Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Beastly Lobotomy

Just finished Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts, a mesmerizing and eerily horrifying historiography of 1933/34 Berlin, climaxing with the Night of the Long Knives, the first real outwardly evil pogrom the Nazis accomplished, killing many of their own, including the John-Wayne-Gacy-looking leader of the Brown Shirts, Ernst Rohm.  Larson follows the lives of the Dodds, an American diplomatic family who move to Berlin in early 1933, when everyone was burying their heads in the sand, trying to figure out how people could actually take Hitler seriously, while Hitler became the monster in every room, and the salvation of every little German town. 

With swift strange calmness, Larson narrates this passage of history without a lot of brio so the terror seeps into your brain just like it should:  as a form of obstinate normalcy.  Berlin in the 1930s is a captivatingly over-ordered culture of Weimar apologists on the one side and Nazi comptrollers on the other, a sort of Best of/Worst of coagulated into a society mean enough and hurt enough to pass laws against whole groups of people without really giving it a thought.  The process starts slowly at first, as in Jews cannot work on the staffs of newspapers, and Jews cannot go to the same hospitals as Aryans, and Jews cannot marry Gentiles, etc.  The laws build into a sort of tower that people begin to fear and to worship simultaneously.  "Order" comes from that kind of division.  That's what Hitler totally counted on.  The dreamy calculations made without thought are what laws love to feed on:  that power of controlling situations with blame and extortion and eventually murder creeps up like flood waters in a basement, while everyone else is upstairs having a dinner party, or darning socks.  The accumulation is what is truly evil, the way all those little humiliations and biases build up into genocide, without really anyone seeing.

There's a scene in the middle of the book that is epic and unforgettable.  The diplomat's freewheeling daughter, toying with the idea that Nazis are fun, takes a trip with one of her Nazi beaus to Hamburg.  It's an old beautiful town, and she is thrilled that the curvy brick streets are filled with excited citizens when they arrive.  It's a celebration!  There's the smell of fire wood burning, and the jovial faces of all the townspeople shining at dusk.  Then the Brown Shirts start their inevitable patriotic parade, and she witnesses that wholesome, exciting scene turn rancid in the blink of an eye.  At the front of the Brown Shirt parade is a thin, pale, frantic woman in rags with a sign around her neck:  "JEWESS."  The townspeople seem to be enjoying the spectacle.  They applaud the most when she stumbles.  The Brown Shirts push and pull the woman down the town's streets to the large luxury hotel at its center, and there they all condemn her for trying to marry a non-Jew.  They call her a variety of horrible names. 

Her face looks like it's been frozen in a silent movie frame inside my head -- fear of course, but also a guttural disbelief, as if she can't understand how things got here so goddamn fast.  How did she end up like this?  How are these people so joyously sucking the very life out of her life?

This was in 1933.

And so I'm thinking about Russia, and the law they've passed there, banning "gay propaganda" around "children."  The inevitable violence against gay people follows.  Thinking about the buzz around Sochi as well, and all the talk about whether the US should boycott or not, etc.  It all has that feeling that Larson's book is so good at dramatizing without a lot of sturm and drang:  just this hazy, sad, godforsaken maelstrom that moves as slow as a landslide, and yet has the power and the secret velocity of pure evil.