My book club is reading this for our February meeting. I kind of got a head start because once I started reading a few pages, I had to find out what would happen next. I've always been interested in this period of history and like many people I've often wondered why the Holocaust couldn't have been averted. Why didn't world leaders see it coming? Reading this book has given me a clearer view of this era. In the prologue of In the Garden of Beasts, author Erik Larson writes "That's the trouble with nonfiction. One has to put aside what we all know - now- to be true, and try instead to accompany my two innocents through the world as they experienced it. These were complicated people moving through a complicated time, before the monsters declared their true nature."
I wondered when I read those lines how I could read a novel that begins in 1933 in Berlin and forget that I knew exactly what was going to happen years later. But somehow Larson nailed it. As I kept reading and following the story of the American ambassador to Berlin, mild-mannered William E. Dodd. and his flirtatious daughter Martha, I started to understand why very few people predicted what Hitler was actually capable of. No one saw the nightmare that was looming over Germany. Even the few people who realized Hitler was insane didn't believe he would last that long. The atrocities that were reported back to America were looked on as isolated incidents. Anti-semitism was ripe not only in Germany but in the rest of Europe and even in the States. The dispatches and letters sent by the few in the U.S. embassy who believed there was cause for concern were all ignored. America, suffering from the Depression, only wanted Germany to pay it's financial debt back and that's what they tasked Dodd to focus on.
the Dodd family en route to Berlin
Larson follows the years of Dodd's posting in Germany and his growing disillusionment with Germany and with his own job. Martha, who at first is fascinated by the Nazis and her glamorous life in Berlin slowly starts to unravel the truth because of various incidents culminating in the Night of the Long Knives. This was a fascinating read and now I have a better understanding of what happened in Germany in the 30s before the outbreak of war.
Larson is called the master of the nonfiction narrative and that's not surprising. In the Garden of Beasts was as gripping as the best fictional political thrillers .