Northside SF
Book Notes
Strangers in a stranger land

Author Erik Larson
photo: Benjamin Benschneider
Adolf Hitler met my stepmother. True story. She was a young schoolgirl in the 1930s, one of thousands of locals lined up to observe the Nazi leader on his visit to their eastern German city. As the dictator walked through the crowd shaking hands, he stopped long enough to playfully tug on my stepmother’s pig-tails, and he moved on.

History is filled with such minor but interesting details that either make history come alive or bogs it down even further for people who hate history. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, the new nonfiction book from author Erik Larson, is filled with just those kinds of details of character and location, sight and even smell.

It is an art he perfected with his best-selling The Devil in the White City (to which Leonardo DiCaprio has purchased the film rights). In the Garden of Beasts is the true story of history professor William E. Dodd and his family during the first year of Dodd’s tenure as the United States ambassador to Germany in 1933, which was also Hitler’s portentous first year in the chancellor’s office.

Larson shares with us his usual attention to details. Sometimes it’s ridiculously trivial (do we need to know the quantity of every bit of plateware in Dodd’s dining room?), but other times it’s the kind of on-the-spot detail that gives insight into the character and characters of the Nazi regime, such as the descriptions of Hitler’s office, the close-up details of the dictator’s face, or the initial playful meeting between a Soviet spy and the Dodd’s butler, who was a likely Nazi spy.

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror,
and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin,
by Erik Larson, 448 pages, Crown, $26
Larson’s stories of everyday life in 1933 Berlin do give us more than just interesting side notes. They are excellent sources for us to see how the Nazis spread their authority and reach into German life. They also answer the question of what my stepmother’s family was doing observing a Hitler visit when they were not supporters of Hitler or Hitlerism. Obeisance to the Nazi regime was mandatory, and failure to comply was met with force. A recurring theme in Larson’s book is Dodd’s difficulty getting redress from German officials for violent attacks on Americans who didn’t give the Nazi salute to the frequent paramilitary parades through Berlin’s streets.

Readers will likely conclude that Dodd was inadequate for such a sensitive post at that critical time in history. He somewhat sympathized with the anti-Semitism of the German regime – as did a fair amount of other Americans.

The biggest failure, though, was probably his expectation that every actor on the political stage was rational, and his attempts to deal rationally with a regime he came to recognize was filled with criminals and gangsters possibly delayed American pressure being brought to bear against Nazi brutality.

If the details and the insight into some of history’s worst criminals doesn’t interest you, you might still enjoy the vicarious thrill of following the wild life of Dodd’s daughter, Martha, who dated everyone from Russian spies to Gestapo agents (and was even introduced to Hitler himself as a possible love interest, to no avail) before she herself became a spy for Europe’s other mass-murdering dictator, Josef Stalin.

Never a dull moment in Hitler’s Berlin, even in the dull moments.

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