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Book Review: In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

Updated: Aug 11, 2020

Erik Larson does it again. Fans of Larson's previous work, notably Devil in the White City, will be happy to know that in his latest book, In the Garden of Beasts, which takes its name from the Tiergarten, or Animal Garden, Berlin's largest public park, he proves once again that a history lesson can be every bit as compelling as fiction and reveal far more about the meaning of what it is to be human.

In the Garden of the Beasts takes the reader on a guided tour of Germany and its contentious Nazi politics circa 1933, just as Hitler was coming to power, as told through the eyes of the unwitting, unwillingly and unwelcome U.S. Ambassador, William Dodd, and his family, most notably daughter Martha. Dodd was a history professor with Jeffersonian inclinations who arrived in Nazi Germany with the dangerously naive belief that all statesmen were by nature rational beings.

William and Martha provide first-person accounts of intimate--in the case of Martha, sometimes extremely intimate--encounters with the likes of Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, Rohm and Gestapo leader and original scarface Rudolf Diels. Larson guides us through their initial enthusiasm for the new Nazi Germany as it turns to disenchantment, and ultimately horror, culminating in the exact moment when the march of progress toward a post-World War I, rebuilt Germany, became the march of the Waffen-SS and the march toward death for millions of innocents.

As with many of Larson's books, the story provides insight into the big questions--how could this happen and was no one paying attention? The answers are all too human, starting with an America in the economic free fall of the Great Depression, afraid of offending Hitler lest he default on much-needed payment of war bonds, and emphasizing the perils of the reigning isolationist attitudes of the day.

Larson reminds us of our own shortcomings, the insidious nature of America's own anti-semitic attitudes and the fear that calling out the Hitler regime's then only repressive and not-yet-murderous policies against Jews might conjure comparisons to our still-pervasive Jim Crow laws. He shows us how things like a long-standing tradition of political patronage in the disbursement of ambassadorships and the elitism of the Foreign Service were inadvertent co-conspirators in the rise of Nazi power.

In the Garden of Beasts is an insightful look at a moment in time when so much hung in the balance, when psychopaths operated unchecked in civilized society, simultaneously terrorizing and desensitizing the vastly average majority while unassuming, everyday heroes sounded alarms that went unheard for reasons large and small, reasonable and ridiculous, and ultimately, imperfectly human.

It's a book that is as relevant today as at any point in history

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