When I was working on the book I co-authored with Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, I spent four and a half years reading very little but Holocaust-related books and other material.
Many of the books were enlightening, even brilliant. But until I recently read Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin, I never got a very good sense of what it must have been like in Hitler's early days to puzzle over the future and guess whether Hitler would settle down and be a reasonable leader or whether, by contrast, he would do what he wound up doing -- imploding Europe and murdering six million Jews.
Larson's 2011 book takes us inside the first few years of Hitler's rise to power as seen through the eyes of the newly appointed American ambassador to Germany, William E. Dodd, his wife, and their two grown children, who moved to Berlin with their parents when Dodd took office.
Drawing on an extensive record of official and private correspondence, Larson lets us see the early days of Nazi Germany when it was unclear just how horrific the future would be. Even Dodd's racy daughter Martha had Nazi friends (and even lovers) and for the first couple of years in Berlin was convinced that Hitler was good for the country, despite the pain he was causing to Jews and others.
Dodd himself also had early hopes for a better outcome than we know happened, but it didn't take him too long to recognize that Germany's fuhrer was disastrous. He had considerable trouble, however, selling his legitimate worries to others above him in the State Department. One wonders what might have changed had his superiors listened to him and suggested ways to oppose Hitler earlier.
From our vantage point in 2014, it seems impossible that anyone could imagine Hitler's regime would be either benign or constructive. But that is all hindsight. The view from within the context of 1933 and the next few years was quite blurred to many of the people living through it -- Jews, non-Jewish Germans, other Europeans and Americans.
It's that blurry uncertainty that this book helps readers understand. Those who figured out that catastrophe was impending were the ones who paid attention to what the major players had said and done before they took power and the ones who kept eternal values in mind so that they didn't get completely swept up in the excitements of the moment.
As the Nazi era recedes, it becomes too easy to imagine the time in stark blacks and whites. Larson's book gives us a range of colors as seen by people living through the developments of the time.
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ANOTHER FAITH-BASED WARNING
The Church of England's bishop of London says religion can be "dangerous" and even "lethal." The Brits must have church potlucks not unlike ours.