Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Walking in the Tiergarten

Children called him Uncle Dolph.  Generals called him fuehrer.  The world called him monster. 

Back when the History Channel actually had programs about history, it aired so many programs on Nazi Germany that we called it the Hitler channel.  We learned about Hitler's family, Hitler's women, Hitler's health, Hitler's art.  It's difficult to study and read about the leader of the Nazis without wondering how shopkeepers and bank clerks and mechanics succumbed to the charismatic leader of the Nazi party.  They all but worshipped him.  They lined up to die for him. 

I am deeply interested in finding out in what kind of world this phenomenon could take place.  Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts sketches a view of pre-World War II Berlin when Europe was on edge.  The story is a personal one about an American family who moved to Berlin but were completely unprepared for Hitler's brutal ascent to power.

In the introduction Larson refers to photographs of the era, black and white photographs that fail to catch the vitality of the spirit of the times and what life looked like.  This book sprints into the reality of life in Berlin with walks in the Tiergarten, outings to the countryside, and parties in the garden.  Reality also included parades of Storm Troopers, assaults on Americans, and late night visits from the Gestapo.  The book refers to the pervasive fear even within the Gestapo where everyone was under suspicion.  One Gestapo officer was advised by his superior to always walk up a stair well against the wall because this would make it difficult for someone to get a clear shot at him from above.  Which was the true Berlin: the "gemuetlich" city with the feel of a neighborly small town where people adored their dogs and horses or the murderous web of national plots ready to cleanse the society of anyone not fitting the Aryan model?

One screaming aspect of Nazi Germany is how un-Aryan the leaders were.  None of them fit the Aryan perfection they sought to secure for the country.  They were middle-aged men, a mediocre artist and a chicken farmer (Himmler), mainly seeking to secure absolute power for themselves. 

Many Germans did not support the policies and actions of the Nazi party, but there were no heroes in this story.  Remarks taken from diaries and letters of Americans reveal the undercurrent of the prejudice with which Jewish people were held.  The Nazi officers were accepted in the most elite social circles in Berlin, and when people found some of their talk and actions distasteful, accommodations were made for their unsavory views.  No one would have believed what would happen to Berlin in the next few years.  It was just ordinary life with an unusual government in charge, which many believed the German people would not tolerate for long.  Things, however, grew increasingly worse, and the book describes in detail the purge on June 30, 1934, when, according to estimates, nearly 100 people were pulled from their everyday lives and shot, and Hitler's hold on power was cemented in history. 

Where were the Americans during this time?  Reluctant to get involved.  Why?  Germany owed the United States millions of dollars in loans, and the American government was afraid Germany would default on those loans.  Even when reports indicated Americans were randomly attacked in Germany, when reports indicated that Jewish people were persecuted and camps were filling up, when reports indicated a mammoth building up of military equipment and armies, the United States refused to disavow the Nazi government. 

In the Garden of Beasts (named for the "tiergarten", a park in Berlin which means literally "animal garden") reveals what it was like to live in Berlin in 1934 when things began to go terribly wrong, before people began to understand that Hitler had more on his mind than uniting the German people.  I don't think even the Nazis realized how much poison could pour out of their souls.

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