Readin’ tip

Hi, kids. Back from my stint with the French Resistance. Now I have a bad accent, a removable goatee, a beret, and I like wine and cheese more than I did before.

Anyway, here’s a reading tip for you. I just finished a book by author/journalist Erik Larson. It’s his latest, titled In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, and it describes Nazi Germany during 1933-1934, when Hitler was still maneuvering to get more power. Hindenberg (the prez) was still alive, and Hitler’s position as Chancellor was still relatively new.


Larson centers the story on the American ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, a history prof at the U of Chicago. Roosevelt sent him over (Dodd was not the first choice), and he and his family are immediately caught up in the rapid changes of German society as the Nazis increased their hold over many aspects of daily life, politics, and press. The anti-Semitic laws started slowly, but what’s fascinating here is that other countries were well aware of Hitler’s anti-Semitism, and well aware of his encroaching fanaticism but everyone played an appeasement game with him, operating under the assumption that beneath the fanaticism was a logical leader.

Therein was the mistake. Dodd was fiercely unpopular because he refused to play the diplomatic game and he was not fooled by Hitler — he didn’t live extravagantly, didn’t suffer fools lightly, and spoke frankly to Nazi officials (including Hitler) with whom he interacted. Nevertheless, the Roosevelt administration refused to acknowledge Dodd’s warnings about the rise of Hitler and the latter’s pushing Germany into a new war. When Dodd was relieved of his post and returned to the US, he spent time during the late 1930s working with an anti-Nazi propaganda organization and giving speeches all over the country about the dangers of Hitler’s Germany and the fact that Hitler was maneuvering to invade Czechoslovakia and other Eastern Bloc countries. In 1939, his warnings proved prescient, when Hitler invaded Poland and the world again descended into world war.

This is a superb look at how easy it is to insinuate a nationalistic, violent, and dangerous ideology into a country that is reeling from economic and social stresses. It starts slowly, with a few laws passed here and there outlawing certain things (like abortion, for example — the Nazis outlawed abortion among “Aryans”), and a collusion between corporate interests and government. Soon, the press is a tool of the government. And soon, certain classes of people are targeted as enemies of the state. And soon the disappearances of perceived political enemies begins, with government double-speak and obfuscation. And by the time you wake up and realize what’s happened, it’s too late.

Though this book is ostensibly a view into history, I found some creepy parallels with the current situation in the US. The collusion of corporate and government interests; the buying of elections; dismantling of unions and collective bargaining; cries against public education and federal aid; political candidates who trumpet a mean-spirited and exceptionalist agenda (“our way or the highway”; “we are called by God to do these things”, e.g.); a giant corporate news entity that touts a particular party and thus ideological line; the positioning of certain people as enemies of if not the state, the American way: LGBT people, immigrants, and Muslims in the current climate. That plus the wholesale mean-spiritedness of what passes today for press coverage mimics what passed for Nazi press 70 years ago.

Larson is a fabulous writer. I’ve read almost all his other stuff, and he injects a prescience into this story that really creeped me out. In addition, I didn’t know much about the diplomatic corps during Hitler’s rise to power, and learning about William Dodd — a man who was so, so right — was a real treat. It’s a fast read, and if you’re up for a little bit of comparison of historical eras, it might prove unsettling.

Happy (or at least, interesting) reading!

5 thoughts on “Readin’ tip

  1. I enjoyed “In the Garden of the Beasts, as well, Andi. Larsen has a particularly fascinating way of making history read like fiction and yet, it is clear you are reading historical stuff. I, too, had no idea of the machinations in the diplomatic world (here or in Germany) leading up to the war. The period, in Germany, has always felt eerily like that which we are experiencing now. I have known some of what was happening leading up to the rise of Hitler to power, the build to the Holocaust, and to WWII. It concerns me that like Dodd, so many who are trying to get attention to the real problems (and not the ones manufactured or blown out of proportion to entertain us and keep us from focusing on the real problems) are not heard or dismissed. I have to keep believing that somehow justice will win out, but how much do we have to endure before it is so. Thanks for the review.

    • He’s a fab writer, isn’t he? Have you read “Isaac’s Storm,” about the Galveston hurricane of 1901? Brilliant. Yes, I agree–how much to we have to endure before justice prevails? I don’t know. But there are days when I feel really burdened with worry about it. I try not to, but given the current climate…well, it’s a recipe for not-very-nice-things.

  2. I haven’t read “Isaac’s Storm.” Will look it up and add it to the pile! 🙂 I know what you mean about worrying. I try not to as well, but given the news each day, it is hard. We have our own version of the national mess here in Minnesota and it ain’t pretty. Ah, deep breath and keep on. Heading your way on Saturday on our way to NM with a brief stay in Denver with friends. Looking forward to being back in Northern NM.

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