Review: “In the Garden of Beasts”

I’ve just finished reading Erik Larson’s recent work In the Garden of Beasts,which tells the story of Berlin under the first years of Nazi rule.  The story unfolds through the eyes of the Dodd family, whose head was the American ambassador to Germany during the mid-1930s.

Larson does a nice job bringing alive the Berlin of yesteryear, just as old Germany was fading away and, without quite realizing it, tumbling headlong towards its own destruction.  Larson, thought not a professional historian, has done a great service to all of us by providing a new way to understand the changes, challenges, and contingencies that the early years of Nazi rule brought about in Germany.

Though the narrative he relates here did not seem as compelling as his previous work The Devil in the White City (which retells events surrounding the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair), the real strength of his most recent monograph is the way in which it brings looming historic figures down to earth.  Popularly speaking, Hitler often tends to get relegated to the level of mythic evil.  Despite the heinousness of his crimes, he and is ilk are often thought of as archetypes rather than actual human beings  Like setpieces in a great opera, they exist almost as Manichaean figures.

Not so for Larson, who provides us a picture of a rough Nazi party that was composed of petty lords, brutal thugs, and inane behavior.  Hermann Goring is particularly singled out for his childlike behavior, and Hitler is depicted in some ways as rather plain and mediocre in appearance and bearing.  Furthermore, Larson’s work reveals that the Nazi grip on Germany was anything but guaranteed in those early years…reminding us, perhaps, that evil rarely just takes over but instead often follows a slow and stealthy path towards victory.

I recommend the book for both historians and non-historians alike.  Its subject matter is interesting enough; its implications will hopefully spark engaging conversations and helpful reflection on these and other matters.

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