“I walked across the snowy plain of the Tiergarten – a smashed statue here, a newly planted sapling there; the Brandenburger Tor with its red flag flapping against the blue winter sky; and on the horizon, the great ribs of a gutted railway station, like the skeleton of a whale. In the morning light it was all as raw and frank as the voice of history which tells you not to fool yourself; this can happen to any city, to anyone, to you.” -Christopher Isherwood, Down There on a Visit
If you’ve read anything by him, you pretty much know what you’re going to get when you read an Erik Larson book. A thoroughly researched historical book written in a novelistic style. Larson’s MO is to filter a well-known historical event through the experience and perspective of something very specific – the invention of wireless communication through the first man to be charged of murder through it’s aid in Thunderstuck; the 1900 Galveston Hurricane through the chief meteorologist on staff in Isaac’s Storm; the 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago through both its architect and the serial killer who used it as the perfect front to lure his victims. In his latest, Larson takes on perhaps his biggest challenge yet – to re-tell the lead up to World War II and the Holocaust through the eyes of William E. Dodd, the unlikely ambassador to Berlin from 1933-1937, and his insatiable daughter, Martha.
In the Garden of Beasts is, as usual, very well-researched; Larson uses Dodd’s posthumously published diaries as well as he and Martha’s personal letters, and a host of other resources. Larson’s research doesn’t just function as his credibility, though; it lends a nuance to his work that you don’t find in many historical accounts. This is a bit of a dangerous game to play when you’re writing about Nazis, nuance not being among the top 5 things people are looking for when they read about Hitler. But it’s what you get. Larson is objective but unapologetic about revealing the anti-Semitism rampant in the State Department at the time; the Nazi regime’s persecution of Jews was euphemistically referenced as “the Jewish problem,” and it ranked fairly low in the State Department’s list of priorities for its new ambassador (getting Germany to repay its debts from World War I is, of course, number one). He also refuses to treat his subjects as stock characters, delving into the life of Ernest Rohm, openly gay leader of the SA (for which Lucas’ Storm Troopers was named) and Rudolf Diels, head of the Gestapo from 1933-34. Diels in particular is an Indiana Jones level villain, on the surface. A protege of Herman Goring, his face is right out of a Bond movie: that perfectly sinister mix of classic 40’s movie star handsome and obtrusive scars, which in Diels’ case were won from boyhood games of barefaced sword fighting. This is not a man whom one looks at and says, “now there’s someone whose inner life I want to know more about,” but Larson paints a picture of someone who was deeply conflicted about the Third Reich, but simply prioritized his own self-interests above others. Diels was marked for death twice: once on the Night of Long Knives and a second time after he refused to arrest Jews in 1944. He survived both, and went on to testify in the Nuremberg trials.
There’s a picture about 2/3rds of the way through the book, of Hitler and Goring standing side by side. It is the only picture I have ever seen of Hitler smiling. He looks like a barber. Goring looks like a small-town butcher. It did more than any of Larson’s anecdotes to drive the point home that Hitler, before he was Hitler, was just another overly ambitious politician (albeit one with a boulder-sized chip on his shoulder). Goring was an overgrown adolescent who was obsessed with his late wife and with amassing new toys. There’s a tendency for us, as humans, to want to discount the humanity of those we feel are truly evil: we speak of Hitler in terms like “inhuman,” because we don’t want to admit that we might have something in common with him. But he was not inhuman. He was a human, albeit possibly a sociopathic one. And acknowledging that fact, trying to come to terms with what it is about him that makes us want to relegate him to a different species so we don’t have to be associated with him, is what will ultimately help us learn to be better humans.
Ultimately, what unsettled me most about the book wasn’t Hitler, or Goring, or Goebbels (though Goebbels is a creepy fucker) – it seems obvious to me that the single most important thing that these men lacked that made it possible for them to go on to do the things they did was a profound lack of human empathy. Whether that was derived from sociopathy or psychopathy is less sure, and to be honest, I don’t really care. Because Hitler isn’t the most unsettling thing about the Holocaust. Nor are Nazis (though I did find it interesting that the inter-party machinations were like a particularly high-stakes version of high school, party members selling each other out for the smallest of personal slights). No, what is really unsettling about the whole thing is the willingness with which we all looked away. Larson describes Berlin beautifully as it was before the war, alive with culture, but ultimately what he describes was a facade. Berlin’s attractions were served up to travelling dignitaries and the German upper class to divert their vision from the atrocities going on right outside (and sometimes inside) the city; it was a disguise, but it was a very thin one. Hitler started by stripping away small rights, rights that were easy to ignore, rights that only applied to certain people, but eventually he became bolder and even then, we looked away. We were the emperor’s citizens, who didn’t want to admit he had no clothes – in the case of the Germans, perhaps it was because they were scared to admit the truth. In the case of the Americans, perhaps we were ashamed at how much our decisions were driven by the economic implications. Either way, the fact remains: we looked away. We did it willfully, until matters became such that we couldn’t anymore.
And the thing is, we still do. Because here’s the interesting thing about us humans: we constantly dismiss anyone who commits an atrocity as inhuman, and anyone who lets them as stupid. Consider how we treat rape: we believe the only people who commit rape are monsters, and easily identified as such. But we also dismiss people who are raped as stupid, unobservant – “she wasn’t protecting herself,” “why did she get herself into that situation,” etc. We do this for two reasons: we don’t want to admit the possibility that we might count a rapist within our circle of acquaintance, and we don’t want to admit that we could at some point be a victim of rape. In both cases, it removes us from danger in our heads. Similarly, as a society we dismiss Hitler as somehow uniquely evil and Germans as at best foolish and at worst uncivilized brutes for not seeing where their country was headed and stopping it. Both of these are comforting myths, because it removes us, as good old-fashioned American humans, from having to worry about anything similar happening here. But consider the way we talk about undocumented immigrants. Consider Arizona. Hell, consider the fact that we have already had internment camps in this country. We roll our eyes every time someone compares anything about America to the Nazis, not because the comparison isn’t apt (though it usually isn’t), but because we know in our hearts that America could never be anything like the Third Reich. But the potential is there. The potential is always there. The only thing that protects us is our rights, and the only thing that ensures those rights is us, and the only way to do that is to never stop paying attention.
My hope is that books like this, that paint Nazi Germany and the lead-up to the Holocaust in colours other than red, black and white, can open our eyes to the reality of genocide. Because it’s not a war movie. It’s a slow erosion of rights, that leads up to an opportunity. When that opportunity is taken, we call it genocide. We express shock and horror. But it was happening, all along. We could have seen it, if our eyes had been open, if we had wanted to look.