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Book Review 322: In the Garden of Beasts

May 30, 2014 - Harry Eagar
IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson. 448 pages, illustrated. Broadway paperback, $16

“In the Garden of Beasts” reminds me of why I detest grand opera. In opera, there is only one question: Will the soprano/tenor get laid? Different operas have different settings, some of them serious and even fatal situations, but the significance of those problems is always subordinated to the sex story.

Likewise, Erik Larson chose to examine a serious and definitely fatal situation, the encounter of the American government with the Nazi Party and the German state in the first year of Nazi power; but what we get is the adventures of the ambassador’s round-heeled daughter.

She did get laid.

The ambassador, Professor William Dodd, is an attractive character, a southern liberal (there once were such creatures) chased out of the South by racists, a respected historian who had been trained in Wilhelmine Germany, and nobody’s fool when it came to the character of the Hitler state, although less aware of his daughter’s character.

Nor was President Roosevelt at all deceived by the Hitler speeches that took in so many Europeans. Storm troopers were kidnapping and beating American citizens on German streets, so there was an instant diplomatic crisis; along with the question of whether Germany would keep (strictly speaking, start) repaying its American loans.

So we hear about Martha Dodd’s romances. She was one of a good many foreign blondes who trolled the Nazi Party for supermen, and nowhere near as dim as Unity Mitford, who thought she would marry Hitler but ended up shooting herself. Martha Dodd eventually -- although slowly -- came around to recognizing evil, or at least the Nazi variety, and left a mass of more or less revealing documents, a feast for a historian of Larson’s bent.

But while the salacious and violent private lives fitted right into his story of the Chicago World’s Fair in “The Devil in the White City,” Martha Dodd’s hijinks add nothing to the serious question of the encounter between American democracy and German militarism.

Ambassador Dodd’s troubles with the stripy-pants cookie pushers at Foggy Bottom also added to the difficulties of the encounter, and we get quite a lot about them. But not so much about the main event.

We also have to deal with Larson’s simple-minded misunderstanding of world politics in the Thirties, although it is astonishing that a professional historian can still maintain such innocence at this date.

To the meagre extent that Larson pays attention to the main event, he does state a theme, which is to wonder whether, if Roosevelt had pushed a more forward policy, the rise of Germany could have been limited.

The short answer is, no. A longer answer would note that because of the idiotic Republican policies of the Twenties, Roosevelt was holding an impossibly weak hand:

The Republicans had sunk the Navy second to none, signed the pollyannish Kellogg-Briand pact, lent Germany billions so it would not have to pay Versailles reparations from its own income, restructured that debt twice and ruined the American economy.

Larson mentions none of this, nor does he suggest what resources Roosevelt could have called on to back up an anti-German policy.

This comes pretty close to professional malpractice for a historian, even a popular one always looking for the tabloid angle. But if you like your Nazi history sexy, Larson’s the boy.

 
 

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