In The Garden of Beasts – Erik Larson

Just finished reading a historical non-fiction which reads like fiction about Hitler’s Germany. Intrigue, wild romances and the horrors of Nazi Germany make this a fascinating book. What makes it especially interesting is that it addresses the question ( to some extent) that I have always had about that era. I have always wondered how and why the German people allowed such horrors to happen. Did they not know about the concentration camps and how Jews and other members of society were being treated and if they did, did they turn a blind eye? When we visited Munich years ago and went to Dachau, the infamous concentration camp just a short train ride away from the city, I just sat on the grounds of the camp thinking of what it must have been like for the people in the camps and how common people were living, knowing what could be happening to their neighbours, their friends.

The book is set in 1933 when Hitler is beginning to gain power and America sends an academic, William Dodd to Berlin as its ambassador. Dodd is not the popular choice for ambassadorship as he is looked down upon by the elite, wealthy consulate staff who would spend their own money to throw lavish parties while Dodd decided to make do with his $17,000 salary. The book chronicles Dodd’s take on the events in Germany, his personal battles, his daughter’s romantic escapades with Nazis and a Soviet spy and how no one really seems to take notice of Hitler’s evil intentions as a world threat. People in Germany seem to be numb to the atrocities of the Nazis. Hitler goes on a killing spree of his top officials – people he fears as threats to his power – some of them army generals, yet the army stays mute. So much so that the ailing President Hindenburg congratulates Hitler on suppressing a possible revolt and saving Germany.’

‘In the Gardens of Beasts’ is a must read for history buffs, especially those interested in the times of Hitler and the Third Reich. I just wish I had read this book before visiting Berlin this year as I would have tried to trace some of the paths of Dodd and other characters in the book.

The following pieces from the book sum up the state of Germany quite well. The second paragraph provides a vivid visual of the horror in Berlin during WWII.

Excerpt from Dodd’s diary  – “At a time when nearly every German is afraid to speak a word to any but the closest friends, horses and dogs are so happy that one feels they wish to talk………  At a time when hundreds of men have been put to death without trial or any sort of evidence of guilt, and when the population literally trembles with fear, animals have rights guaranteed them which men and women cannot think of expecting.”

And later in the book-  ‘Five years later, during the final assault on Berlin, a Russian shell scored a direct hit on a stable at the western end of the Tiergarten. The adjacent Kurfurstendamm, once one of Berlin’s prime shopping and entertrainment streeets,  now became a stage for the utterly macabre -horses, those happiest creatures of Nazi Germany, tearing wildly down the street with manes and tales aflame.’

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