Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin is worth reading if only for the utterly surrealistic Chapter 42, “Hermann’s Toys”, which recounts a Sunday afternoon at Carinhall. Hermann Goring entertains a reluctant group of diplomats at his vast estate by trying to mate two bison on command and flaunting the mausoleum that he had erected to house his exhumed dead wife. All the while making several different changes of uniform and showing off like a “‘big, fat, spoilt child.'”
Scenes like the above would be laughable except Larson’s book is quick to remind the reader that far from being just a childish buffoon, this man was a bloodthirsty thug. In the Garden of Beasts, through exhaustive research, paints a picture of the early Nazi Germany that feels more like a vivid novel or movie than a non-fiction historical account. Also clearly present is an impending sense of darkness and fear as the Nazi party continues to brutalize Jews and anyone that they perceive as a threat. Larson focuses in on the plight of the US Ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, and his family, in particular his daughter Martha. Dodd was an unlikely candidate to become an Ambassador and many in the State Department considered him ill suited to serve in Berlin, in fact they actively worked to discredit him. Meanwhile, his daughter Martha was a free spirit who had trysts with several men in Germany including the head of the Gestapo and a Russian spy.
The Dodd’s story, while integral to the book and interesting, is really just a backdrop to the thrust of the book, the rise of the Nazi party around 1933-1934. Appeasement runs deep throughout the book. Whether by ignoring events and warnings or by minimizing them, nobody recognized the true threat. Dodd’s and other US officials’ warnings were set aside by a State Department and cabinet that was concerned more with German debt and not straying from the foreign policy of isolationism. It’s also clear that there was an anti-semitic element in the WASPish upper government at the time. Whereas in Germany many were concerned with the tactics that Hitler and the Nazis were using but assured themselves that it would not last long and that the Nazis would be quickly deposed. Perhaps the only real check against Hitler was President Hindenburg who commanded the loyalty of the army (Reichswehr) yet was unmoved to stop Hitler.
The Nazis and Hitler remain today as a symbol of evil and the example of a totalitarian state, yet symbols are often empty because the reality that derived them is abstracted. It’s hard to see Nazis without the cartoonish evilness attached to them or the pop culture portrayal. Whether it be in Indiana Jones movies or YouTube videos of Adolf Hitler raging, their is a distance between the symbol and the real evil it represents. Erik Larson’s biggest achievement in In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin is to bring the evilness back to life and to see it in full display. The reader is able to witness the capricious cruelty and the brutish political intrigue where power is acquired by eliminating enemies. Most importantly, Larson describes a world where people like Goring may one evening be entertaining a large dining party and the next evening be ordering the death of many innocent men. In essence, he shows that these are not just symbols of evil but also humans and with that Larson brings to life the darkness of human capability in a way that is atypical of most historical books.