Tuesday, October 18, 2011

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

Rating: 3 & ½ Stars
More than any other period in recent history, the years of the Second World War continues to fascinate writers and readers alike. In his ‘In the Garden of Beasts’, Erik Larson turns the focus on William Dodd who was appointed the American ambassador to Berlin, and who served in that capacity from 1933-1937. Dodd had spent some of his student years in that country, and was initially disinclined to listen to the naysayers who attempted to raise the alarm about Hitler’s regime. Inexorably, he came to realize that the Germany of his youth was rapidly becoming convulsed with an insanity that would virulently affect the rest of the world.
Dodd cuts a sympathetic figure. He was neither by training nor temperament suited for the slippery business of international diplomacy – a career that demands a silver tongue, serpentine guile, and a statesman’s heart. He had formerly been the Chairman of the University of Chicago’s history department, and saw his ambassadorship as providing financial security while he worked on his life’s project – his book on the old South. Appointed by Roosevelt, he came to Berlin with optimistic ideas about being a moderating influence on Hitler’s Third Reich.
Dodd’s many missteps in his early years are obvious – on several occasions he seems tone-deaf to diplomatic protocol; is cautiously set on giving Nazi anti-Semitism the benefit of doubt; and, seems to expect that with time Hitler would either be ousted from power, or turn reasonable. His fussy frugality, suspicion of his colleagues, and occasional faux-pas earned him the animosity of powerful adversaries in the U.S. State Department, which further complicated an already difficult assignment. But by the end of the book, Dodd wins our respect as a lone, courageous figure at a time when American foreign policy seemed bent on appeasement.
Larson is gifted in making history interesting. As with his other works, here too, he shows his uncanny ability in parallel depictions of private and public life. Adding titillation to Dodd’s embassy years is the presence of Dodd’s daughter, Martha, who cuts a swathe through Berlin’s society with an indiscreet display of sexual freedom, fraternizing with Nazi officers and Soviet agents alike. Unlike her father, Martha is slow to awaken to the menace of the new Germany, and indifferent to the plight of Germany’s Jewish population.
However, Martha Dodd’s views were symbolic of the mind-set of many of her generation, and of many who could have been expected to know better. Larson’s portrayal of U.S. state policy shows a prevalent mood of isolationism; an obsessive emphasis on recovering the debt owed to American creditors; an underestimation of Hitler; and, a disdain for Jews, that evidenced itself in frequent references to ‘the Jewish problem’. At a time when ‘the best lacked all conviction and the worst were full of passionate intensity’, there was perhaps little that a naïve academic could do to turn the tide, yet William Dodd rises in stature as someone who tried to rouse his slumbering nation to the savage reality it would soon have to face.

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