Friday, June 21, 2013

The evil behind the masque

In the garden of beasts: love, terror, and an American family in Hitler's Berlin Larson, Erik. ISBN: 0307408841, Recorded from:, New York : Crown, c2011. In some ways, this is one of the most horrific (not the book, but it’s content) and terrifying books I’ve ever read. It is an intimate look at a very specific period in history, and we know a great deal about that period. What makes this book so effecting is the events it chronicles, yes, but also the context in which those events unfold, and the lingering echoes that demonstrate that yes, given even similar circumstances, the whole terrible scenario could repeat itself. I remember reading, a very long time ago, a story (in translation) by Thomas Mann about a pair of darkly twisted, but beautiful and glittering twins. These twins were symbols of Germany between the World wars ...frenetic, glittering, but underneath hollow and filled with poison. At first glance, the trappings of society effervesced and sparkled, especially the social life in Berlin, but even here, there was an essential brittleness, a need to drink harder, dance more, outshine everyone else, lest the diamond (paste gem, actually) develop cracks and fall apart. The cracks were already there, though, and it was only a matter of time, and the determination of a few men that let all the poison out. One reads about nightclubs with 30 different rooms, and wonders long can this last? Against this terrible, gaudy setting the story of an American family evolves. Watching as each is first taken in by, and then utterly revolted by, what is happening is at the very least, educational. An entire country was being hijacked and perverted, and no one seemed to care, or even be watching. I can’t talk sensibly about this book without speaking, if only a bit, about one of the factors that contributed enormously to the Nazi party’s success and the unwillingness of the European (and I include America in this) community to act more quickly and with more force. Had they done so, it is possible that they might have prevented the second World War, although there were other factors that might have still led to that war. But there was a tacit if not active acceptance of anti Semitic bigotry, even in the highest places in Government. Anti Semitism has a long and brutal history in Europe, and while its effects are less visible, still exists, on both sides of the Atlantic. Like all forms of bigotry, these attitudes produce nothing but destruction, and its results are well known. But, the fact is that, had the repression of the Nazis been aimed at another segment of society, or even another group, say Protestants, the reaction would have been very different. The family at the center of this story consists of the new Ambassador to Germany, his wife, son and daughter. Ambassador Dodd was an anomaly in the Diplomatic corps. He wasn’t independently wealthy. He was an academic, and a self styled Jeffersonian democrat. He was diplomatically and politically na├»ve, which destroyed him in the long term, but he was also honest, and one of the first to see what was happening in Germany with clarity. However, like Cassandra, he spoke the truth, and no one (or very few) believed him. The other main character, his daughter, first fell in “love” with what she saw, and was completely taken in by the show the Nazis presented to the world at large. She entered wholeheartedly into the nightlife and the intellectual society of Berlin, enjoyed popularity and several affairs, and only later, when the “corner” had been turned and the Nazi hierarchy came out from behind its curtain of illusion, did she realize that she had bought into a false dream. The book itself tells this terrible story quietly, ruthlessly shining a light on that world and that time. Reading it was a wrenching experience for me, both because of what happened, and even more because, while tracking those events, I could see, without much effort, how it could happen again, and how likely it would be that the reaction of the people living through the events could again be deceived and fail to react in time.

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