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Review: ‘In the Garden of Beasts’ by Erik Larson

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By Erik Larson

Crown, 464 pages, $26

The author will read from and sign copies of the book at:
• 7 p.m. May 14 at Pfeiffer Hall, 310 E. Benton Ave., Naperville. Information: (630) 355-2665.
• 2 p.m. May 15 at Centuries & Sleuths, 7419 W. Madison St., Forest Park.

Updated: August 6, 2011 12:21AM

Edgar Allan Poe already took the best title.

“A Descent into the Maelstrom” is what I kept thinking while reading Erik Larson’s terrific, harrowing account of one American family’s experience in Germany immediately following Hitler’s assumption of power.

In the Garden of Beasts (not a bad alternative) is a dazzling amalgam of reportage, historical digging and narrative drive that casts an eerie new light on the long prelude to World War II.Larson, who has a permanent place in the Chicago literary firmament thanks to

The Devil in the White City , has struck pay dirt again with this little-known story, featuring a distinctly local angle.

In 1933, William E. Dodd, a longtime history professor at the University of Chicago, was casually casting about for a new sinecure. Pulling some strings with connections in the new Roosevelt administration, he made his interests known. At the time, the president struggled filling the ambassadorship to Germany. There were few takers for a post clouded by Germany’s immense debt to the United States, the unknowns surrounding Hitler and the country’s troubling obsession with “the Jewish question.”

Surprisingly, Dodd got the nod. Sporting no diplomatic experience, the somewhat taciturn, abstemious historian packed up his belongings — including a battered Chevy, a wife and two grown children — and set off for Berlin.

Dodd’s flashy daughter, Martha, was working her way out of a failed marriage and aspired to be a writer. Immediately upon arrival overseas, however, she revealed her true talents as a would-be belle of Berlin. Out almost every night, her squires included players on all ends of the spectrum, including Russian spies and high-ranking Nazis. Her rumored sexual repertoire included an advanced, effective technique resembling the fluttering of a butterfly.

Working from manuscripts, diaries and letters, Larson charts the almost day-by-day experiences of this strange brood in a very strange period. The unlikely pairing of Dodd and his daughter landed in a place where not everyone had yet revealed their truest colors and when the political winds eddied around the city in unpredictable gusts.

At first, the Dodds — like many in Germany — tried to give the new regime the benefit of the doubt. The attitude most adopted was along the lines of, “Once the dust settles, they surely can’t be all that bad.” The city was beautiful and charming and so were some of the Nazis. The U.S. State Department was more concerned about the debt than politics. And yet ...

The new government kept passing laws restricting the freedoms of Jews. Americans and other foreigners were frequently beaten on the streets, usually because they failed to offer the Seig Heil salute when brown shirts marched by. Hitler’s ultimate aims were arguably plain to see when he repudiated the Treaty of Versailles and began rebuilding the army. Concentration camps, like the one at Dachau, were becoming operational, even if their eventual purpose was still clouded.

Hindsight, of course, is 20-20, but men like Ambassador Dodd and a few others began to slowly raise the alarm. Alas, his country and the world were not ready to listen.

Larson’s study reads like a suspense
novel, replete with colorful characters, both familiar and those previously relegated to
the shadows.

Like Christopher Isherwood’s

Berlin Stories or Victor Klemperer’s Diaries, In the Garden of Beasts is an on-the-ground documentary of a society going mad in slow motion. However, with the so-called “Night of the Long Knives” in 1934, in which Hitler violently purged his opposition, his larger intent and capabilities became all too apparent.

In another short story, Poe called the impetus for immorality “The Imp of the Perverse.” Ambassador Dodd witnessed its unleashing. The world would be forced to endure it.

John Barron is the publisher of the Chicago Sun-Times.

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