Back in the Saddle: Thoughts on Connie Willis’ Blackout and All Clear

So I took a break from blogging – well, more of a hiatus, really, which you can read more about over at the Gecko’s Bark.

But I’m more or less back in the saddle, although I have less time for reading and writing now that I’m working again. Nevertheless, here I am.

While on my goofing-off hiatus, I still read often. I finished Connie Willis’ time travel and WW II two-part opus, Blackout and All Clear, read William Gibson’s entire catalog once again, from Burning Chrome on up to his most recent, Zero History – the third entry in the so-called Bigend trilogy. I also re-read J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and re-visited a lot of Arthur C. Clarke’s catalog. Somewhere along the line I also perused Earth: The Book (which, while amusing, is nowhere near as funny as its predecessor). More recently, I’ve re-immersed myself in Isaac Asmov’s various Foundation novels, and went back and read the sequels, which I had never read before, and am currently working my way through the prequels.

The works above for the most part represent the equivalent of literary comfort food. There are others of course – I often visit my old friend W. Somerset Maugham and his friends in The Razor’s Edge; these are just some of the works I happened to turn to when in need these past months. The Harry Potter books are mental Doritos: not the worst thing you could eat but not exactly healthy, but oh so tasty and enjoyable. Of course some might say the same of the science fiction I read, even the lofty ideas inherent in Clarke and Asimov – one person’s occasional tasty snack is another’s dietary staple.

To each his own.

Sounding Connie Willis’ All Clear

Connie Willis' All Clear, the sequel to her World War II time travel saga, begun in BlackoutI think too many months have passed since I read All Clear for me to give it a proper review along with its companion novel, Blackout, and I’m not of a mind to go back and reread it just now. So I’ll just offer up some general impressions. First off, I confess I wasn’t exactly thrilled with Willis’ Blackout.

I think for people who haven’t read a lot of science fiction just the mere aspect of the time travel may be enough to entertain, but time travel isn’t exactly a fresh topic, and it’s hard to bring some originality to this well-worn sci-fi staple. Furthermore, beyond the central idea of a science fiction novel – the conceit that makes it science fiction as opposed to just fiction – the same things that make any sort of fiction good make a science fiction novel good (beyond the ideas and themes): plotting, characterization and so forth – the actual art of writing (I would argue it’s an art, not a craft; at least it should be).

In Blackout, Willis throws us right into the thick of things, with our characters from the mid 21-century England back in World War II-era. They are historians, you see, using time travel as one would naturally expect historians to do, should they ever have access to it. If, like me, you’ve immersed yourself in the nerdy world of science fiction, you are probably thinking (if you aren’t already familiar with Blackout/All Clear’s plot), “Yawn. Historians traveling in the past. Gee, that’s never been done before. Let me guess. They get stuck and/or are in danger of altering history. Been there, done that.”

And in a sense, you would be right. And one of the problems I had with Blackout is that in addition to these very standard sci-fi conventions, our characters are pretty generic. One hundred pages in, I couldn’t help but think frankly: “Wtf? How and why did this win a Nebula?”

However, I’m nothing if not stubborn, and for whatever reason, I’m loathe to stop reading a book I’ve started. It has to be really, really bad for me to give up on it. Funny, but I’ll bail on a movie or television show at the drop of a hat, but I’ll slog through terrible fiction. But I digress.

As it soon becomes clear by the middle of Blackout, the most important character – at least in this first novel – is Blitz-era London, the surrounding countryside, and their British inhabitants. It is this that is Blackout/All Clear’s saving grace, and makes it Nebula worthy: Willis paints an indelible portrait of what it was like to live through the Blitz and World War II in a way that perhaps no factual history book could.

