In the Garden of Beasts Discussion Journal

We met on the stage. Worn wooden floor, grand piano, curtains, shadows, tables and InTheGardenOfBeastschairs. A single caged bulb on a rolling stand glared near us, more a beacon than light. Two hundred and fifty empty seats stretched out below. Our own stammtisch, set to discuss Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin.

Everyone seemed to have liked the book. One member felt as if she were back in school, learning about the horrors, familiar yet new. So much has been written and filmed about Hitler and World War II. Several people were impressed with how Erik Larson tried to convey the mood, the family’s perspective rather than his own, to help us understand how the rise of Hitler could have happened at all.

What will we look back in fifty years and re-evaluate? One member mentioned Syria. We discussed embassies, wealth, ambassador qualifications, and the foreign service. One of us remembered that just a few years ago the new Ambassador to Norway had been unaware that the Norwegian government is a constitutional monarchy. As we have often discussed at meetings before, do things ever really change?

One member strongly recommended the book Tower of Basel: the Shadowy History of the Secret Bank that Runs the World, by Adam LeBor. We discussed the importance of finance, from the American desire to be repaid by Germany to the continued financing of the Third Reich. Others mentioned the autobiography of Charles Lindbergh. When considering the character of Martha Dodd, we discussed the moral atmosphere in Berlin at the time, referencing Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, the basis for the stage play Cabaret.

I continued to defend Martha Dodd as more naive than depicted, but another member reminded us that the Nazi government recruited sociopaths — how could she be naïve in such company? Another read a quote from Diels on page 252, “The infliction of physical punishment is not every man’s job, and naturally we were only too glad to recruit men who were prepared to show no squeamishness at their task. . . .It had also been attracting unconscious sadists, i.e. men who did not know themselves that they had sadist leanings until they took part in a flogging. And finally it had been actually creating sadists. For it seems that corporal chastisement ultimately arouses sadistic leanings in apparently normal men and women. Freud might explain it.”

We discussed other characters and the lack of pictures in the book; America’s anti-semitism and civil rights issues; the fact that Dodd was a disciple of Wilson. We liked Dodd. One member reminded us that he did not change his principles. He would not attend Nazi party meetings nor have further dealings with Hitler.

This meeting was striking, in atmosphere and tone. All good things must come to an end — if only so that we can enjoy them again. Next month. Same time. Different book.

  • Other works discussed:
  • Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood
  • Destiny of the Republic: a tale of madness, medicine, and the murder of a president by Candace Millard
  • Every Man Dies Alone and Other Works by Hans Fallada, who remained in Germany during the Third Reich
  • Night by Elie Wiesel
  • Tower of Basel: the Shadowy History of the Secret Bank that Runs the World by Adam LeBor

1 thought on “In the Garden of Beasts Discussion Journal

  1. Erik Larson is one of my favorite authors, probably my favorite non-fiction author. While I didn’t find this book as riveting as Devil in the White City and Thunderstruck, I appreciated his careful detailing of Dodd’s roll as ambassador–how he was supposed to behave according to colleagues’ expectations and how he actually behaved, following his own principles. He was a man to admire in many ways. I was reminded of The Zookeeper’s Wife, in which the horror of the times is primarily in the periphery.

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