Wednesday, March 14, 2012

In the Garden of Beasts

This is a nonfiction book that is promoted as being about the American Ambassador to Germany during the rise of Hitler in the years 1933-38. However, because so much time is spent on the ambassador's daughter, I am not sure what the actual point of view would be considered. Very little is said about the son who also lived with them at this time and the ambassador's wife is hardly mentioned.

I suppose what this book is really about is what was going on in Germany from an outsider's point of view who happened to live there are the time. It is also a critique of America, questioning why Roosevelt did not do more and how the job of ambassador and his entire staff had become a exclusive club for the rich and powerful.

The book is very dark. There is a fatalistic feel to the narrative – I suppose with the understanding that you know where this is all going to lead. This is not a book with a happy ending which most readers will know on the outset. Details about life in Germany and how people simply acted “normal” rather than protested while they still had an opportunity will greatly disturb the reader. And then there are the chilling details of the Nazi leaders. The author even admits in his epilogue how much he became deeply depressed in doing his research, even when he had kept a journalistic distance on other projects.

The Ambassador's name was William E. Dodd. He was from a poor family of gentile Southern roots. He taught history at several schools in America, was a good friend and biographer of President Woodrow Wilson and was most definitely not the best ambassador material. He and his wife, Martha, had two children – Bill Jr. and Martha. Both children were in their twenties when Dodd accepted the post of ambassador. He was at the bottom of a long list of men who were asked to take that position and he really had few friends in the administration which did not help him at all.

The daughter seemed to be one of the wildest women I have ever read about from this time period. She had secretly been married but was in the process of divorce when she moved with her family to Germany. She became entranced by the Nazis and so many men that I had hard time keeping up. Although she seemed to finally “settle” on one man who was also a Communist and was actually in the process of recruiting her to spy for the KGB, she was more of a free spirit when it came to relationships.

I realize now that I really did not care for the Americans any more than I cared for the Nazis depicted in this book. No one came out looking too great in Larson's writing. I could say much about the evils of Nazi Germany described in In the Garden of Beasts but I saw several evils about the Americans as well.

What did this book have to do with my faith? The biggest question is: would I have protested the injustice and evil that was happening or would I have become complicit along with everyone else? I can't remember who it was that mentioned each German religious group that did not protest and was sent to the concentration camps or gallows until there was no one left to protest their own arrest. I got the feeling that life in Germany was very much like that. You didn't say anything until they were coming for you and it was too late. I find the question disturbing because I am not sure I would have been brave enough to say anything.

Do I recommend In the Garden of Beasts? Yes, if you are a history buff. No, if you become too easily led emotionally by the book you are reading.

Happy reading!


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