becoming commonplace.

Dodd began butting heads with his staff almost immediately. Bookish and frugal, Dodd was a poor fit in the embassy, and quickly alienated much of his staff. Although Dodd objected to many of Hitler's policies, he was certainly not sympathetic to Germany's Jews (his diaries and letters reveal the chilling, casual anti-Semitism that pervaded many levels of the U.S. Government, even complaining about how many Jewish staff members were employed at the American embassy) and, like many other statesmen, was initially suckered into believing Hitler's lies.

Martha became quickly and thoroughly enamored of Nazi Germany, praising the "youthful, shining faces" of the German people and the new exuberance that thrummed through Berlin, and became close to a number of high-ranking Nazis (and by close, I mean really close), although she became disillusioned and repudiated the Nazis towards the end of her father's term in Berlin.

Dodd, Martha, and many of the Embassy staff were prolific letter-writers and diary-keepers, and Larson also had a wealth of Embassy correspondence to plumb from, which he uses to fashion an intriguing snapshot of life at the Embassy and in Berlin. Still, the focus of Garden of Beasts is certainly narrow, and less entertaining characters get short shrift - Dodd's son Bill is mentioned maybe three times in the novel. Larson also skimps on the historical detail (he mentions Germany's wretched economy very briefly, although it had an enormous impact on policymaking in the early 1930s, when Hitler's government repeatedly threatened to default on their debt as a strategy to keep American criticism of their brutalities quiet), but he does a wonderful job of capturing the zeitgeist of both Berlin and the American embassy, a world unto itself.

Larson habitually ends his chapters with cliffhangers, which gets tiresome after the sixth or seventh one, and I looked askance at some of his statements: for example, mentioning the famine in Ukraine with a cursory "famine scoured the Ukraine," which makes it sound like Ukraine's famine was a natural occurrence, ignoring the fact that the famine was man-made, created by Stalin and his circle to break Ukraine's resistance to Soviet rule.

Larson's final analysis of Dodd, as a "lone beacon of American freedom and hope in a land of gathering darkness," is, in my opinion, rather too generous. Dodd's embassy bowed more often to the Germans than to its own citizens, repeatedly putting appeasement towards a bellicose German government ahead of the safety of Americans in Germany, and Dodd's outspokenness about the Nazi regime only began after he'd been relieved of his post - conveniently coinciding with the waning of popularity of pro-German sentiment.

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