I just finished Erik Larson’s 2011 “In the Garden of Beasts” an extraordinary work of “narrative nonfiction”— a meticulously researched nonfiction novel—the accurately reported history of the rise to power in Germany of Hitler and the Nazi party. For those who ask, “How could Hitler and his followers have attained such absolute power, committed such atrocities (even in the early and mid 1930’s), and led Germany and Europe (and eventually the United States, as well) into World War II—how could the World have allowed this to happen” this book provide clear but intricate answers.
It begins in 1933 when William Dodd, a college professor is appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as our first ambassador to Hitler’s Nazi Germany. As he settles into his ambassadorship in Berlin with his wife and adult daughter and son, he begins to see the persecution of Germany’s Jews and assaults on even those Jews who had bravely fought for Germany in the previous World War. He sees attacks on the press and censorship of those who dared to express criticism directed against Hitler and the Nazi regime. He sees laws created to restrict the activities and movement of Jews, to remove Jews from their jobs and to seize their property. He sees the arrest of dissidents and the assignment to concentration camps of those who protest the government’s policies, of communists, of Jews. We see Dodd’s increasing alarm about Germany’s rearming and militarization—breaking the terms of the Treaty of Versailles which ended World War I. As I try to ask myself why did the United States and President Roosevelt (a President for whom I generally offer fulsome praise for his progressive social programs)—why did they, why did WE not intervene to stop Hitler’s ascension to power, his horrific atrocities? Why did we allow or choose to ignore the horror, the terror, the blood which was clearly on his hands and which was a part of his master plan for the Third Reich, for Europe, and the world entire?
From my understanding of the book, it seems that the answers to those absolutely essential questions are both numerous and varied, but can be distilled into these basic conclusions
- Our government was reconciled to trying to maintain a positive relationship with Germany and to not upset its leaders with blatant criticism.
- The United States government was hoping to recoup the war debt and reparations that Germany owed to the United States’ European allies and to our country itself.
- There was a strong mood of isolationism in the United States, a feeling that we should not get involved in the affairs of state in other countries.
- There was a tendency to ignore preliminary restrictions and acts of oppression or violence in 1932-1934 refusing to realize that these insults to civilized behavior would lead to even more extreme actions of violence and inhumanity in the years to follow.
- There was a subtle and at times not-so-subtle anti-Semitic tendency among some in American society and government who while appreciating the contributions of Jews to the fields of medicine, law, business, and government, also felt that there were too many Jews who were rising to positions of prominence in those areas. This allowed some Americans to in some ways empathize with what some in Germany referred to as their “Jewish problem” even as those same Americans may have disapproved of the specific actions the Germans were taking against Jews.
- In addition, since the U.S. was in the middle of an economic crisis that began with Black Friday in 1929 and continued through the 1930’s with the Great Depression some Americans also empathized with the poor economic situation in Germany, and seemed be willing to allow Germany to take steps to shore up its economy—even if it meant scapegoating Jews and other groups.
- There were members of the U.S. Government who were concerned that if President Roosevelt issued a strong statement about Germany’s unfair and horrifying treatment of Jews, then that might open up an “acrimonious discussion” with the German government in which they might ask the President to explain why Black Americans still did not have voting rights, or why lynchings of Black Americans were not prevented or severely punished, or why anti-Semitic feelings in the U..S seemed to be growing and were not “checked,”
- There was a feeling among some that intervention would make things even worse for the victims of the Nazi regime–that the German people would eventually see Hitler and his henchmen for what they truly were and would remove the “fuhrer” and the Nazi party from power on their own.
- There was an aura of incredulity, a disbelief that these outrageous acts—these crimes against humanity—could actually occur in such a civilized country as Germany—the home of Goethe and Brecht, the land of Bach, Beethoven, Handel, and Brahms.
For all these reasons, and perhaps for other reasons that I have not yet divined, the United States (as well as a number of European countries) either ignored what was happening, protested too mildly, or chose not to involve themselves fully until it was too late and Hitler had obtained absolute power and until Hitler, Goring, Himmler, Goebbels, and Bormann were well underway in their attempts to perpetrate the “final solution” and to bring about a master Aryan race that would rule Europe and eventually the world.
And so, you may ask, is this merely a book review—a critique of a fascinating work of history that reads as a novel—which mixes the raw facts of Hitler’s rise to power with the equally factual story of an ambassador’s family, the unending series of diplomatic events and parties, and the numerous romantic dalliances of their adult daughter? Absolutely not; my intentions are so much more than that.
