I really hope the FBI isn’t monitoring my computer. Since I started reading Erik Larson’s book In the Garden of Beasts I’ve probably spent as much time looking up old Nazi pictures as I have on Facebook. Throughout the book, which came out in paperback last month, Larson fills in readers on what their middle school teachers didn’t mention about World War II. He takes readers behind the scenes from the point of view of William E. Dodd, the American ambassador to Germany, and his family in Berlin during Hitler’s rise to power. Instead of a boring novel those teachers might’ve assigned, In the Garden of Beasts is a tense web of ego, espionage and, most interestingly, brainwashing.
Always a bit of a history nerd, I used to wonder how one guy was able to sway an entire country into such a radical, lethal train of thought. For the life of me I couldn’t figure out why this psychotic little weirdo with a funny moustache was able to convince people to kill 6 million Jews who, not too long before, didn’t even seem to have much of a beef with anyone. Somehow In the Garden of Beasts manages to be a suspense novel even though the reader knows what’s inevitable. Along the way Larson describes how Hitler and the rest of the Nazi high command were able to slowly, if not begrudgingly, exert their sway over the rest of Deutschland.
It wasn’t as easy as it seemed like it was. The book was loaded with info and one of the other main themes to me was that people aren’t very different than they were in the 1930s. They knew what direction German society was headed in when Jewish families started to become ostracized but too many weren’t willing to stop it. There were plenty of intellectuals and people questioning the government in Germany but as time went on those voices steadily disappeared.
When Hitler ascended to the office of chancellor in January of 1933 one of the first things he did was eliminate the free press. For any aspiring dictators reading, that is totalitarianism 101. By only allowing sympathetic newspapers, magazines, and literature to be published in Germany, Hitler and the Nazi party began what would turn into a long 15 years of paranoia.
While Dodd is the main engine Larson uses to further the plot along, readers get an intimate glimpse into the Nazi high command through Dodd’s daughter, Martha. In her early twenties when the family moved to Berlin Martha quickly came to the attention of both Nazi and Russian soldiers. She slept with so many, in fact, that she came to the attention of her father’s superiors back in the states. One of her main suitors was an early commander of what’d become the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels.
One of Diels’ chief responsibilities was to set up surveillance on any German the Nazi leadership felt could have been a threat to not only the Third Reich, but their own jobs. Diels regularly bugged the phones of the big boys in the Nazi Party and was eventually caught up in a dispute between them. It became clear to the Dodds and the pacifist elites in German society that their conversations and activities were being heavily monitored.
The Third Reich turned Germans against each other by encouraging them to report anyone that would be considered a threat to the state. Early concentration camps filled up with people who had been convicted after neighbors had reported them for petty gossip.
Larson writes, “As time passed the Dodds found themselves confronting an amorphous anxiety that infiltrated their days and gradually altered the way they led their lives.” The change came about slowly, arriving like a pale mist that slipped into every crevice. It was something everyone in Berlin seemed to experience.”
Part of the reason other countries ignored Hitler until it was too late was because he never seemed credible. Larson describes more than once how Dodd and others in the U.S. saw the dictator akin to a spoiled teenager playing with Germany like a new toy. Even back in the ‘40s his moustache and uniforms seemed like a cartoon.
Even though he was in power for less than a decade by the time Germany attacked Poland Hitler enacted his changes in a slow progression. The Jews, often thought of as a huge part of society, represented a single digit percent of the entire population. That combined with the fact most Europeans (and Americans) at the time were anti-Semitic didn’t really draw the attention of anyone who’d stand in the way of the then seeming trivialities of that came with isolating the Jewish people.
The free-thinkers of Germany eventually left the country or were assassinated. The elimination of any voice of reason allowed crazy ol’ Adolf to run amock. Later in the book Rudolf Diels mentions that the Nazi practice of using torture as a weapon attracted sadist from all over Europe to join up with the SS or the Gestapo. Unknowingly (but fortunately for them), the Third Reich was soon employing and enabling people that enjoyed the brutal side of being an officer for a dictatorship. Diels implied to Martha Dodd that for many there was even a sexual appeal, almost a dominant/submissive role they played with themselves in their minds.