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In the Garden of Beasts ~ A Capsule Book Review

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In the Garden of Beasts ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

In 1933, a new U.S. president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, appoints a new ambassador, William E. Dodd, to Germany. He is sixty-four years old, a history professor, scholar and writer. With his wife and adult children (Bill and Martha), he moves to Berlin to take up his duties. It is a tumultuous and transitional time in German history. The elderly president, Paul von Hindenburg, has recently appointed Adolf Hitler as chancellor, more as a move of appeasement than anything else. People feel uneasy about Hitler, with good reason. He rants and raves in his speeches. He is quietly and systematically arming Germany for war, in spite of protestations to the contrary. Hitler and his Nazi regime favor suppression of Jews, which manifests itself in beatings, intimidation, banishment to prison camps, and laws that forbid Jews from marrying non-Jews and from working in journalism and other jobs. Anybody, Jew or Aryan, who opposes Hitler and his government is subject to intimidation and professional ruin or, at worst, imprisonment or death.

Into this maelstrom, the innocent, well-meaning Dodd family is dropped. Ambassador Dodd’s twenty-three-year-old daughter, Martha, is a recent divorcee. Her favorite thing is men. In Berlin she gradually gains a reputation as something of a tramp. She goes from man to man, some of them Nazis and even a Russian communist, with whom is she is so much in love that she wants to tour Russia for a month to gain an understanding of his country. She is also an idealist who is slow at seeing things as they really are. When she first arrives in Berlin, she believes the Nazis are doing good things and improving life for all German people. Gradually she begins to see things in a different, more realistic way.

According to many observers, William E. Dodd is not a successful or effective ambassador. Being the American ambassador to Germany during the rise of Nazism is no easy task. Not only must he deal with radical Nazis, he must also deal with people from his own government who don’t like him and believe he was the wrong choice for the ambassadorial post in the first place. He seems to believe, wrongly and naively, that all he has to do is advocate moderation and common sense and the Nazis will “tone down” just because he thinks it is the right thing for them to do. This, of course, is not the way the world works. Secretary of state Cordell Hull and others in the U.S. government are mainly interested in getting Dodd to press for repayment of German debt, which Dodd does not consider as important as other matters.

During the early years of Nazism (early 1930s), many believed that Hitler and his inner circle (Goebbels, Goring, Himmler) were so radical that it was just a matter of time before rational people would see them for what they were and force them out of office. We know in retrospect, however, that this is not what happened. When President Paul von Hindenburg died in August 1934, Hitler assumed absolute control over Germany and proclaimed himself “Fuhrer and Reich Chancellor.” If it had ever been possible for anybody, any foreign power, to stop the Hitler juggernaut, now it was too late. The next ten years or so were going to be a very difficult time for the entire world. 

Ambassador Dodd proved to be more right about the threat that Germany posed to the world than a lot of people, during his lifetime, were willing to give him credit for. He and his family were in the unique position of viewing the rise of Nazism as outsiders. After Ambassador Dodd’s death, he was mostly vindicated as the lone voice who saw what was really happening in Germany, while most Americans were still hoping to remain uninvolved.   

In the Garden of Beasts is “nonfiction narrative” written by Erik Larson. It’s a chronical of true events, written in such a way that it seems to be a novel, a fictional story, but it’s all true and it really happened. If a fiction writer had written the story of Hitler, it would have been too fantastic and far-fetched to be plausible. What story of the twentieth century is more compelling and at the same time more frightening than the story of the small, mustachioed man who aspired to conquer the entire world and would stop at nothing to achieve his goals?

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania ~ A Capsule Book Review

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Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp

The year is 1915. England and Germany are fighting a war that gets uglier and more vicious every day. America, with Woodrow Wilson as president, is trying to remain neutral, but how long that neutrality can last is questionable. Germany is trolling the waters of the North Atlantic with the Unterseeboot or “U-boats,” submarines that, under the right conditions, can deal a death blow to large ocean-going vessels. As the war progresses, Germany is inclined to ignore any laws or rules of decency and fair engagement. The ruthless U-boat commanders will torpedo any boat, especially those belonging to the English, but also any “neutral” boats. America is still neutral in 1915, at least on the surface. However, Germany attacking and sinking American ships—or ships bearing American citizens—almost guarantees U.S. involvement in the war.

The English ship, Lusitania, is sailing from New York to Liverpool, England, in May 1915. On board are many wealthy and important people, Americans and English. The Lusitania is the pinnacle of ocean-going extravagance and beauty. It’s like a floating luxury hotel. Most of the passengers are well aware that traveling through the waters of the North Atlantic is dangerous in wartime, but they believe they will be protected and guarded by the British navy. Many of them are not willing to let the threat of being torpedoed and sunk spoil their good time.

As the Lusitania gets closer to the British Isles, the chances of attack by U-boat increase. William Turner, captain of the Lusitania, gets warnings by wireless communication, but nothing too alarming. He too is lulled into believing that the Germans will not attack a British passenger ship, even one carrying a cargo munitions and materiel for England’s war effort. Germany is (wrongly) credited with having at least some respect for civilians, including many small children.

The commander and crew of U-boat U-20 have had a mostly unsuccessful patrol, meaning that they haven’t come across any “enemy” (meaning English or anybody on the side of the English) vessels to torpedo. (What’s important to U-boats is not the number of vessels they attack and destroy but the cumulative tonnage of those vessels.)

The bad luck of U-20 was about to change. On a bright afternoon in May, with near-perfect weather conditions, the commander of U-20 spies through his periscope the Lusitania, the ship that is the supreme symbol of British naval prowess. Ironically, it is only twelve miles from the coast of Ireland and in the last day of its voyage, only sixteen hours out of Liverpool.

U-20 is able to get a clear shot at the Lusitania, launching a torpedo into the hull of the gigantic ship, destroying and sinking it in a matter of eighteen minutes. There are 764 survivors; 1198 dead, including 123 Americans. Over 600 people on the ship are never found. America doesn’t enter the war for two more years, until German instituted a policy of all-out submarine warfare against any ship, no matter who it belonged to.

After the sinking of the Lusitania, a controversy arose (today called a “conspiracy theory”), as they so often do. The Admiralty (the arm of the British government that overseas shipping) failed to provide—when it might easily have done so—an escort of battleships for the Lusitania as it entered the “danger zone” of the North Atlantic, where U-boats were known to be operating. Many people believed—and still believe—that certain parties in the British government wanted the Lusitania to be attacked so that America would be sure to enter the war and come to Britain’s aid.

Dead Wake is a fascinating slice of twentieth century history, written, by Erik Larson, in a style known as “narrative nonfiction,” a genre originated (or at least advanced) by Truman Capote with In Cold Blood. It’s a story about the stakes that are involved in war, in this case the lives of innocent victims who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The sinking of the Lusitania showed the war then being fought between Britain and Germany was to be a different kind of war, one in which nobody was to be spared.

Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp