Friday, December 06, 2013

The Garden of Beasts

Elaine's Table: Stollen, Lebkuchen, German Cheese, etc.
Center: Kichel, a very light traditional Jewish cookie
Last night my book club discussed In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson , a story of 1933-1934 Berlin and the rise of Hitler and the early impact on Berlin and its inhabitants. Therefore our hostess, my friend Elaine, served a combination of German and Jewish foods, as shown above. As usual, we had a very free-ranging discussion about the book and ideas that came up in connection with the book, such as the role of Churchill in recognizing the reality of Hitler's rise, and the conditions in America at the time. Below are some of the themes that we discussed and things I've thought about the book.

William E. Dodd, America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany is the center of In the Garden of Beasts, along with his family. The book also describes in some detail the antics of his daughter who inappropriately was having affairs with both Nazis and with a Soviet agent. Larson's choice of Dodd as a focus allows Larson to describe early Nazi success from the point of view of a historic individual who didn't know how things would turn out. Dodd's and his daughter's central roles make the book read like a novel, though it's completely based on historical research.

Before Roosevelt appointed him as ambassador, Dodd was a professor at the University of Chicago, trying to finish his life's work: a book on the Old South. He wasn't political and he wasn't connected to the elite circles of high-society, wealthy, ivy-league, anti-semitic white men who ran the State Department. His conflicts and problems with them and with his similarly-connected subordinates in Berlin are one of the interesting topics of the book. Particularly, as he had no fortune, he was determined to live and entertain on his salary -- in total contrast to the usual ambassador types.

As a more open-minded and academic thinker than the standard State Department officials, one area of conflict was Dodd's clear-headed ability to see just what the Nazis were up to: how they were enforcing their wish that ordinary Germans to go along with their program. At one point, for example, we get sudden insight into how far things have gone: Dodd sees a swastika embossed on a cough drop that one of the Nazi contacts offers him. I had a lot of sympathy for Dodd as he found it harder and harder to exert normal diplomatic relations with Hitler's officials, whose actions were increasingly heinous. Dodd began to refuse to attend Nazi rallies and other events that were so hysterical in the way they worked up crowd mentality and attacked Jews -- leading to more criticism and back-biting in Washington.

After finishing Larson's book, I started rereading a novel about wartime Berlin that book club read last summer: City of Women by David Gillham. The two books, set at different times in Nazi history, seem to work together in my mind to give a picture of how the Germans were corrupted and bullied into compliance with Nazi thought. The impoverishment of the ordinary Germans, who were on very tight rations and found almost nothing in the shops, and the outright denial of food to the hidden Jews in Gillham's book provides a food theme, or rather a starvation theme.

Both Berlin books are painful to read -- Larson says (in the afterword and in some interviews we discussed last night) that he found the research for the book terribly depressing and horrifying. Larson's earlier book was Devil in the White City about the Chicago World's Fair, a previous book club selection which I wrote about here. Although in it Larson describes the horrible actions of a serial killer who was preying on women who came to the fair, Larson said he didn't find that anywhere near as difficult as learning about Hitler, for whom he developed an overwhelming hatred. I also found the World's Fair a much lighter topic than Hitler and prefer the earlier book.


Jeanie said...

Thanks for posting about both of these books, Mae. I think I would like to read them both -- although they do sound tough. But we have to read tough. It's not all Wallender and Maisie Dobbs...

Your book club looks like mine -- we love to eat and the food is always great!

~~louise~~ said...

Hi Mae,

I must agree with Jeanie, tough to read but necessary. Thank you so much for sharing...