Culture & Livability

BOOK CLUB: In the Garden of Beasts, Discussed

A boycott of Jewish shops in Berlin, 1933.

As a historian, [Dodd] had come to view the world as the product of historical forces and the decisions of more or less rational people, and he expected the men around him to behavie in a civil and coherent manner. But Hitler’s government was neither civil nor coherent, and the nation lurched from one inexplicable moment to another.

As Dodd was about to find out, in a milieu as supercharged as Berlin, where every public action of a diplomat accrued exaggerated symbolic weight, even a mere bit of conversational sparring across a banquet table could become the stuff of minor legend.

At last came Christmas Day. Hitler was in Munich, Goring, Neurath, and other senior officials likewise had left Berlin. The city was quiet, truly at peace.

In a cable to the State Department, Dodd likened the atmosphere of threat to that of the French Revolution — ‘the stituation was much as it was in Paris in 1792 when the Girondins and Jacobins were struggling for supremacy.’

The above quotes are only a few of the many I highlighted in Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts that evoke viscerally the political and social climate in Berlin in the 1930s. Larson’s historical narrative of the years during Adolf Hitler’s ascent to power is lushly rendered, and Berlin is as much of a character as U.S. Ambassador William Dodd, his daughter Martha, her lover Boris and their circle of both Nazi and anti-Nazi affiliates.

I mentioned in my introductory post that I loved Larson’s Devil in the White City, and I wasn’t disappointed by In the Garden of Beasts. I concurrently read Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories and was delighted to see Larson reference Isherwood’s descriptions of the city; while I absolutely do not want to romanticize the idea of living amongst the nascent Nazi regime, it was hard for me not to feel some pull toward and fascination with the environment of which Larson writes.

I was struck strongly by the way characters changed when they entered and exited Berlin: When Martha and Boris would take off on jaunts, often with the top down on his convertible, they weren’t just relieved to be leaving the busyness of the city — they were relieved to be leaving the stressors that accompanied Hitler’s oversight. Likewise, the Tiergarten neighborhood in central Berlin was often noted as the only place Dodd could speak freely with his peers. American author Thomas Wolfe wrote that the Dodds’ home there was “a free and fearless harbor for people of all opinions, and people who live and walk in terror have been able to draw their breath there without fear and to speak their minds.”

Larson mentions in his prologue that he and his readers of In the Garden of Beasts have the benefit of hindsight and history; nonetheless, can you at all imagine a life in Berlin in 1933 and the kind of choices you might have to make there? (I found Martha’s political evolution — from Nazi supporter to ambivalent American to socialist — jarring, but understandable, especially given Larson’s expert contextualization of the well-organized Nazi lifestyle.)

Additionally, what did you make of Berlin’s role in the story? Did you, like me, view the characters’ ingresses and egresses as a consistent pattern? Could the culture of salons, dates and daytrips that Martha indulged in existed anywhere else? Was Berlin superseded by Larson’s human character — or the horrors of history that he detailed?

I’ll leave you with my favorite scene-setting quote of Larson’s:

As the weekend progressed, the Dodds learned that a new phrase was making the rounds in Berlin, to be deployed upon encountering a friend or acquaintance on the street, ideally with a sardonic lift of one eyebrow: ‘Lebst du noch?’ Which meant, ‘Are you still among the living?’ (321)

Check the Daily blog on Monday for an announcement of next month’s book club pick. Until then, discuss In the Garden of Beasts in the comments below, on Next American City’s Facebook page, or on Twitter (I’m @alexbaca).

Tags: culture, culture & livability, book club, berlin, history, in the garden of beasts, erik larson