Book Quote:

“As the time passed the Dodds found themselves confronting an amorphous anxiety that suffused their days and gradually altered the way they led their lives. The change came about slowly, arriving like a pale mist that slipped into every crevice. It was something everyone who lives in Berlin seemed to experience.”

Book Review:

Review by Jill I. Shtulman  (MAY 19, 2011)

Before you even think of reading Erik Larson’s latest masterwork, clear your calendar, call in sick, send the kids to grandma’s, and place all your evening plans on hold. You will not want to come up for air until you’ve reached the last pages. It’s that good.

In his preface, Larson writes, “Once, at the dawn of a very dark time, an American father and daughter found themselves suddenly transported from their snug home in Chicago to the heart of Hitler’s Berlin. They remained there for four and a half years, but it is their first year that is the subject of the story to follow, for it coincided with Hitler’s ascent from chancellor to absolute tyrant, when everything hung in the balance and nothing was certain.”

The father was William E. Dodd, the mild-mannered and almost laughingly frugal history professor who became an unlikely choice as FDR’s pick for America’s first ambassador to Nazi Germany. The daughter was his bon vivant 24-year-old daughter, Martha, a beautiful and irrepressible woman of great physical appetites, who went along for the adventure of a lifetime. Their story is nothing short of extraordinary.

To quote Mark Twain: “Truth is stranger than fiction, because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.” Certainly, this is a story in which truth trumps fiction. Martha – a compatriot of literary legends Carl Sandburg and Thornton Wilder – quickly takes her place in German society. Larson writes, “As the daughter of the American ambassador she possessed instant cachet and in short order found herself sought after by men of all ranks, ages and nationalities.” One such pursuer was Rudolf Diels, the young chief of the Gestapo, a scarred, confident and charismatic man with penetrating eyes.

The other – one of the great loves of her life – was Boris, a senior agent for the NKVD, the precursor of the Soviet Union’s KGB. Although he is nominally married, he falls passionately for Martha and indeed, the two consider marrying.

In the meanwhile, her ambassador father is experiencing the crushing disillusionment of recognizing that the Germany of his college years has been taken over by a group of mad men. As a lone voice in the wilderness, he tries to voice concerns to a largely indifferent State Department back home, encourage Roosevelt to censor the growing evil, and fight the backstabbing of the wealthy “Pretty Good Club” of affluent ambassadors who race from one glittery party to another. And astoundingly, he tries –without success – to refocus the State Department’s priorities; their “main concern about Germany remained its huge debt to America’s creditors.”

Through the eyes of history, we – the readers – know the eventual outcome of the story, and it’s viscerally painful to see all the junctures where Hitler’s nefarious plans could have been stopped – but weren’t. Like his magnificent Devil in the White City, this book is tautly told, with lots of foreshadowing, building suspense at every corner.

Ending about the time of “The Night of the Long Knives” – Hitler’s purge and the first act in the great tragedy of appeasement – this is an unforgettable look at life inside Germany in 1933 and 1934, through the eyes of a naïve but well-meaning American father and daughter. It is a tour de force about “complicated people moving through a complicated time, before the monsters declared their true nature.”

AMAZON READER RATING: from 1,639 readers
PUBLISHER: Crown (May 10, 2011)
REVIEWER: Jill I. Shtulman
EXTRAS: Excerpt
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May 19, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Facing History, Germany, Non-fiction

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