Feb. 21st, 2017

bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
For reasons that definitely have nothing whatsoever to do with modern politics, I have lately become very interested in dictatorial regimes again, and especially World War II. I read a lot of Holocaust memoirs and stuff when I was younger, but not a lot of stuff on the military and political history end of things. I also remember reading a bit about Nazi propaganda as part of general study of propaganda both in history classes and in media classes, but not really in great depth. So I figured it was time to look more at the political situation around the rise and establishment of the Third Reich than I got in ninth grade history.

To that end was recommended to me In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson, who is best known for Devil in the White City, which I admit I have not read but which people seem to like. Garden of Beasts follows U.S. ambassador Charles Dodd and his daughter Martha as they establish themselves in Berlin in 1933, shortly after Hitler becomes Chancellor. Dodd is not a usual ambassador type, being that he's not a rich socialite; he is a history professor who just wants to work on his book about the Old South and finish it sometime before he dies. Martha is a 24-year-old boho type who falls in love with basically everybody, which is ordinarily something I would not necessarily judge her for, except that this doesn't stop when she goes to live among a bunch of Nazis, and I'm gonna judge anyone who dates multiple Nazis, I don't care that it was 1933 and you didn't realize. Dodd's wife and son are in Berlin too, but the book doesn't follow them as closely.

On the one hand, the book is a fascinating look into a historical time and place that I don't know all that much about, which is what I wanted, and it's exciting in that dreadful way that so much of the Weird History I like to read is. The surface pleasantries of 1933 Berlin, and discovering all the awful stuff going on just under its surface--police surveillance and basement prisons; the first concentration camps being built out in the countryside--is written in a brilliantly creepy way, peeling back layers of superficial urbanity with the mounting tension of a horror movie. The climax of the book, plotwise, is the Night of the Long Knives, an event I'd never heard of (I told you my early WWII political knowledge was lacking), although the Dodds stayed in Berlin for another three years before coming home and going on the lecture circuit, raising the alarm against the Nazis.

On the other hand, though, so much of this book was distressingly familiar. The various manifestations of liberal denialism--the it-can't-be-that-bad-ism, the it-can't-happen-here/now kind of thinking, the insistence that individual shocking events were isolated cases no matter how many of them cropped up, the assumption of rationality and earnestness where there was none just because people were in positions of power that are supposed to be occupied by respectable people, and above all, the constant refusal to believe the people who were pointing out what was going on, insisting that they must be overreacting--it's all so dreadfully, stupidly familiar, and it worries me, and it makes me think I should be doing more, now, before things get worse, although I still don't know quite what to be doing. Much like in Germany in 1933, the U.S. already has some of its infrastructure of horror built--our massive system of prisons, the ICE detention facilities where migrants wait for deportation for months, our terrifying surveillance and data-scraping capabilities, invasive security theater at airports--and many of our institutions are shockingly weak, but utterly resistant to doing the self-scrutiny that would allow them to strengthen themselves. At this time, the Holocaust hadn't started--Action T4 hadn't even been officially established--but Jews were losing their jobs, the concentration camp at Dachau had been built and was being used to warehouse political dissidents, and there were several secret torture basements around the city in use by the Gestapo. On the surface, people went to work and shopped and hung out in fancy restaurants in Berlin, all modern and normal.

So, basically, I did a lot of stopping to panic while reading this book. It hit home in a suffocating sort of way, giving me the sort of tilting feeling I sometimes get when I'm walking down the street in Allston and it's all perfectly normal and then I remember that there are other streets in the U.S. right now where unarmed people have been shot to death and left to die, or even when I go to a protest and it's the middle of the afternoon and the cops are quietly monitoring it all bored-looking and I remember that this is not what all protests are like and I've just been very lucky so far, or maybe lazy, that I've only attended preplanned marches, mostly in the daytime, that never got out of hand.

But I also learned a lot. I learned about all sorts of interesting characters with shocking life stories, Nazi and non-Nazi alike. I learned about the rivalries between the different arms of the Nazi brutality machine--the SA and the SS and the Gestapo and the regular army--and the intrigues that had Rudolf Diels fleeing the country on the regs and that eventually did in Ernst Rohm. I think the book did a good job of hitting that difficult balance of humanizing the Nazis, as in showing that they are, indeed, humans, but not soft-pedaling or excusing or minimizing any of the horrible stuff they did, the usual byproduct of "humanization," of the liberal instinct to study and explain butting up against the liberal belief that people are fundamentally good. The Nazis were fundamentally real humans, but they weren't fundamentally good. They were fucking Nazis. And apparently, living in Berlin by 1934 was like living with a bunch of pod people, as the surveillance increase and the state program of Gleichschaltung (coordination, i.e., normalization) sank deeper into the bones of the country.

Dodd and Martha seem idiotically naive at the beginning of the book, but Dodd quickly grew on me, being a very principled dude who never really buys into the whole Nazi thing, even though it takes him a distressingly long time to fully admit to himself just how bad it is. Martha is more actively irritating at the beginning since she's very taken in by all the uniforms and fit young dudes marching and stuff, but eventually grows disillusioned and, due to her love affair with a Russian diplomat named Boris, who is actually an intelligence operative, is eventually sort of half-assedly recruited as a Soviet asset. George Messersmith haunts the first half of the book like a longwinded Cassandra, warning a denialist State Department of just how "psychopathic" the Nazi leadership was. He and Dodd do not get along, and not long after Messersmith is transferred out of Germany, Dodd finds himself taking up mantle of giving long-winded warnings that go largely ignored by the U.S.

While the whole story has so much plot it's hard to believe it all really happened like this, the most important stuff in the book is its portrayal of how a bunch of utterly hateful, thuggish manbabies manage to take control of a country of nice, friendly people--the way they capitalize on the earnestness and disbelief of other people, their willingness to lie and dissemble, the feints toward moderation, the secrecy of the true extent of their plans and the visibility of the dysfunction that made their smarter, more rational opposition underestimate their danger. This is hardly unique to Garden of Beasts, though; the most important takeaway of any material about the Nazi's rise to power is always understanding of the tricks they use, and especially the pitfalls that educated, rational, nice, liberal, or otherwise "normal" folks fell into to allow it to happen. But Garden of Beasts illustrates some of them excellently, in a viscerally familiar way that feels like watching a car crash with that slow-motion affect that happens by itself when it's too late for you to do anything.

TL;DR This was an upsettingly excellent book and I recommend it highly.

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