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Arts and Culture

Love Among the Beasts

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Posted on May 19, 2011

By Philip Kerr

This review is from a syndication service of The Washington Post.

The great thing about the Nazis ... Hmm. No, that isn’t going to work, for all the obvious reasons. Surely there are no good things about the Nazis, I hear you say.

Well, there is one good thing, and it is this: In an age of moral relativism, we can all agree that the Nazis were evil and that the Western Allied forces opposing the Nazis were good.

With the Nazis you have a proper villain: Adolf Hitler. You have some heinous crimes, and here you can take your pick: the Holocaust, waging aggressive war, etc. You have a story arc that even the dumbest studio exec could understand, with a beginning, a middle and an end, and, gosh, they’re even in that order. You have some unlikely hero figures: Churchill and Roosevelt, but not I think De Gaulle. And, best of all, at the end of the story, the villain is completely destroyed. Everyone—even the long-suffering population of Germany—is glad. Ding-Dong! The witch is dead.

 

book cover

 

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin

 

By Erik Larson

 

Crown, 464 pages

 

Buy the book

Erik Larson, the author of several successful works of popular history like “The Devil in the White City” and “Isaac’s Storm,” has now turned his attention and considerable writing talent to the subject with his latest book, “In the Garden of Beasts.” And to bowdlerize a remark of Doctor Johnson’s, one is not surprised to find it done, but to find it done so well.

“In the Garden of Beasts” at times seems derivative of a 1940 memoir, “Through Embassy Eyes,” by Martha Dodd, one of the main characters of his tale. Much of material is the same, but we can forgive that because Larson fills in everything that Dodd herself felt obliged to leave out: It’s not every U.S. ambassador’s daughter who becomes a spy for the Soviet Union.

We can also forgive Larson because his book reads more like an elegant thriller—and certainly better than the elegant thriller, “Sowing the Wind,” that Dodd wrote herself. I found Larson’s book to be utterly compelling, and while I was reading it there were several occasions on which I had to stop and check to make sure it really was a work of nonfiction. It is—and marvelous stuff. You really couldn’t invent it in a novel because no one would believe you.

“In the Garden of Beasts” is, in the main, the story of George Dodd, a mild-mannered academic from Chicago, who to his own and everyone else’s surprise was appointed by President Roosevelt as America’s man in Nazi Germany. Larson describes Berlin very well, especially before and after the infamous Night of the Long Knives, when, in the stifling summer of 1934, the Fuehrer consolidated his power over Germany with a series of political murders. But for my Reichsmark it’s Martha’s story that’s the most interesting.

To see long excerpts from “In the Garden of Beasts” at Google Books, click here.

Beautiful, intelligent, willful, and highly sexed (a perfect heroine), no sooner had Martha arrived in Berlin than she was conducting affairs with several leading Nazis, including Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, who at one stage tried to persuade her to become Hitler’s mistress. Repelled by Hitler’s halitosis and his even more revolting Weltanschauung, Martha found herself drawn to a very tall man at the Russian embassy who became her lover, her mentor and, later on, her spy master. British intellectual E.H. Carr, in his famous work of historiography “What is History?”, advised one to study the historian before one begins to study the facts he has assembled. What bees does he have in his bonnet, asks Carr? “When you read a work of history, always listen out for the buzzing.”

Larson is a journalist, not really a historian at all. Nothing wrong with that. And really the only buzz about Larson that should be of interest to anyone is that he’s written an excellent and entertaining book that deserves to be a best-seller and probably will be.

Philip Kerr’s latest novel is “Field Gray.”

(c) 2011, Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group


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By Rudolfo, May 22, 2011 at 4:04 pm Link to this comment

Kerr writes :

“Well, there is one good thing, and it is this: In an age of moral relativism, we can all agree that the Nazis were evil and that the Western Allied forces opposing the Nazis were good.”

Really?  Here is a quote from Hitler’s Mein Kampf, circa 1925, speaking of the crimes of the communists,

“The most frightful example of this kind is offered by Russia, where he killed or starved about thirty million people with positively fanatical savagery, ...”

I don’t know if the thirty million is accurate, but there is no doubt that communist Russia killed millions of its own subjects, and was explicitly committed to overthrowing non-communist governments in Europe and the world.

The danger that communist Russia posed to Germany, both as an external threat, and as a sponsor of internal subversion, was real, immediate, and enormous.

Victors write history, extolling their righteousness, and losers are invariably portrayed as the embodiment of evil.  But, are we really that stupid?  Kerr seems to think so.

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By prisnersdilema, May 21, 2011 at 2:31 pm Link to this comment

Still at first, in the age of Nazi’s, many turned their eyes away from the growing shadows of evil.

Yet now that same shadow grows again, only this time in Washington. Many turn their eyes away, rationalizing, the loss of rights, and freedoms, while the corporations, impose death by controlling governmental agencies like the FDA and USDA.

The greedy plutocrats, depend on secrecy, to control things. Yet, demand, that the people have no such security in their personal affairs.

This is always how tyranny begins, in our case they blame terrorism.

Those that hold the secrets are responsible, for the end of freedom. Better to spend a life time in prison, than an eternity in hell.

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By Realist, May 21, 2011 at 9:20 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

I didn’t share the reviewer’s fascination with Martha Dodd. she was just a frivolous rich bitch entranced by powerful and exotic men with no ties to her homeland or its values.

The real story -which our reviewer ignores completely- is that George Dodd was completely unsuited for the job of American Ambassador to Germany. He was sent over at a time of tremendous turmoil be cause “real” diplomats were afraid that they just might piss Hitler off and get themselves in serious trouble with the German government.

Dodd himself eventually noted the major changes in the attitudes of typical German citizens during his tenure in Berlin, which led to him beginning to push Washington for replacement as Ambassador. Foreigners were within months of Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor being seriously beaten by gangs of Nazi thugs, and Dodd was over his head with this responsibility. He gradually came to understand this as the Nazi regime increasingly treated him with arrogant disdain.

Dodd was attempting to represent American interests to a nation gone insane with the lies shouted daily by the Nazis, and whose people viciously attacked foreigners with impunity. Dodd himself -while somewhat self-blinded as Americans are today about their government- eventually noticed that his tenure as Ambassador was going to fail due to the rapid disintegration of social order in German society. His reports warning the American government about these changes were squelched by Nazi-friendly American diplomats. He pushed for replacement, which finally came once FDR noticed that Dodd was becoming a political liability after bungling a serious diplomatic incident, in part due to a revolt of his staff due to his strict rules regarding social interaction with the German officials, something his own daughter disregarded.

I marvel that this information isn’t being suppressed now. This book should be the initiation of a serious study of how American interests facilitated Hitler’s rise and consolidation of power, but I doubt anyone will soon take up the effort. Too late to do anything about a similar rise of fascist power in the US? Such research would lead to dark places where the influence of the Nazis still affects American politics both domestic and international. I’m sure the existing powers-that-be wouldn’t appreciate the sunlight.

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By tedmurphy41, May 21, 2011 at 1:37 am Link to this comment

I hope that this book, which I have not read, contains the exploits and sacrifice of Mildred Harnack (nee Fish)during the Nazi era.
She didn’t fight this regime from an office in America.

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