Pre-World War II Biography Provides a Chilling Look into the Present

I recently reread Erik Larson’s bone-chilling work of historic biography, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin (Crown; 2012) and I’m again in awe, and a little aghast, at how perfectly it parallels what is going in America today. The story follows U.S. Ambassador William E. Dodd as he brings his family to his new post in 1933 Berlin. At first Berlin seems cosmopolitan and exciting, but in a mere 18 months a civilized country turns to tribal brutality. The mild-mannered former professor tries to alert an indifferent Washington that all is not right, but his warnings fall on deaf ears. Days full of romance and excitement turn to intrigue, then horror, as the German people fall in line behind a ruthless dictator.

I believe that Larson’s book should be required reading, especially for anyone who thinks that fascism couldn’t happen here. As I wrote yesterday, our built-in protections are already under siege. People often assure me that the Constitutional system of checks and balances will keep authoritarian extremes from happening—but pre-World War II Germany had checks and balances, and a constitution, too. That is, until Hitler jettisoned their democratic rights.

So much of what helped the Nazis rise to power began with normalizing the abnormal. Germany’s tacit approval of hate is reflected today in the violent murder of Timothy Caughman by a white supremacist, who traveled to New York City just to kill a black person. We must be remain vigilantly aware of these terrifying parallels because the democracy we lose could be our own.

Andrew Faas is the author of From Bully to Bull’s-Eye: Move Your Organization Out of the Line of Fire.

Photo credit: Bob Newsome