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“In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin,” by Erik Larson.

I just finished reading this compelling—and frankly somewhat terrifying—account by Erik Larson of the brief ambassadorship of William E. Dodd in Berlin from 1933 to 1934, at the time of Adolf Hitler’s rise to absolute power. As Larson portrays him, Dodd was an academic and a “Jeffersonian liberal,” a man of considerable integrity, who was clear-sighted in his understanding of Nazism and its goals, and prescient about its eventual militarist aggression. His story has some important and sobering lessons for us at this critical historical moment in the USA.

Not that our new president* is a Hitler—I prefer to avoid the Nazi analogies, in part because they serve only to diminish the unmitigated abomination that was Germany’s National Socialist Party. Nor are his acolytes, hopefully, the moral equivalent of the likes of Goebbels, Goering and Himmler. No. The lessons have to do with the importance of vigilance on the part of we, the governed, to actions and policies that subvert our democratic traditions and the values that undergird and validate our social relationships. What we read about in Larson’s book is the slow erosion of those values, and the passivity or permissiveness that gradually allowed all the normal restraints of civilized behavior to be abandoned.

It is not only the German people who stood by, some even applauding, as Hitler and his Nazis first seized, then held on to power with vicious, unrelenting efficiency. Out of self-interest or self-preservation, the majority of Germans failed increasingly to challenge what they knew to be lies and propaganda, and allowed themselves to be swallowed up in a stinking morass of ignorance and barbarity. They failed, notably, to condemn the conspicuous evidence of bigotry and cruelty they could not help but notice on the public streets, before their very eyes.

On our side of the Atlantic, however, things were not that much better. The diplomatic establishment of mostly Ivy League graduates—a “pretty good club,” as they were happy to call themselves—was busy subverting the efforts of Ambassador Dodd to draw attention to what he saw to be a gathering storm of historic scale. Casually anti-Semitic themselves, these men—in Larson’s thoroughly persuasive account—were more concerned with matters of wealth and social status than with Hitler’s increasingly repressive policies and actions. Their seemingly cavalier and laissez-faire attitudes allowed the Nazis to promulgate their hatred and advance their agenda virtually unrestrained by the international code of diplomatic norms.

As for FDR himself, though for the most part lending a sympathetic ear to Dodd’s warnings, he eventually surrendered to the isolationism that inspired the majority of Americans—the ignorant clarion call of “America First” that echoes, appallingly, once again today. The terrible conclusion that we reach, in reading In the Garden of Beasts, is that, given vigilance, given honesty and integrity and sound judgment on the part of many, both within and outside Germany during those early years, Hitler could—and should—have been halted in his tracks. Without vigilance, we surrender out integrity slowly, by degrees; and before long we find that we have abandoned everything that was important to us, everything that defined who we are as human beings.

This, then, is the lesson for us today. We have already witnessed crass behavior and political actions we deplore, directions taken that are alien to who we thought we were. We have already slipped deeper into callousness, animosity and corruption than most of us thought possible. We cannot afford to lapse further into the passive acceptance of blatant propaganda and cynical grabs for power. Larson’s book is a timely reminder that vigilance and, when necessary, resistance are an urgent civic duty.

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