I wonder now – as I did before – if Willis actually made a conscious effort to draw the characters of her future historians somewhat generically in order to draw the reader to the characters who dwell in the past – who can’t simply pop back to the comforts of 21st-century London when it suits them. By the middle of Blackout it is these folks that we come to care about more so than the future historians. Indeed, as one of her historians notes toward the end of All Clear: while History remembers the political leaders – Churchill, Roosevelt, Hitler and Stalin – and venerates those who fought and died, the common people – both those who lived through the war and those who didn’t – who simply “carried on” through the incredible adversity with the business of living life – are also worthy of veneration and remembrance.

To be sure, this is a sentimental cliché, and Willis is hardly the first author to express the idea – it’s perhaps an even bigger cliché than time travel. So it is to her credit that by the time we come to the end of All Clear, we care what happens both to our historians and her characters native to 1940s England, and she manages to write an entertaining and Hugo-nomination worthy effort that doesn’t get weighed down with maudlin sentimentality (there is a bit of this, to be sure, but not too much).

Again, hard core sci-fi fans – the ones who live to find continuity errors in extended works and can endlessly debate items of literary canon – may be tempted to poo-poo time travel as depicted in Blackout and All Clear, and I wouldn’t necessarily blame them. There is never a satisfactory explanation as to how time travel actually works here, and only somewhat vague notions as to why it suddenly stops working, at least in terms of being a two-way trip.

But again, the novels aren’t really about time travel, but about the lives of British citizens living through the Blitz – time travel is just a conceit to take the reader back there – readers, who, like our mid-21st century historians, may know the details of the war, the dates of the battles and perhaps even the horrific accounts of the survivors – but really can’t fathom what it was like to simply be alive at this time, to be an ordinary civilian living through the War, dealing with the rationing, and nightly air raids. To discover this is why her historians do travel back there, and why it’s worth it as readers to go along for the ride.

So if you’ve read Blackout or happen to be in the middle of reading it and are inclined to put it down, as I was, carry on and get to the second novel, All Clear; it’s worth it, in the end.

One big complaint I do have about the novels, however: they really should have been one work. Willis says in a forward that it became clear during the writing that the work simply had to become two works; I’m inclined, humble reader I may be, to respectfully disagree. I think some very skillful plotting and/or skillful editing could have produced one long but well-paced and entertaining novel. Blackout quite frankly doesn’t stand alone as a novel, and it seems to me that if a novel can’t stand alone, then it shouldn’t. But then judging by the trends today in popular fiction, I’m in the minority.

Initial Thoughts: Connie Willis’ Blackout

Connie Willis' BlackoutI just finished the first half of Connie Willis’ Nebula-award winning duology, Blackout – the second title being All Clear. To write a review of it I suppose I should wait until I finish the second book and review them as a whole, but here are some initial thoughts. Don’t worry, beyond general, initial plot points, there are no spoilers ahead – nothing that you wouldn’t find out in reading the publisher’s synopsis.

The Problem With Time Travel (Plots)

Really it’s the problem with science fiction in general, as Theodore Sturgeon so aptly pointed out: it’s tough to be original. So far as the first book is concerned, there is nothing new or original here in terms of time travel as plot device; it’s kind of ho-hum, in that regard. To be honest, if it hadn’t been a Nebula award winner, I would have passed on these books altogether, just based on the publisher’s blurb.

It also doesn’t help that we never really get to know our three main characters (there is a fourth one, but she disappears completely from the narrative halfway through Blackout; presumably Willis picks up this character’s thread in All Clear). The pacing of the book is quite fast, and Willis employs a limited third person narration for each protagonist. As a result we only get cursory insights into what makes our protagonists tick.

While they do get into some scary situations once all are back in England in 1940 at the beginning of The Blitz and the Battle of Britain – Nazi Germany’s bombing campaign over British cities and its concurrent battle for air superiority, respectively – the fact that we know so little of these people as characters made it difficult to maintain interest in the book. They are not unsympathetic; we just don’t know much about them. It isn’t until the latter third of the book that we get a chance to see the character of three characters, if you will.

