“If you want to study the social and political history of modern nations, study hell.” — Thomas Merton
ONE OF A KIND
Drop everything you’re doing this instant. Go out and buy Erik Larson’s “In the Garden of Beasts.”
Larson hit it big with his “Devil in the White City” a few years ago. His latest is even better than The Devil. The best way to describe Larson’s books is to call them “fact novels.” They’re not historical fiction in the sense that we understand some of Gore Vidal‘s works or even Philippa Gregory‘s. He’s a straight historian who tells his true stories with the care, craftsmanship, and imagination of the novelist.
I copped In the Garden a couple of days before The Loved One and I drove off to Florida last week. I couldn’t put the book down throughout our stay. Here’s a sure sign that I love a book: when I near the end, I intentionally slow myself down so as not to finish the thing. When I read the last sentence of In the Garden, I felt a sense of loss and emptiness.
Anyway, In the Garden tells the story of William Dodd and his family who moved to Berlin in 1933 when Dodd was named US Ambassador to Hitler’s Germany.
The Dodds About To Board An Ocean Liner For Germany
Larson follows in detail the lives of Dodd and his daughter Martha, a flighty narcissist who had passionate affairs with a Russian diplomat who turned out to be a spy, a Gestapo big shot, a World War I flying ace, and other dashing but morally iffy swains. Martha, who viewed herself as a literary figure and an adventuress, previously had carried on flings with the likes of Carl Sandburg and was ardently devoted to Thornton Wilder, although she and he did not play on the same team, before her family set out for Germany.
Gestapo Strongman and Martha Dodd Paramour Rudolf Diels
Ambassador Dodd was among the first to recognize the coming horrors of the Nazi regime. This despite the fact that, like most Gentile Americans, he harbored at least a hint of anti-Semitism.
For her part, Martha at first embraced the Nazis, with their sharp uniforms and their hordes of tall, hunky, blond, young men marching through the streets of Berlin at any given moment.
A striking aspect of Larson’s description of 1930s Berlin is the sense of peace and serenity which imbues the city despite the recurring ugliness.
And why didn’t the United States government raise a bigger kick in protest against the Nazis? One big reason was the fear of being labeled hypocrites: this holy land treated blacks pretty much the same way the Nazis treated Jews.
The whole thing reminds me of many of my lefty confreres who seem convinced that these Great United States, Inc. today are merely a rerun of Springtime for Hitler. Come to think of it, tons of right wing whacks think Obama nation is Reich redux as well.
All I have to say about it is, read In the Garden and you’ll know that the real Nazis were sine qua non.
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