Thursday, June 28, 2012

In the Garden of Beasts

The NY Times best seller "In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American family in Hitler's Berlin" by Erik Larson was recommended by Susan Myers of the Holocaust Museum Houston to read before our trip. He also wrote "Devil in the White City" which I assigned to my AP students to read this summer. Though he writes non- fiction works, it reads like a fictional story. This was an easy read, enjoyable and very insightful, detailing the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany while the US stood by.
The book centers around William Dodd, appointed by FDR in 1933 to serve as American ambassador to Germany. A University of Chicago history professor and biographer (and friend) of Woodrow Wilson, he had advised FDR on several matters. The focus of Dodd's mission was to recoup the $1.2 billion Germany had borrowed. Dodd, his wife,son, and free-spirited daughter moved to Germany at the same time the Nazis were rising to power. Dodd's daughter,Martha, was friends (and alleged lover) of Carl Sandburg, Thornton Wilder, Rudold Diels (chief of the Gestapo) and Boris, a Russian diplomat. She also attended functions with many of the Nazi higher-ups, such as Goebbels and Goering and on one occasion - Hitler who kissed her hand.
Though Dodd remained in Germany for 4 1/2 years, the book focuses on the first year-detailing the changes taking place in Germany. As Dodd began to fulfill his diplomatic duties, he was warned by Gen. Messersmith, vice consul general, that "the frontiers of civilization have been crossed.". Americans were severely beaten and arrested for not showing the proper respect to the Nazi flag or soldiers. Many people were placed "in protective custody" in places like Dachau.
Laws began to be passed, isolating the Jews, even though they made up 1% of Germany's 65 million people. American Jews were divided-- some wanted to strongly protest while others feared such protests would make things worse. The general feeling in America was (1) reports were exaggerated (2) the feeling that Jews held too much power and (3) a strong isolationist attitude following WWII that America should stay out of other countries' business. All this with the backdrop that American businessmen wanted their money repaid while in the midst of the Great Depression.
"of course you know our Government cannot intervene in such domestic matters. All one can do is to present the American point of view and stress the unhappy consequences of such a policy as has been pursued. ...fundamentally, I believe a people have a right to govern itself and that other peoples must exercise patience even when cruelties and injustices are done. Give men a chance to try their schemes."
Things suddenly changed when Germany pulled out of the Leaguebof Nations. A national referendum went 95% in favor of Hitler's leadership, with even 96% of the people in Dachau agreeing. Germany was openly rearming in violation of the Treatybof Versailles. "I discovered outside of Berlin on nearly every road leaving the city new large military establishments, including training fields, airports, barracks, proving grounds, anti-aircraft stations and the like...I was astonished to learn that the young daughter of a friend was required to spend every Wednesday afternoon practicing the art of throwing hand grenades."
Hitler then went after his opponents. The book does a nice job of showing how the Nazis had no loyalty to each other or to the German people. After the purge, Hitler announced to the German people "only a ferocious and bloody repression could nip the revolt in the bud...I ordered the leaders of the guilty shot. I also ordered the abscesses caused by our internal and external poisons cauterized until the living flesh was burned. I also ordered that any rebel attempting to resist arrest should be killed immediately. The nation must know that it's existence cannot be menaced with impunity by anyone, and that whoever lifts his hand against the State shall die of it... That you have found me...among so many millions is the miracle of our time. And that I have found you, that is Germany's fortune."
Dodd was recalled thanks to opponents in the US government. But he along with other believed that WWII could have been prevented. "That the allies at this time could easily have overwhelmed Germany is as certain as it is that's such an action would have brought an end to the Third Reich in the very year of its birth. But Hitler knew the mettle of his foreign adversaries as expertly and as uncannily as he had sized up that of his opponents at home." May we learn from our history.

Tom Hanks planning on movie with this book

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