Painting Life in Wartime

Connie Willis' All Clear, the sequel to her World War II time travel saga, begun in BlackoutIn fact if it weren’t for Willis’ vivid depictions of wartime London, and the characters our protagonists meet there, I probably would have surrendered altogether and put Blackout down. Life is too short to read books you don’t like (unless you are getting paid to review them, which I am not). However, as one interested in history, this is Blackout’s saving grace, as far as I’m concerned. In fact Willis early on draws some contrast between the specter of terrorism and suicide bombing that we face today (and apparently still do in 2060) with the fears the British – and all of the Allied powers in Europe – had to face in Hitler’s march across the continent.

One might argue that we learn so little of our protagonists because the real heroes of the story are indeed the Londoners of 1940 who maintain that traditional stiff upper lip and carry on in the face of the Nazi’s aerial terror, and that this was be design. If that were the case, however, then why the limited third person narration? We only get glimpses of these other characters through our narrator’s eyes, after all. For that matter, why even place our protagonists bodily back in 1940 at all, if this were the case?

No, I don’t think this was Willis’ intent, just a byproduct, and a fortunate one at that. But before I make any further pronouncements, I’ll wait for the All Clear to sound – i.e., I’ll finish it.

Review: In the Garden of Beasts

A U.S. Ambassador to Nazi Germany Provide’s a Unique Perspective on Hitler’s Rise to Power In the Garden of Beasts

Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts, a look at the rise of Nazi German through the eyes of U.S. diplomat William Dodd.Perhaps for many who look back at World War II, the one that happened after the War to End All Wars, the most obvious lingering question is how Hitler and the Nazis came to power, and how the regime was able to do the terrible things it did, namely the holocaust.

The rise of imperial Japan may seem relatively straightforward, but when we look back on the atrocities of the Third Reich, it begs the question, how? How did we let that happen? Particularly when we consider than only two decades before most of the Western world was swept up in a war dominated by German empire and militarism?

How did we, we being the Allied powers, let that happen?

Erik Larson attempts to answer this question, at least in part, with his book In the Garden of Beasts. Some might find that the book isn’t satisfying, or at least not satisfying enough, as it is limited in its scope. It inevitably touches on these large questions, but Larson doesn’t set out to rewrite William L. Shirer’s seminal work, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

So this isn’t necessarily a flaw or a problem with the book per se, but it does leave one hungry to learn more, to delve into the answer to this question more deeply. This is to the book’s credit, however.

As Larson himself says at the beginning of the book:

There are no heroes here, at least not of the Schindler’s List variety, but there are glimmers of heroism and people who behave with unexpected grace. Always there is nuance, albeit sometimes of a disturbing nature. That’s the trouble with nonfiction. One has to put aside what we all know — now — to be true, and try instead to accompany my two innocents through the world as they experienced it. These were complicated people moving through a complicated time, before the monsters declared their true nature.

Even those with a casual interest in history will find In the Garden of Beasts a worthy and interesting read. Students of World War II history will no doubt find it compelling reading.

U.S. diplomat William Dodd's family upon their arrival in Hamburg, Germany in 1933. Daughter Martha is on the left.A journalist by trade before he began authoring nonfiction books, In the Garden of Beasts looks at the early years of Nazi Germany, specifically 1933 and 1934, through the eyes of American diplomat William Dodd, and his daughter, Martha – Larson’s two innocents abroad. True to his roots as a journalist, Larson sticks largely to first person accounts – journals and diaries, personal letters, diplomatic communiques and the like – as his source material; anyone quoted in the book is quoted from material that they actually wrote at the time.

So what Larson elaborates is a view of the Third Reich just having come to power with Adolf Hitler as chancellor; at the time Dodd arrives in Berlin Hitler and his allies are moving to consolidate his power and authority over the country. This culminates in the infamous Night of the Long Knives – the bloody purge of the paramilitary Stormtroopers – followed shortly by the death of the German president, Paul von Hindenburg, who represented the last obstacle between Hitler and absolute control over Germany.

We see these events from the two disparate perspectives – disparate initially, although converging in the end – of Dodd, who was 63 at the time of his appointment in June of 1933, and Martha, who was 25 at the time she first arrived in Berlin.

Dodd perhaps has a unique perspective on events; he certainly was an unusual choice on the part of President Roosevelt as U.S. ambassador to Nazi Germany. Dodd was a well-respected professor of history by trade, who happened to have earned a PhD at the University of Leipzig in Germany in 1900 – he spoke German and professed a fondness for the Germany of his youth. Although he was active politically – he was good friend of President Woodrow Wilson and described himself as a Jeffersonian democrat – he had never been involved with the U.S. foreign service or its diplomatic corps.

While Dodd was well-to-do by the standards of much of America in the early 1930s – the early years of the Great Depression – having a small farm in Virginia and a residence in Chicago, as well as his own automobile, he was a man of modest means compared to the good-old-boys club of the U.S. diplomatic corps. The fact that he wasn’t part of this so called “Pretty Good Club,” and approached his diplomatic post as an historian with a sober and no-nonsense attitude caused almost immediate conflict with those in the otherwise rarefied world of international diplomacy, including his colleagues in the U.S. State Department.

As Larson notes, Dodd himself suggests before he leaves for his post in Berlin “that his temperament was ill suited to ‘high diplomacy’ and playing the liar on bended knee.” But then this is what makes Dodd’s story compelling; he was much closer to Middle America than what we would perhaps describe now as a beltway insider.

And it is this that brings us to what is so tragic about Hitler’s rise to power: there were people in Germany in the early 1930s that saw what was happening – the consolidation of power, the brutal repression of dissent and civil rights, the subjugation of Jews, the military buildup – and tried to warn the outside world. Dodd was among them.

But as it happened, Dodd’s major task as determined by Roosevelt and his advisers wasn’t necessarily to try and provide a moderating influence on the fascist regime. No, his job was to convince Germany to repay its debts to American business interests. The president did instruct Dodd to provide an example of American ideals while in Berlin in hopes that this might provide some positive influence, but the primary goal was to convince German business to repay that considerable sum.

But it is through Dodd – and Larson – that we begin to see how the world let Hitler happen, so to speak. In a civilized world still weary from the previous World War and in the depths of the Great Depression, it was hard for many to conceive of what was happening in Germany and where it could lead. Dodd was no different. As Larson tells us, “ever a student of history, Dodd had come to believe in the inherent rationality of men and that reason and persuasion would prevail, particularly with regard to halting Nazi persecution of Jews.”

Even when confronted with damning first-hand reports, Dodd doesn’t truly grasp the German situation at first. George Messersmith, the head of the American Consulate in Germany at the time of Dodd’s appointment as ambassador, had already been sending numerous warnings back home to Washington. These communiqués were Dodd’s first real clue about what was happening to Germany under the Third Reich.

It was one thing to read newspaper stories about Hitler’s erratic behavior and his government’s brutality toward Jews, communists, and other opponents, for throughout America there was a widely held belief that such reports must be exaggerated, that surely no modern state could behave in such a manner. Here at the State Department, however, Dodd read dispatch after dispatch in which Messersmith described Germany’s rapid descent from democratic republic to brutal dictatorship.

William Dodd, U.S. ambassador to Nazi Germany, at his desk in the U.S. embassy in Berlin, 1933.I would describe myself as probably having a somewhat more avid interest in history than the average person – call me a casual history buff and would-be scholar. But I must admit that I wasn’t aware that by 1933 there were already concentration camps, and the repression of Jews and other groups was commonplace and out in the open, as Larson establishes In the Garden of Beasts. In fact no less than Hitler himself suggests to Dodd that Jews have to be removed from Germany by one means or another.

So it is all the more astonishing in retrospect that nothing was done until it was too late and German troops were sweeping across Europe.

But even after Dodd has been in Germany for some months and saw for himself the brutal repression taking place in the streets – American travelers in Germany were no safer than anyone else, and attacks on foreign travelers by brown-shirted Stormtroopers was not uncommon – his belief in a rational world won’t let him fathom that this sort of behavior could persist for very long. He felt that the Hitler regime would surely either have to moderate its stance or be removed from power; it was apparently a common belief throughout Europe and the Americas.

As Larson elaborates:

Messersmith met with Dodd and asked whether the time had come for the State Department to issue a definitive warning against travel in Germany. Such a warning, both men knew, would have a devastating effect on Nazi prestige. Dodd favored restraint. From the perspective of his role as ambassador, he found these attacks more nuisance than dire emergency and in fact tried whenever possible to limit press attention. He claimed in his diary that he had managed to keep several attacks against Americans out of the newspapers altogether and had “otherwise tried to prevent unfriendly demonstrations.”

Dodd meets with Hitler himself and sees his manic personality first hand – but even Hitler’s evident hysteria isn’t quite enough, unbelievable as it is.

It was a strange moment. Here was Dodd, the humble Jeffersonian schooled to view statesmen as rational creatures, seated before the leader of one of Europe’s great nations as that leader grew nearly hysterical with fury and threatened to destroy a portion of his own population. It was extraordinary, utterly alien to his experience.

But as Larson documents, within a year Dodd realizes that Messersmith and others, namely Jews that had already escaped Germany and the foreign press corps stationed there, are right: Hitler and his ilk are madmen, madmen with a firm grip on the German nation. And that they are madmen preparing for war; any declarations of peaceful intent were simply diplomatic smoke and mirrors.

Later, Dodd wrote a description of Hitler in his diary. “He is romantic-minded and half-informed about great historical events and men in Germany.” He had a “semi-criminal” record. “He has definitely said on a number of occasions that a people survives by fighting and dies as a consequence of peaceful policies. His influence is and has been wholly belligerent.”

How, then, could one reconcile this with Hitler’s many declarations of peaceful intent? As before, Dodd believed Hitler was “perfectly sincere” about wanting peace. Now, however, the ambassador had realized, as had Messersmith before him, that Hitler’s real purpose was to buy time to allow Germany to rearm. Hitler wanted peace only to prepare for war. “In the back of his mind,” Dodd wrote, “is the old German idea of dominating Europe through warfare.”

Casual Racism and Perception of the Jewish Problem

In contrast to Dodd we have his daugher, Martha. A Jazz-Age child, Martha is perhaps more representative of the outside world’s attitude toward the warnings coming out of Germany. As Larson shows us early in the book, Hitler is viewed by many as a joke, this silly little man with a goofy mustache – how can he be a threat?

For her, however, the prospect of the adventure ahead soon pushed aside her anxiety. She knew little of international politics and by her own admission did not appreciate the gravity of what was occurring in Germany. She saw Hitler as “a clown who looked like Charlie Chaplin.” Like many others in America at this time and elsewhere in the world, she could not imagine him lasting very long or being taken seriously. She was ambivalent about the Jewish situation.

She clarifies that ambivalence herself:

“I was slightly anti-Semitic in this sense: I accepted the attitude that Jews were not as physically attractive as Gentiles and were less socially desirable.” She also found herself absorbing a view that Jews, while generally brilliant, were rich and pushy.

In this she reflected the attitude of a surprising proportion of other Americans, as captured in the 1930s by practitioners of the then-emerging art of public-opinion polling. One poll found that 41 percent of those contacted believed Jews had “too much power in the United States;” another found that one-fifth wanted to “drive Jews out of the United States.” (A poll taken decades in the future, in 2009, would find that the total of Americans who believed Jews had too much power had shrunk to 13 percent.)

