The Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson, came out in May and is still the No. 1 ranked history book on Amazon and No. 36 overall. The book’s subject matter — the travails of the U.S. ambassador to Germany during the early 1930s when Adolf Hitler came to power — might at first seem one step removed from the central drama of the last century.
But the story of William E. Dodd raises some compelling questions that linger in our time. How did Hitler maintain the support of a cadre of advisers who knew was unstable and dangerous? Why did his domestic opponents and international critics allow him to consolidate power to the point where he was unstoppable?
Partly, it seems, they didn’t take him seriously. Some thought they could manipulate him. Certain foreign powers, like the U.S., wanted their bank loans paid back. And many German citizens assumed Hitler would eventually be co-opted by the political establishment and turn mainstream. Wrong again.
Even though I finished the book months ago, news events still bring it to mind. One example: when audience members cheered during a Republican debate when Ron Paul was asked if an uninsured man should be left to die.
There are some frightening parallels between our own scorched earth politics and 1930s Germany that make Larson’s history book seem very current indeed.