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Thursday, December 1, 2011

In The Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson, 2011, * * * *

Erik Larsen has written a compelling book which takes its ominous title from Berlin's Central Park, the Tiergarten, which means "animal garden" and hearkens back to the days when it served as a royal hunting preserve.  In this nonfiction saga, the verdant terrain plays a significant yet totally different role.  It serves as a focal point for the horrifying rise of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich and is the site of a dazzling social life, furtive trysts, plots, meetings, and machinations that took place within its secluded and leafy confines and in the lavish homes and embassies scattered along its perimeter.  The story deals with a naive American family, William Dodd, a low-key history professor from the University of Chicago who becomes the first U.S. ambassador to Nazi Germany in 1933, and his flamboyant and sexually charged daughter, Martha, who are thrust into the dangerous and strangely glamorous world of the "New Germany" and succumb to its eerie charm.  Martha, a would-be journalist is fleeing an unhappy marriage and becomes totally smitten by the provocative allure of the volatile atmosphere, flagrantly indulging in numerous affairs with members of the diplomatic corps, the SS and the Gestapo and several high-profile American reporters and authors - Thornton Wilder and Carl Sandburg among them.  She, like many others, wore blinkers as to what Hermann Goering, Heinrick Himmler, Hitler and their ilk were really up to, and though they realized it was a scary time, they either downplayed, ignored or simply accepted the brutality and dictates of the increasingly repressive regime and partied on. Dodd's assignment from President Roosevelt was to maintain the status quo in U.S. relations with Germany in order to placate a growing group of isolationists at home and an elite cadre in the U.S. State Department who were in denial over Jewish persecution  and the threat of a looming war.  Many of these men were anti-Semitic and pro-German. Culling through Russian and German archives, letters, diaries, memoirs, cables, newspapers, and interviews, Mr. Larson re-creates the decadence and peril of the period and details and diplomatic minefield facing the inexperienced, exasperated ambassador.  Even Maratha eventually saw behind the shiny black uniforms, swastikas and Mercedes.  She became a communist and Russian spy and ended up living alone in Prague for several years until her death in 1990 at 82.  What is astonishing is how passive and clueless everyone seemed to be, assuming that Hitler and his entourage were childish puppets. This is a cautionary tale not to be missed.

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