Did Hitler come to power on a Monday and subsequently start slaughtering Jews on a Tuesday? The answer is obviously no but we are primarily taught in school about the events of WWII-not how we got to WWII. Usually our history class did a hop skip and jump to the juicy parts to keep our teenage selves from getting bored. Most people’s history knowledge is best described as someone who watched Titanic but only skipped to the sex scene in the car, the naked painting on the couch, the boat sinking, and Jack falling off the door in the water. I am in this same sinking boat with most people and that is why I wanted to read In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson. Larson is an excellent writer because he makes nonfiction read like fiction. If you are not the type to read history then you should try Larson-I promise you will not be bored. In the Garden of the Beasts follows the American Ambassador to Germany, William E. Dodd, and his family while they lived in Germany between 1933-1938. The book primarily details the rise of Hitler and the atmosphere of Nazi Germany through the diary of Dodd and Dodd’s daughter-Martha. This family was able to detail what life was like in Nazi Germany and how Hitler slowly morphed into the monster we know of today.
In 1933 Hitler became chancellor of Germany. He did this through subjugating his competition and rallying his people behind the cause of German nationalism. Shortly after Hitler was elected he began to use the Gestapo to put fear into the hearts of Jews, Communists, and anyone who did not see exactly his way. People oftentimes were beaten in the streets or were reported missing for no apparent reason. Even Americans were beaten on many occasions for failing to give the Hail Hitler salute and observing the ceaseless military parades. Furthermore, the Nazis openly passed laws that disbanded Jews from marrying non-Jews, working in certain jobs, and using certain facilities in the city. All these things were well known around the world yet no government spoke up against Hitler’s practices? Why was this? In America it was because of greed and homegrown antisemitism. Firstly, America didn’t want to upset Hitler by condemning these early actions because Germany owed the US a lot of money. The debtors were focused on collecting their interest and Germany was having difficulty making their payments. Secondly, the US had specific immigration policies in place that prevented Jews from coming to the country because there was a clear dislike of Jews among many state officials. This atmosphere was similar in other Western countries and is one reason Hitler was allowed to continue these preliminary policies.
What about the German people? Why didn’t they stop Hitler? Some Germans did try to go against Hitler but most of them were killed or imprisoned for their treason. Most Germans in those early years thought Hitler was not going to last long in politics and would actually step down. Hitler slowly became more forceful in his control over the population and eventually everyone was afraid of espionage and being taken in by the Gestapo. Living in Germany during that time was stressful and scary no matter who you were-no one felt comfortable. It was this atmosphere that allowed Hitler to take full control when President Hindenburg finally passed away. At anytime during those early years Hitler could have been stopped. His policies were disliked by most people in and outside of Germany but nothing was done. Students are taught that the US came in triumphantly, stormed Normandy, defeated Hitler, and freed the Jews in the concentration camps. But when you really look into the details is the US not partially responsible for WWII? Hitler many times over broke the Treaty of Versailles but no Western country stepped in? The reasons for these are many: an isolationist attitude, fear of losing interest payments, the Great Depression, hypocritical racist policies in the South, etc. We can’t go back and change history but what we can do is learn from history. And how can we do this? We need to teach and learn about all the scenes that took place to understand how we got to that point. Without context, Rose getting painted butt naked by her lover, could be Rose getting painted butt naked by her kidnapper. Why is this important today? In America at least, there are still groups of people who are disenfranchised and political leaders who want further disenfranchisement. It seems we want to get right to the action and skip all the details-maybe that is why history repeats itself.