Thursday, May 19, 2011

Book Review: In the Garden of Beasts (2011)

In 1933, William Dodd (a Southerner from Clayton, North Carolina) was a 63-year-old history professor at the University of Chicago. He had a wife and two grown children, including a 24-year-old daughter named Martha. He was frustrated because the pace of academic life was making it impossible for him to complete the book that he regarded as his true life's work: a four-volume history of the Southern United States to be called The Rise and Fall of the Old South.

Dodd was interested in politics -- he had known Woodrow Wilson and had written Wilson's biography. He considered himself a "Jeffersonian," which means that he generally supported government policies that would benefit Southern whites from poor backgrounds (like himself). He had been an active supporter of FDR in the 1932 election, and he conceived the notion that he could finish his book if he could get a position in one of the minor U.S. embassies in Europe -- in Belgium, say, or the Netherlands. He started working his political contacts to get such a position. Instead, FDR -- who was having a very difficult time finding anyone who was willing to serve in Germany (where the Nazis had just taken power) -- offered Dodd the very important assignment of U.S. Ambassador to Berlin. Hoping this was his chance to achieve greatness, Dodd took the job and went off to Berlin with his wife and children. He stayed for four years -- years when the Nazis consolidated their power and began to terrify the world.

This is the background for Erik Larson's new book, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin. The book marks an interesting development in Larson's career. His first book, Isaac's Storm (1999) told about the hurricane that almost destroyed Galveston in 1900. His second book, The Devil in the White City (2004) was one of the most successful non-fiction books of the last decade -- a truly terrifying tale of a serial killer at the 1893 World's Fair. And his third book, Thunderstruck (2007), combined the story of another famous murder with the development of the radio technology used to catch him. Personally, I liked Thunderstruck a great deal, but it was pretty obviously a lesser version of The Devil in the White City, and one naturally worried that Larson was just going to crank out more true crime stories. But he has not. After one book about a natural disaster, and two books about murderers, he has now turned to the Nazis -- a gang of murderers who were responsible for some of the greatest disasters of all time.

Although his topic is different, Larson wisely uses the same tension-building style of writing that categorizes his earlier works. These days, non-fiction tends to be the place where prose goes to die -- really talented writers tend to do fiction or memoirs, while non-fiction is dominated by fusty academics and second-rate hacks. But Larson can really write. Not only are his individual sentences and chapters very good, he has the old-fashioned notion that an author should know what he is going to say before he starts writing, and should structure his book accordingly. The result is a supple narrative that pulls the reader from chapter to chapter -- just as a good book should do.

Larson also shows great wisdom in structuring his story. By keeping the focus on Dodd and his daughter, he lets us see the Nazis -- including well-known figures like Hitler, Goebbels, and Goering -- in a new light. We are used to stories about the terrifying Nazis who bestrode Europe in the late 1930s and early 1940s. But in 1933, when Dodd came to town, most experts did not believe Hitler's ministry would last very long. Elites on both sides of the Atlantic saw the Nazis as a bunch of crackpots, who intimidated German liberals with their Brown Shirts (violent street thugs who did things like slapping anyone who wouldn't give the Hitler salute on command) but who would likely be brought down by the old-line German conservatives who still controlled the army. Larson's book uses this assumption to build drama, allowing the reader to watch Dodd's disillusionment as Hitler's power -- and his ruthlessness -- grows. The climax of the book comes in 1934, when Hitler cuts a deal with the army and murders many high-ranking Brown Shirts (and a few key conservatives), thereby eliminating any threats to his power within Germany. From that moment on, the world was headed for a cataclysm.

Larson is also wise in the way he treats his main characters. It would be easy to idealize Dodd. He was a small-town kid who made good, he genuinely believed in America and its ideals, and he became a passionate opponent of the Nazis. Martha was a beautiful and talented girl who constantly kept different men on a string -- including famous men like Carl Sandberg and Thomas Wolfe. While in Berlin, she had an affair with a leading official in the Gestapo -- and another with a glamorous Soviet spy. Many lesser authors would build up Dodd and Martha as noble liberals working in their own way against Nazism -- and that picture would not be entirely false. But Larson lets us see the painful truth that Dodd and his daughter were both hopelessly in over their heads. Dodd spent most of his time fighting not with the Nazis, but with the rich elitists in the U.S. State Department who offended his populist ways. Martha embarrassed herself and her father with her blatant promiscuity, and never truly seems to have understood what exactly all the fuss over politics was about. (She started her life in Berlin as a Nazi sympathizer. By the 1940s, she had drifted into becoming a KGB agent, although it's not clear that she ever did very much for the USSR.)

By showing warts as well as the virtues of his characters, Larson underscores an important lesson for anyone who cares about democracy: While the democratic ideal encourages us to believe that everyone should be able to participate in politics, it gives us no reason to believe that everyone will be good at politics. Dodd has a lot of the sincerity and earnestness of a 1930's hero like Jefferson Smith -- and he quickly comes to realize that the Nazis are a terrible force. But because of his short-comings as a politician, he is unable to persuade anyone in the U.S. government to take him seriously. His warnings are dismissed as that of a crank who lacks the sophistication to understand high-stakes diplomacy. The insiders at State -- who resent Dodd's attacks on their lifestyle -- easily marginalize him and render his efforts to confront Nazism ineffectual. Dodd is eventually sacked in 1937 and replaced with a new ambassador who is much more prepared to work with the Germans. Dodd came home, where he made mournful speeches warning about the dangers of Nazism until his death in February 1940. He never saw America go to war with the Nazis, and never did finish The Rise and Fall of the Old South.

These facts teach us a very important lesson. A lot of times, when we look back on the failings of our ancestors, we wonder that someone didn't speak out or urge others to change their ways. In fact, in almost every case, people like Dodd were speaking out -- but no one listened to them, because they weren't very persuasive. Politics ain't beanbag, as folks say in Washington. And merely telling the truth by no means obliges anyone to listen to you. To make a real difference, it is not enough to be a good person with good motives and good ideas. You need the savvy and diligence to persuade others to work with you. Dodd -- who spent a lot of time puttering around with his book on the Old South and whining about expenses -- lacked these abilities.

Larson's book also has another important lesson. Men like Dodd -- decent, relatively normal men who wanted peace around the world -- had no chance against Hitler. The genius of the Nazis was to understand that they were dealing with a world in which no one wanted to use force -- which meant that they could do so with impunity. And so time after time, when it appeared that Hitler's political career was in danger, he saved himself by being much more murderous and ruthless than anyone expected. In the end, Hitler was brought down not by kindly words and decent thoughts, but by three ruthless men -- FDR, Churchill, and Stalin -- who convinced their countrymen to kill vast numbers of Germans, and to suffer vast losses themselves. Diplomacy, voting, elections, democracy -- these are all great and noble concepts. But in the end, law and order always depend on force.

All in all, this is a first-rate book of popular history that will entertain you and make you think.

Highly recommended.


  1. Great review, fascinating stuff. I'd never heard of either the subject or the author, even though I've been to Clayton several times. A guy from Cary was a big deal in the U.S. embassy in London during World War I.

    To your final point about the necessity of force ... OK. But I tend to suspect that there have been a lot of wouldbe Hitlers who, before they ever get out of the gate, are talked down and/or turned around by good diplomats at family reunions, church fellowship dinners and neighborhood fences. Good peace-making is hard, long-tail and thankless, hand-to-hand-combat work that often feels uncomfortable and makes the peace-maker look not particularly savvy, smart or brave and almost never rich or rested. But what peace we've enjoyed around the world is, my guess, at least as much if not more the fruit of these people's efforts than the (yes, necessary) more-glorified work of the FDRs, etc. (and thank God for them, too).

  2. I certainly think diplomacy is very important -- and one of the lessons of this book is that that some people make much better diplomats than others. You're absolutely right that force should be seen as a last resort, and that there are a lot of steps to go through before you get to that point.

  3. This has to get made into a movie, right?

  4. I think it could be a very good movie. But I thought "The Devil in the White City" could have been a truly great movie, and that one hasn't been made yet.

  5. In the movie, I think William Hurt could do a great job with the role of Dodd, Kevin Spacey would be excellent as one of the State Department guys who undercuts Dodd, and Kirsten Dunst would be a solid choice for Martha.