In the Garden of Beasts

 Erik Larson

Crown Publishing Group

At the Katakombe cabaret, Werner Finck continued poking fun at the new regime, despite the risk of arrest. During one show a member of the audience called him a “lousy yid,” to which he responded, “I’m not Jewish. I only look intelligent.” The audience laughed with gusto.

      from  In the Garden of Beasts


The beast is always with(in) us

You know you’re on the other side of history when Dachau is referred to as “a charming village.” Within a few years, it would become one of the most infamous concentration camps in a chapter of appalling infamy.

Seattle author Erik Larson (The Devil in the White City) has written an account of what it was like to live in Germany just as Hitler was coming to power. For us, looking from this side of history, it’s like watching a train accident about to happen.

Larson builds his story primarily around William Dodd, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, and his lively, rather dashing daughter, Martha, who had a series of affairs with, well, whoever seemed to be available at the time.

The ambassador is not an especially appealing or noble figure (his enemies in the State Department called him “Ambassador Dud”), though he gains respect in the readers’ eyes as he tries in vain to halt the violence and warn his government about Hitler’s threat.

In 1933, the Dodds shared many of the prejudices common to that time (Martha notes in her diary: “We don’t like Jews too much.”) They arrive with a view of Germany that is all edelweiss, alpine villages, and blond children in lederhosen, something out of The Sound of Music—and we know how that ended. They seem naïve now when viewed from the self-righteous perspective that history affords. It’s easy to call a game after it’s over.

In the space of a year, the Dodds’ romantic view of Germans and Germany had changed to one of growing alarm as they watched a civilized and cultured society slipping into barbarism.

Perhaps the true hero in the book is George Messersmith, America’s consul general for Germany, who continued to try and convince the ambassador and the U.S. State Department that “all this violence represented more than a passing spasm of atrocity. Something fundamental had changed in Germany.”

Messersmith became an irritant with his frequent and lengthy dispatches warning of what he saw emerging: “With few exceptions, the men who are running this Government are of a mentality that you and I cannot understand. Some of them are psychopathic cases and would ordinarily be receiving treatment somewhere.” Messersmith was eventually transferred.

If there is a lesson for our time here, perhaps it is to beware of demagogues, promising too much and playing to our fears and prejudices.

And as we approach an election year, they are everywhere.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (October 15 - November 14, 2011). Reprinted with permission.