In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson: What We Didn’t Learn that Could Have Saved Christopher Stevens
Ambassadors are in precarious situations in the best of places and times. US embassies are wrought with the threats especially in today’s Middle East, Africa, and Asia. We do not have to wander far into history to know the danger as we have seen with Christopher Stevens’ death in the raid last month. A lightening rod in the present election campaign, it is clear that the job of ambassador is less than the glamorous appointment made by a sitting President.
In Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beast, we learn about the trials, tragedy and frustration of US Ambassador William Dodd’s appointment to Germany during the Hitler and the Third Reich’s rise to power. Appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt to this burgeoning time bomb of Germany’s economic hardships and radical nationalism, Dodd is thrown into a swamp of violence, suspicion, and racism that would later erupt into the Holocaust and WWII. In this book, Larson illuminates the signs of the Germany’s failing democracy being manipulated by Hitler as he seizes power with the world watching.
This non-fiction tome begins with William Dodd, a Virginian life-long academic, being chosen to represent American interests in the war-torn but rebuilding Germany. An outsider of Washington politics, his idealism in Jeffersonian democracy makes no friends with United States diplomats or Germany’s strong handed political coercion. An outsider with his lifelong goal of finishing his book on the Old South, the ambassador does not have the courage or hubris to make his voice loud enough to make America aware of the violence and the cracking of a free Germany. In his defense, America was set in an isolationist mindset with its goal being to recover the money lent to Germany to rebuild. The alienation and terror of 1930s Germany would ruin Dodd’s whole family while America ignored the clear signs of coming atrocities.
In the Garden of Beasts is a frightening look at the futility and danger of being an ambassador in a country fueled by terror and violence. The work has none of page turning suspense of Larson’s The Devil in the White City, which is one of the most gripping and powerful non-fiction works in the last decade. The book is plagued by political repetition and the reader grows as frustrated as Ambassador Dodd in dealing with the backstabbing German government, the malaise of the public, ambivalent US politics, and the self-obsessed characters of the daughter and her lovers. The worst part, and probably the truest insight into the almost 400 pages, is that there are so many historical figures that you are unable to keep track of who is good and who is bad. It is not an easy read in one of the most intriguing periods of world history.
We lament the loss of Christopher Stevens and the tragedy of the violence that disgraced America in Libya. The confusion of the Obama administration and the CIA is unacceptable with its lack of security and multiple explanations that followed. Whether you are Republican or Democrat, we must hold our President accountable for our foreign policy, the safety of the chosen diplomats, and the prestige of American democracy around the world. In the Garden of Beasts, we view with a historical perspective of the danger that played out again last month in Libya because of the confusion of state-side policy over the dangerous reality. It is an important book to share because tragedy and violence are rarely if ever a spontaneous event.