Energetically promoted and on some lists as a notable book of 2011, In The Garden Of Beasts by Erik Larson is a disappointment which, contrary to the PR, brings no real news about its subject, the rise of the Nazis in Germany in the 1930s.
The announced theme is an important one: humans are very bad at recognizing the onset of catastrophic totalitarian evil of conquest and destruction threatening civilization.
It is a fake theme in this book: Larson would have us believe that the story of US Ambassador to Germany from 1933-37, William E. Dodd, and his family and staff, especially his daughter, Martha Dodd, is here revelatory. Not only is it not, and almost certainly never could have been, and hence is perforce seldom really thematic in this pandering book, but the intrinsic purpose of the book is to celebrate celebrity, the more flamboyantly evil the better, and to stage Martha Dodd, essentially a Romantic and (one doesn’t imply the other) a fool, as a forerunner of troubled female celebrities so central to pop culture. (Her NKVD lover, Boris Winogradov, does well as the opposite-gender fool).
From the publisher’s viewpoint, you must suspect, the acceptable boundaries are respected in the production of the book: 1) The Nazis remain the one evil it is undisputedly correct to attack; 2) Martha Dodd, who during her father’s ambassadorship had affairs with Gestapo Chief Rudolph Diels, Nazi senior official Ernst Hanfstaengl, Soviet “diplomat” and NKVD agent Boris Winogradov, French diplomat Armand Berard, Nazi and World War One military ace pilot Ernst Udet, filmmaker Sydney Kaufmann, Nobel Laureate Max Delbruck, poet Carl Sandburg, novelist Thomas Wolfe, and more than a few others, before a whirlwind romance and marriage to Alfred Stern, will appeal to many readers with a taste for the tabloid; yet Dodd, contrary to the utterly self-serving words of Larson that she is “a woman of principle who never wavered in her belief that she had done the right thing in helping the Soviets against the Nazis at a time when most of the world was disinclined to do anything,” was in fact a treacherous adventurer who spied on the US until late in the Cold War and before that shrilly justified Nazi horrors in Berlin and elsewhere (e.g., the Night of the Long Knives) as they manifested in plain sight; 3) you can assume that most readers have never read Ian Kershaw, Alan Bullock, William Shirer, Richard J. Evans, Christopher Isherwood and the other major chroniclers of the rise of Hitler and the Nazis and will think they are learning something new and, even worse, profound; and 4) the “history” trappings of the book offer a false respectability to the tabloid celeb storyline.
Larson seems careless about the thematic trickery when he cites several times how Ambassador Dodd actually was constrained in objecting to Nazi atrocities, including those against visiting Americans, by the fear of his superiors of antagonizing the Nazis sufficiently that they wouldn’t make repayments on $1.2 billion in loans from the US. A familiar story. No surprise here. In fact, Hull, Welles, Phillips, Moffat and others at State considered Dodd a poor ambassador and generally downplayed Hitler’s outrages. In those days, most American diplomats, high-ranking to low-ranking, were probably institutionally incapable of seeing the rise of the Nazis for what it really was and portended. The endemic isolationism in America extended that deficiency to the general public. This unfortunate history has long been well-understood.
Larson does cite one remarkable quote from Diels that illuminates the far more troubling sense that Homo sapiens, the primate, is often unaware soon enough of what he and she are capable of doing: Diels tells Martha Dodd that he thought he was recruiting into the Gestapo the best and brightest of Aryan youth but came to see that he’d established a home for the sadists out there and that their new “work” made them more brutal.
Larson all-too-briefly touches on the “coordination” of the German people, meaning their coming in the main to find Hitler and the Nazis mesmerizing.
An awful herd mentality and an even more awful hysterical evil.
Elaborating on this frightening theme would require a larger and serious history. Some of it has been dramatized by the historians and novelists listed above.
In the Garden of Beasts is merely a book deal.
And soon to be a movie deal (2014 claims IMDB, with Tom Hanks as Ambassador Dodd).
You can sense what’s coming by the following from the IMDB notice:
“Did You Know?
“Natalie Portman, Jessica Chastain, Felicity Jones, Andrea Riseborough, Carey Mulligan, Michelle Williams, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson, Anne Hathaway, Reese Witherspoon, Rachel McAdams, Emma Stone, Rooney Mara, Keira Knightley, Emma Watson, Brit Marling and Berenice Bejo all expressed interest in the role of Martha.”
Hollywood and Hollywood actors…this one’s made for them. They know.
Just wait until those moviemakers get through with Martha and Boris. And with Goring in his personally designed uniforms.
I can wait.