The book club I started with my friends has been getting more and more official and we’re getting more input on books from people not me, which is wonderful. It’s also how I ended up reading In the Garden of Beasts because nonfiction has really just not been my particular kettle of fish. That fact remains, but I am glad I read it.
William Dodd is a Depression-era university professor who would really just like a little more free time to work on his book. He has, over the course of his life, made friends in the right kinds of high places and would like to be appointed to an ambassadorship in an easy-going country where he has fewer responsibilities. However, this is the early 1930s and Hitler has risen to power in Germany and Dodd is offered the position no one else wants–Ambassador to Germany. He accepts and in 1933 begins his four-year tenure with his family in Berlin.
Politically-appointed ambassadors (different from those who are promoted from within the foreign service) tend, today, to be big donors and friends of the ruling party. They come from money and they have money to throw around. Apparently it wasn’t much different almost a hundred years ago and Dodd ruffled a lot of feathers in his distaste for the extravagant displays of wealth among his staff and peers when the American people were so destitute. It’s a running theme in the book and is an attitude that, according to Larson, set a lot of his colleagues back in Foggy Bottom against him. As the years passed and he began to more and more stridently object to and report back on what he was seeing, much of what he said was ignored precisely because various Undersecretaries didn’t trust him as “one of them”. Larson describes a very petty and almost school-yard attitude among the most powerful men in foreign policy and I found it really shocking. Their opinions of Dodd weren’t the only reason they ignored him, though, they also just didn’t think Hitler was a bad dude.
Spoiler alert: he was a real bad dude. Also, Nazis can get stuffed.
As an American, I was taught the history of WWII from the American perspective–that there were these Big Bag Guys and our GIs swept in and saved the day light the righteous, stand-up fellas they were. I mean, that was the gist. There was more depth as I grew older but this book really hammered home for me just how much the US wanted to distance itself from anything resembling conflict in Europe. It was also astonishing just how easily and quietly Germany slipped away. The first few years of Hitler and the Nazis were so unstable it defies all logic that they could go as far as they did. Just … ugh.
It’s a Larson book, so, as usual, it’s a history less. These aren’t books you like or dislike, they are simply books you finish, digest, and reflect on. I’m glad I read it, but I’m also glad to be getting back to fiction.