Indeed, that’s another astonishing thing for us to discover here in 2011 – the casual racism toward the Jews. Not that it existed – that’s hardly surprising; racism must surely rank with prostitution in terms of age and human history. Rather, it’s just astonishing how open and accepting people were about it, including politicians, career politicians that would document their racist views, surely knowing that they would be published. Here in the information age when considerably smaller faux pas can ruin a political career nearly instantly, it is almost unbelievable.

For example, William Phillips was U.S. under secretary of state under Roosevelt at the time of Dodd’s appointment. As Larson notes, Phillips made no effort to hide his racist beliefs:

Phillips loved visiting Atlantic City, but in another diary entry he wrote, “The place is infested with Jews. In fact, the whole beach scene on Saturday afternoon and Sunday was an extraordinary sight – very little sand to be seen, the whole beach covered by slightly clothed Jews and Jewesses.”

Apparently Jews on the beach in Atlantic City was a big issue for prejudicial folks back then. As Larson notes, Wilbur J. Carr, assistant secretary of state at the time, declared in a memo (!) about his issue with Jews on the boardwalk, among other places:

In a memorandum on Russian and Polish immigrants he wrote, “They are filthy, Un-American and often dangerous in their habits.” After a trip to Detroit, he described the city as being full of “dust, smoke, dirt, Jews.” He too complained of the Jewish presence in Atlantic City. He and his wife spent three days there one February, and for each of the days he made an entry in his diary that disparaged Jews. “In all our day’s journey along the Boardwalk we saw but few Gentiles,” he wrote on the first day. “Jews everywhere, and of the commonest kind.”

OMG! No way! as the kids say today. Again, in this day in age, it’s unbelievable that a politician would write this in a memo – a public document. The overt racism is difficult enough to comprehend, even if we admit that racism is more common today than we might like to admit (easy to say when you’re a white guy, of course). But can you imagine what would happen if someone working for Hilary Clinton, in the Obama administration, were to put such sentiments in a state department memorandum? The public outcry would be immediate and that person would be forced to resign just as quickly.

But as Larson illustrates In the Garden of Beasts as well as in interviews, such as the one with NPR’s Fresh Air, overt racism was much more commonplace in Dodd’s time. Even Dodd himself, while not exhibiting the venomous attitude of Carr and Phillips, had his own prejudices when it came to Jews.

While he is clearly mortified by the Nazi’s treatment of Jews, as a diplomat he does his best to try and sympathize in hopes of providing a moderating influence. In a discussion with Konstantin Freiherr von Neurath, the German foreign minister at the time Dodd was ambassador to Germany, Dodd discusses the Jewish “problem:”

Dodd pressed on, now venturing into even more charged territory: the Jewish “problem,” as Dodd and Neurath both termed it. Neurath asked Dodd whether the United States “did not have a Jewish problem” of its own. “You know, of course,” Dodd said, “that we have had difficulty now and then in the United States with Jews who had gotten too much of a hold on certain departments of intellectual and business life.” He added that some of his peers in Washington had told him confidentially that “they appreciated the difficulties of the Germans in this respect but that they did not for a moment agree with the method of solving the problem which so often ran into utter ruthlessness.”

But for daughter Martha, sympathy for the Nazi’s became more about rebellion than a matter of racism or support for German fascism.

On a personal level, however, Dodd found such [attacks on Jews] repugnant, utterly alien to what his experience as a student in Leipzig had led him to expect [of Germany]. During family meals he condemned the attacks, but if he hoped for a sympathetic expression of outrage from his daughter, he failed to get it.

Martha remained inclined to think the best of the new Germany, partly, as she conceded later, out of the simple perverseness of a daughter trying to define herself. “I was trying to find excuses for their excesses, and my father would look at me a bit stonily if tolerantly, and both in private and in public gently label me a young Nazi,” she wrote. “That put me on the defensive for some time and I became temporarily an ardent defender of everything going on.”

