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Erik Larson’s “In the Garden of Beasts”

By Philip Kerr,

The great thing about the Nazis . . . hmm. No, that isn’t going to work, for all the obvious reasons. Surely there are no good things about the Nazis, I hear you say.

Well, there is one good thing, and it is this: In an age of moral relativism, we can all agree that the Nazis were evil and that the Western Allied forces opposing the Nazis were good. (I say “Western” Allied forces because I don’t think one can argue that the Soviet Union could be described as a force for good.)

With the Nazis you have a proper villain: Adolf Hitler. You have some heinous crimes, and here you can take your pick: the Holocaust, waging aggressive war, etc. You have a story arc that even the dumbest studio exec can understand, with a beginning, a middle and an end, and gosh, they’re even in that order. You have some unlikely hero figures: Churchill and Roosevelt, though not, I think, de Gaulle. And, best of all, at the end of the story, the villain is completely destroyed. Good triumphs over evil in a series of epic battles that Tolkien might have imagined. Victory is total. Everyone — even the long-suffering population of Germany — is glad. Ding-dong! The witch is dead.

These story archetypes are almost Jungian, which perhaps accounts for why the Nazi period is so beloved of publishing. This might also explain why Erik Larson, the author of several successful works of popular history such as “The Devil in the White City” and “Isaac’s Storm,” has now turned his attention and considerable talent to the subject with his latest book, “In the Garden of Beasts.” And to bowdlerize a remark of Dr. Johnson’s, one is not surprised to find it done, but to find it done so well.

Over the past 20 years I have published eight novels about the Nazi era. During that time, I have seen an explosion of interest in the Nazis, and the further away that period gets, the more it fascinates us.

I am an avid consumer of books about Nazism — there must be 200 on my shelves — and it seems to me that they are becoming more plentiful. Coming now and in the next few weeks are at least two important new works of nonfiction about the Nazis besides Larson’s, from Austrian historian Gerald Steinacher and British historian Frederick Taylor. At the same time, the books are becoming more reader-friendly. History books have to work much harder than they did of old. It’s no longer enough that they are authoritative and well-researched — they have to be entertaining, too. As entertaining as a novel, perhaps.

Of course this is quite a tall order. But Larson fills it admirably. “In the Garden of Beasts” at times seems derivative of a 1940 memoir, “Through Embassy Eyes,” by Martha Dodd, one of the main characters of his tale. Much of the material is the same, but we can forgive that because Larson fills in everything that Dodd herself felt obliged to leave out: It’s not every U.S. ambassador’s daughter who becomes a spy for the Soviet Union.

We can also forgive Larson because his book reads like an elegant thriller — and certainly better than the elegant thriller, “Sowing the Wind,” that Dodd wrote. I found Larson’s book to be utterly compelling, and while I was reading it there were several occasions on which I had to stop and check to make sure it really was a work of nonfiction. It is — and marvelous stuff. You really couldn’t invent it in a novel because no one would believe you.

“In the Garden of Beasts” is, in the main, the story of William Dodd, a mild-mannered academic from Chicago, who to his own and everyone else’s surprise was appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt as America’s man in Nazi Germany. Dealing with the Nazis’ violence and lies provedevery bit as tricky as dealing with State Department snobs and anti-Semites. Dodd was cut from coarser academic cloth than most of his privileged Ivy League underlings in Berlin, and much to their amusement he brought to his appointment none of the Croesus-size private wealth of previous ambassadors, wealth that would have enabled him to entertain on the kind of scale to which they were accustomed and which they thought was only appropriate.

Most unforgivably, it seems that Dodd tried to make do on his ambassador’s salary of $17,500 per annum; he even brought over to Germany his old car from the States and drove it around the city himself, instead of acquiring a chauffeur-driven Mercedes limousine like most other ambassadors to the court of Adolf Hitler. In the monocled, disdainful eyes of his staff, poor Dodd was letting the side down by not putting on a show for the Nazis.

Larson describes Berlin very well, especially before and after the infamous Night of the Long Knives, when, in the stifling summer of 1934, the Furher consolidated his power over Germany with a series of political murders. But for my Reichsmark it’s Martha’s story that’s the most interesting.

Beautiful, intelligent, willful and highly sexed (a perfect heroine), no sooner had Martha arrived in Berlin than she was conducting affairs with several leading Nazis, including Ernst “Putzi” Hanf­staengl, who at one stage tried to persuade her to become Hitler’s mistress. Repelled by Hitler’s halitosis and his even more revolting Weltanschauung, Martha found herself drawn to a very tall man at the Russian Embassy who became her lover, her mentor and, later on, her spy master.

British intellectual E.H.Carr, in his famous work of historiography “What is History?,” advised one to study the historian before one begins to study the facts he has assembled. What bees does he have in his bonnet? Carr asks. “When you read a work of history, always listen out for the buzzing.”

Larson is a journalist, not really a historian at all. Nothing wrong with that. And really the only buzz about Larson that should be of interest to anyone is that he’s written an excellent and entertaining book that deserves to be a bestseller, and probably will be.

Philip Kerr’s latest novel is “Field Gray.”

IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin By Erik Larson Crown. 448 pp. $26

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