IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Eric Larson
It’s not a new book, but it is nonetheless a relevant book. I have rarely been more conflicted about a book than I was about this one. It was gripping, sometimes mesmerizing. Simultaneously appalling and annoying.
William Dodd was made ambassador to Hitler’s Germany because no one else wanted the job and because they didn’t want to put a “real” ambassador in what they considered a lose-lose position.
From the outset, it was the intention of Dodd’s bosses that he should fail. The U.S. government never had any intention of supporting him, of stopping the rise of the Nazi party or to curtail the personal power of Adolph Hitler.
You need to understand this in order for the rest of the story to make sense if indeed it could be said to make sense. It didn’t make sense to me, but maybe it will make sense to you. Given the way our current government is behaving, maybe it makes more sense only because I am finally aware that it doesn’t have to make sense.
The indifference and callously entrenched antisemitism of US State Department officials and their resulting tolerance for the atrocities of the Nazi government is hard to stomach. This is not an image of our government that would make anyone proud to be an American. And amazingly, we are doing it again. This time, the people who are doing it lack the polish and education of their forbears, but the hideous results are similar.
The failure of all western nations to do anything to stop Hitler while they could have done so easily is difficult to fathom. Their choice of Dodd, who was considered an amateur and not “one of the club” was an incredibly cynical move by the U.S.
Most of the people in the book are dreadful people in one way or another. Dodd, the ambassador, ultimately grows to become, in his own way, heroic. He saw what was happening and tried — within the very limited power of his position — to do what he could. That no one listened to him is part of the tragedy. Dodd’s daughter, on the other hand, is a feather-headed self-absorbed brat. She reminds me of a case of hives. The more you scratch, the more you itch.
Everyone acts in bad faith to one degree or another. Even more hard to bear are those who failed to act, failed to respond to Dodd’s repeated pleas for help. Usually, it wasn’t because they didn’t believe him (although some didn’t), but because the majority of them were hardened anti-Semites who thought Hitler could rid Europe of the menace of Communism while wiping out the Jews. They thought wiping out the Jews was a terrific idea.
Hitler didn’t get rid of Communism, but he did a pretty thorough job of wiping out European Jewry. Historically, I guess that would make the glass half full.
How revolting is it for me to learn this? I always rejected my mother’s suspicions on this score as paranoia. I refused to believe my government could allow — encourage — the genocide of an entire people. Sometimes, discovering mom was right is not heartwarming. This is one of those times.
To put the cherry on this dessert, the State Department’s little plot to allow Hitler enough latitude to “take care of the Jews” also led us into the bloodiest war in human history, a conflict in which more than 30 million people — military and civilians — died. The banality of evil has never been more terrifying. Read it and weep for the past and weep for the present.
Evil intentions never produce good results. This book offers the ultimate cautionary tale. It is as relevant now as ever.