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!