During the entire course of reading this book, I became alarmed about the parallels that I see in modern American and world society. We are all, of course, fully familiar with the following two quotations that are two of the most often quoted lines in modern times. The first by Philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” And the second, by Author and Statesman Edmund Burke: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Poet Ella Wheeler Wilcox seems to echo these same sentiments in her oft quoted line (often misattributed to Abraham Lincoln) “To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.” For these reasons, I feel that it is incumbent upon me and upon all those who are committed to a caring, civilized society to speak out.
My first concern is the attacks that I see nearly every day on the press and the media as a whole. These attacks were as much a part of Nazi Germany as they have been at the heart of any totalitarian regime in modern times. The attempts of the current administration to label all print, television, radio, and internet criticism as fake news is deplorable. Reports that are fastidiously researched and confirmed from multiple sources by major news organizations like the Washington Post and CNN News are routinely dismissed as hit jobs or fake news. Is there, in fact, such a thing as “fake news”? Yes, it is that which often appears on the internet from unreliable facebook or other sites which can easily be proven false by a 5-10 minute google search and the realization that a particular questionable item is not reported by any reliable news source—not the Associated Press, not Reuter’s News Service, not the NY Times, not the Washington Post, not any of the major TV news stations (ABC, NBC, CBS), not CNN. The role of the press—especially in a society such as our which provides for freedom of the press as one of the major tenets of our democracy is not merely to serve as a device which trumpets the daily news, not merely to serve as a chronicler of all it observes, but also as a watchdog for government—to report on government, ethics excesses, and abuses of power. It cannot fulfill that function in the necessary manner if it is constantly under attack by this administration both when such attacks come from the White House or from the President overseas at the G20 Summit.
My second area of concern is in our Government’s attitude toward and actions with regard to autocratic world leaders like Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, and North Korea’s “Supreme Leader” Kim Jong-un.
In 2014, Putin and Russia invaded the Crimean Peninsula in the Ukraine and annexed it. Also in 2014, Putin and Russia were blamed for shooting down a Malaysian jet, killing all 298 civilians on board. In 2016, Putin and Russia worked to destabilize the U.S. by meddling in our elections. The President this week twice “pressed” Putin on the matter but then apparently accepted his denials. He did not lay out the significant proof from every one of our intelligence agencies who investigated the hacking. He apparently did not say that “Here is the evidence; here are the consequences for your actions; and here are the consequences if you dare to interfere in our elections in the future.” In fact, he said on camera that it was “an honor” to meet President Putin—this depot who had imprisoned and put to death journalists and dissidents who criticized his policies. In fact, just today it was announced that the “U.S. and Russia would launch a bilateral working group that included a focus on cyber-security.” This would be like the proverbial naiveté of asking the fox to guard the henhouse. The former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Europe and NATO, Jim Townsend noted, “If the Russians want to coordinate with us on cyber-security it’s likely an operation to do intelligence gathering.” Florida Senator Marco Rubio (a Republican) said today that “Partnering with Putin on a ‘Cyber Security Unit’ is akin to partnering with Assad on a “Chemical Weapons Unit.” The major question we need to answer is “How much should we be cooperating with President Putin, and how much—on the other hand—should we be opposing him”?
Another dictator whose actions need our attention is Bashir al-Assad. In April of this year, Assad was responsible for an action which received the condemnation of the entire world as over 80 people were killed and hundreds seriously impacted in a chemical weapons attack in Northwestern Syria. Less than a month ago, the U.S. learned that Syria’s Assad may be preparing a new chemical weapons attack that would result in “mass murder” of civilians. Are we doing enough to protect not only Syria’s own people from this tyrant, but also to protect the rest of the world from him?
Finally, just this month, our nation and the world was confronted with the successful launch of North Korea’s first intercontinental ballistic missile—powerful enough to reach the Alaska in the United States, and possibly even the western coast of the U.S.A.—California, Oregon, Washington. How long will it be until Kim Jong-un develops a miniaturized nuclear warhead that can be attached to an ICBM that can reach our nation? Will we wait on the sidelines for that to happen? Will increased sanctions sufficiently deter this rogue nation and its supreme leader? Can anything short of force—can anything short of war curb Kim Jong-un’s bellicose rhetoric and hostile actions?
These are the questions that continue to plague not only me, but also our country’s leaders. Will we learn from the past, or continue to repeat the mistakes that permitted Hitler and Nazi Germany to create a regime of blood and violence that resulted in a world war in which 50 to 80 million people were killed, in which 6 million Jews were murdered, in which 6 million Poles, gypsies, communists, homosexuals, and disabled persons were murdered? Will we allow evil to triumph, while good people stand by and do nothing — or simply do not do ENOUGH? These are the questions of our times, and Larson’s superb book “In the Garden of Beasts” is a lesson in the results of allowing evil to exist, to grow, and to impact the world in ways that still stagger the imagination even as they assault all our notions of decency and humanity.