After a year in Germany, however, even Martha comes to realize what is happening in. This is in spite of, or perhaps in some respects, because of, the fact that Martha socializes with high-ranking members of the Nazi regime and the Gestapo. At one point Ernst Hanfstaengl, head of the Nazi’s foreign press bureau in Berlin and a personal associate of Hitlers, even tries to fix up Martha with no less than the Führer himself.

In person, the cult of personality that surrounds Hitler becomes more understandable; he comes across as anything but a clown to Martha.

She walked to Hitler’s table and stood there a moment as Hitler rose to greet her. He took her hand and kissed it and spoke a few quiet words in German. She got a close look at him now: “a weak, soft face, with pouches under the eyes, full lips and very little bony facial structure.” At this vantage, she wrote, the mustache “didn’t seem as ridiculous as it appeared in pictures – in fact, I scarcely noticed it.”

What she did notice were his eyes. She had heard elsewhere that there was something piercing and intense about his gaze, and now, immediately, she understood. “Hitler’s eyes,” she wrote, “were startling and unforgettable – they seemed pale blue in color, were intense, unwavering, hypnotic.”

While Dodd’s book doesn’t directly address the larger questions that may plague us about World War II, the insights offered by the first-hand experiences of Dodd and his daughter are undoubtedly invaluable, not to mention fascinating.

But What Happens in the End?

If there is anything that In the Garden of Beasts might be criticized for, it might be that Larson seemingly spends an inordinate amount of time on the first year of Dodd’s tenure in Berlin, and little on the three that come after. Indeed, for the casual reader the details of Dodd and Martha’s lives at times might become a bit much. But then, after the Night of the Long Knives, there really isn’t much left to tell.

By the summer of 1934, with the bloody purge and the death of Hindenburg, what comes next is the inevitable stuff of history. The only things that might stand in the way of Hitler and the Nazis are powers outside of Germany’s borders, and we already know at this point that the warnings emanating from Berlin have fallen largely on deaf ears.

Indeed, after Hitler’s purge swept across Germany in June of that year, Dodd considered stepping down.

For Dodd, diplomat by accident, not demeanor, the whole thing was utterly appalling. He was a scholar and Jeffersonian democrat, a farmer who loved history and the old Germany in which he had studied as a young man. Now there was official murder on a terrifying scale. Dodd’s friends and acquaintances, people who had been to his house for dinner and tea, had been shot dead.

Nothing in Dodd’s past had prepared him for this. It brought to the fore with more acuity than ever his doubts about whether he could achieve anything as ambassador. If he could not, what then was the point of remaining in Berlin, when his great love, his Old South, languished on his desk?

Adolf Hitler at a Nazi rally in the Germany city of Nürnberg, 1935.His Old South was a definitive written history of the southern United States; prior to becoming ambassador, that was Dodd’s primary goal for the remaining years of his life, to complete this grand, scholarly historical work. Ultimately he remained in Germany at his diplomatic post until the end of 1937, having been forced to resign – his enemies, the good old boys of the State Department, finally got their way in the end, as did Hitler and the Nazis, in the short term.

So were Dodd’s efforts in vain? This effort took a huge toll on both him and his wife’s health; she died in May of 1938; he died less than two years later. He never finished his beloved Old South.

I suppose I should leave the answer to that to the reader to discover. While there are perhaps no spoilers in terms of the larger story that serves as a backdrop to In the Garden of Beasts – we know who won World War II, after all, and what happened to Hitler (more or less). But there is still much to learn and much that history can tell us, as Larson’s book illustrates.

Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and that’s perhaps as important lesson today as it ever was, given not only the geopolitical climate at large today, but the political climate here in the United States. Here in this post 9/11 America, people who tend to get upset about things like the Patriot Act, Guantanamo, torture and the holding of suspects indefinitely without due process of law, are often countered by the argument “it can’t happen here.”

