Monday, May 30, 2011

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Eric Larson

Ever wondered what life was like in Berlin right before Teutonic-twit Hitler’s shit hit the fan?
Ever wonder why the German people so enthusiastically embraced the Nazi “let’s get even” party?
 Ever wonder why it took so long for America to wake up and smell the Jewish exterminations?
Me too. I think I gained a clearer insight into these issues reading the Wiki Adolph Hitler page, but Eric Larson’s new book, In the Garden of Beasts (released May 10) was wunderbar!

So what was so wonderful about In the Garden of Beasts? Larson’s writing, of course. The man’s a master storyteller. But two of Larson’s other books are a little more “digestible.” If you haven’t read Isaac’s Storm (1900 Galveston hurricane) and Devil in the White City (1893 Chicago World’s Fair), get to immediately!

Was it the intriguing story of what it was like to live in Berlin during the rise of Hitler’s bile? Well, yes - it was such a provocative and politically tumultuous time. The book title In the Garden of the Beasts refers to Berlin’s central park, the Tiergarten, which literally translates as “Garden of Beasts.” It’s an apt symbol of the beautiful city and country preyed upon by the beast of Nazism. The Tiergarten was also one of the only places people could converse in privacy.

But it wasn’t just Larson’s writing or the time portrayed in his book that twirled my propeller. It was one of the main characters in Larson’s book, Martha Eccles Dodd. More on her later, but first the storyline. After WWI, the German nation was royally pissed at being labeled the bad guys and publicly paddled via The Treaty of Versailles, and was suffering from an "insidious inferiority complex." Enter Hitler, saying it’s all those damn Jews' fault.

Meanwhile Roosevelt, having a devil of a time finding someone willing to accept the US Ambassadorship to Germany, accidentally calls the wrong William Dodd (University of Chicago Professor). Dodd accepts, gaining him the unofficial and dubious State Department assigned nickname, “The Telephone Book Ambassador.” Four hundred forty-seven pages and a cast of thousands later we find out what we already knew: the US was more annoyed by Dodd’s warnings about the gathering storm than about the gathering storm! Seems there were plenty of Jew-haters in our own State Department. Although this is icky and embarrassing stuff,  admittedly the US was particularly focused on recovering from WWI and the Great Depression. (photo above right is of the Dodd family)

Now back to Dodd’s 25-year-old daughter Martha (photo left). The petite, perky, precocious Martha who shamelessly bed-hopped her way across the Germany Gestapo, Luftwaffe and Schutzstaffeln (SS). OK, racy, but furthermore, all her boyfriends fell head over hügelns for Martha, who was apparently gorgeous and “talented!” Of course her move to Berlin wasn’t the beginning of her promiscuous and controversial id. She was also lovers with Carl Sandburg and Thomas Wolf, and hung out with the likes of Lillian Hellman and Thornton Wilder. She also became a Russian spy, wrote several books, married a mega-wealthy investment banker, and eventually lived out her final days in Czechoslovakia.

What made her, and Larson’s story of her, so interesting, however, was not so much her wildness in a wild setting, but rather the quality of the information and the narrative. Martha and her father were both prodigious journalers, and Martha was a particularly romantic writer, so there are tons of juicy, graphic and well-written letters and first-person memoirs that made her story deliciously personal and intriguing. “Boris, Boris, Boris, my skin burns for your touch!” This wasn’t in the book, but Boris was one of her lovers and I don’t doubt that she probably said that to him at some point.

I wanted to be Martha. To drink Champagne all night, to dance the night away in a German or French Cabaret, to swat gorgeous, adoring men away like pesky flies until I was ready to bed them. So here’s my unsurprising recommendation – Glauben mir Honig, Sie müssen dieses Buch lesen!

1 comment:

  1. This is a good view of what was going on inside Germany politics prior to the start of WWII. It was very interesting to see how Hilter manipulated the Germany people into going along with his antisemitic views by playing on their sense of nationalism and pride. It's also interesting to see how the US ignored all the signs and downplayed their own ambassadors many warnings just because he was a middle class academic as opposed to the traditional wealthy elitist class.