Review of In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson

My dad suggested I read this book to improve my world history knowledge and better understand the type of world my grandfather lived in. Having attended a small suburban high school on the east cost of USA, I have been informed about the horrific stories of the holocaust numerous times. From reading novels like Elie Wiesel’s “Night” to having to do projects on Mendel’s freakish experiments, I was constantly made to revisit the persecution of the Jews throughout middle school and high school.

When I was considering reading this book, I was afraid that I’d be wasting my time. I felt like I already had a pretty good idea of the atrocities that occurred during Hitler’s rise to power and that while I still found this period in history extremely saddening, to read this book would be like beating a dead horse. I’m happy to say that Erik Larson has managed craft a new perspective on Hitler’s rise to power that is both enthralling and enlightening.

In this non-fiction historical portrait, Larson follows the family members of William E. Dodd, who served as US Ambassador to Germany from 1933 to 1937. By concentrating specifically on Dodd and his daughter Martha as they are introduced to Hitler’s Third Reich, Larson crafts a realistic image of what Germany was like at one of the most notorious periods in world history. As time passes, the reader is able to see how the attitudes, thoughts, and perceptions of these two individuals change in response to Hitler’s rise to power. Overall, this book gives the reader a truly privileged understanding of the skewed perception that many Americans had of Germany before WWII and a different side of the Nazi regime. What is most compelling is that Larson doesn’t show us the concentration camps, the torture, or the killings. He shows us the lavish parties, the handsome men and women, and the smooth talking officials that masked a far uglier Germany that was readying itself to strike.

One of the interesting surprises I discovered when I read this book was how much I identified with Martha, mainly because I know someone who has a similar temperament/personality. Although the story of Dodd gives a greater historical  account of the changing relationship between the US and Germany and gives a better picture of the key leaders of the Nazi party, it is through Martha that the reader experiences the emotional turbulence of the time and it’s really through her that the work transforms from a historical account to an organic, breathing story. It’s amazing how over the course of the story, you can feel the tension beginning to rise up  and the fear beginning to mount.

I have to say that I learned a lot more about the Nazi party from reading this book. I was surprise to learned that it wasn’t like Hitler had absolute control over everyone beneath him, including the army. There was a lot of plotting and actions that took place in spite of his orders. It was almost like he sitting on top of all of this chaos and managed to tame it just enough to remain in power. You don’t hear about the different men who controlled the different parts of the government (Airforce, SS, etc.), you just hear about Hitler and assumed he controlled everything. Something that really stuck with me was how Larson said that the atmosphere was so cutthroat that everyone was paranoid of everyone else turning on them or colluding against them.

It was sheer coincidence that I happened to be reading this book while the fifth of november passed here in London.  There are certainly a lot of parallels, mainly in censorship, using “defense of the state” as the rationale for everything, and the use of fear to make people feel like at any moment, they could be hauled off and executed. On the night of the fifth, I found myself standing across from the houses of parliament, watching the way the glow of the lights reflected on the water. I thought about the movie, WWII, and how I’m at the same stage in my life that Martha was when she decided to go off with her father to Berlin. It was a really beautiful and powerful moment, especially because I was at the point in the book where Martha comes to realize that the young hansom men of the Nazi party who appear so devoted and passionate about their cause are not as honorable as they seem.

Last notes:

I have to say, I feel really sad about the way Dodd was treated (for being a scholar instead of a diplomat and how he disliked opulence). His death was very tragic, but I think time showed that he was right in many of his convictions and that those who thought he was silly, frivolous, and unequal to the task were proven wrong.

I wish the book went further past 1939!! It’s kind of sad the way life ended with Martha. I feel like those pages really captured the best days of her life, even if it may have been terrifying.

It was cool reading about the way the party operated and just how important your friends/your allies are.

Learning about Martha’s lovers during a time of so much hatred was actually strangely hopeful… no matter what happens, as long as love can be founds, I find myself feeling much more optimistic.

When the artists, writers, and scientists begin leaving a nation, you know shit is hitting the fan. Found it really interesting how Germans couldn’t comprehend the notion that people in the US are private citizens and that the government can’t interfere with their freedom of speech.

It struck me as captivating how unassuming Hitler was described as being (in physical appearance), save for his mustache and eyes.

I believe, that when Hitler says anything he for the moment convinces himself that it is true.

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