The Germans said the same thing.

Get Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts here. 

Area 51: A Preview on the Review

Cover of Annie Jacobsen's Airea 51: an Uncensored History of America's Top Secret Military BaseI literally just finished Area 51: An Uncensored History about an hour ago, and plan on having a review up tomorrow – well, later today, as it is the wee hours as I write this – Friday at the latest.

But I felt compelled to put down some initial thoughts, as there is a lot of buzz about this book, buzz driven by a relatively small part: the claim that the Roswell UFO crash of 1947 was actually part of a Soviet Russian “black operation.” This claim is actually only one small part of Area 51: An Uncensored History, discussed at the very beginning and very end of the book. But since the Fresh Air interview with author Annie Jacobsen last week, I’ve seen posts on Boing Boing and Io9, among many other sites, about the book and the one thing everybody focuses on is the book’s claims about Roswell and its ties to black ops.

Jacobsen, a journalist, says that the craft recovered at Roswell was actually a craft of Russian build based on designs by Nazi aircraft designers Walter and Reimar Horten. The Horten brothers – this part is a matter of historical record, by the way – were experimenting with stealth technology and unorthodox jet aircraft designs at the end of World War II. She further states that the bodies of aliens that witnesses claimed to have seen at the crash site were actually disfigured human children, the result of medical procedures or research either performed by or at least based on the work of Josef Mengele on behalf of the Russians.

The goal of this Soviet black op was twofold, according to Jacobsen. First off, the whole thing was designed as part of a psychological warfare effort designed to instill panic in an American civilian populace already jittery about UFOs, communism, nukes and the Cold War, Jacobsen’s source tells her. The military benefit of this was that if the United State’s air defenses and early warning systems were overwhelmed with reports of UFOs, real or imagined, it would provide a window – or cover – for an actual Soviet attack.

Why cover this up? Because American military leaders and scientists wanted not only to reverse engineer the advanced technology found in this craft – something more advanced than jet propulsion. They also wanted to pursue human experiments of their own, ostensibly to reproduce people with a similar alien appearance as the unfortunate Russian child pilots, for our own American black ops.

Sounds pretty far fetched, doesn’t it? Almost as much as the idea that a real extraterrestrial spacecraft crashed in Roswell.

The Horten Ho 229 powered prototype nearing completion in the Gothaer Waggonfabrik aircraft factory, 1944.I will say this: Jacobsen offers up a lot of tangential and circumstantial evidence to back up her claim; she actually makes, if not a compelling case, certainly enough of one to give the reader pause for thought. Furthermore, she separates out this dubious claim from the rest of Area 51: An Uncensored History, which is actually exhaustively researched and documented – some 20 percent of the book is taken up by footnoted source citations. Another big chunk, some 10 percent of the total text, is taken up with acknowledgments, most of which are concerned with the people she interviewed for the book, on the record – many of whom were actually directly involved with the programs at Area 51 in the 1950s through the 1970s, and discuss their work publicly for the first time.

There is a lot of information here that has only recently been declassified and Jacobsen connects the dots and fills in the gaps – some of which would yawn quite large, otherwise. Even students of history will find much that is new to them (I certainly did). In cases where information on former need-to-know black ops have been declassified for some years – or even well known historical events, such as the Cuban missile crisis – Jacobsen has still managed to uncover previously unknown facts and bring them to light.

All of this makes me think that perhaps it was a shame to include the claim about Roswell, as interesting as it may be, regardless of its veracity. There are a lot of revelations here about Area 51, the history of U.S. nuclear testing and the development of overhead surveillance for espionage purposes. This book would be of interest to everyone who has an interest in not just military history, but politics and U.S. history in general.

I’ll save the rest for my review. Let it suffice to say that there is lot more worthy information in Area 51: An Uncensored History, than the fantastic Roswell claim; to judge it solely on this doesn’t do it justice.