Monday, June 27, 2011

Storm Warning

We seldom recognize evil at its birth. We see warning signs, but fail to grasp their meaning. It is only later, when the unthinkable occurs, when lives are shattered and we stare in disbelief at the desolate landscape left behind that we realize the significance of what we have witnessed. Yet by then it is too late and we are left to wonder whether things might have been different had we seen through the fa├žade to the darkness that lay within.

In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed William E. Dodd as United States ambassador to Germany. Dodd was not Roosevelt’s first choice for the post. His was the third name on a list of possibles, and he was selected only after the first two turned the President down.

Dodd was an academic, a University of Chicago professor whose principal goal was to write a history of the South during the Civil War. He had no political aspirations and no desire to represent the U.S. abroad. He accepted the post due to a sense of patriotism and out of deep respect for Roosevelt, who personally entreated Dodd to take the position after being rejected by his preferred candidates.

Dodd and his family arrived in Berlin at the outset of the Nazi regime. He was skeptical of rumors about Nazi mistreatment of Jews, and assumed that they were exaggerated. His daughter Martha, a twentyish divorcee with liberal sexual attitudes and a thirst for adventure, immediately fell for the pageantry of Nazi parades and the contagious excitement with which the German populace embraced their leader, Adolph Hitler. Over the next three years, however, the veil of deception lifted and the Dodds were able to witness firsthand the brutality and amorality that would eventually define the Nazi government.

The story of the Dodds and their time in Berlin, during the formative years of Nazi Germany, is powerfully related by Erik Larson in his gripping In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin (2011). Larsen, the author of The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America (2003), one of the better works of American non-fiction of the new millennium, uses journals, correspondence and writings of the time, to bring to life the tale of the Dodds’ awakening to the evils of the Nazi world.

Told in a style reminiscent of the stories of spy novelists John le Carre and Len Deighton, In the Garden of Beasts reads like a work of fiction. Larson’s short, unswerving chapters operate as a series of doors opening gradually to the reality of Nazi Germany. Dodd’s growing alarm at the unabashed violence around him is at times matched by the apathy and thinly-veiled anti-semitism he encounters within the American State Department. His warnings are not heeded, and the Nazi brutality against Jews, Americans and all who pose opposition to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party continues unabated.

The story climaxes in what has become known as The Night of the Long Knives, Hitler’s purge and execution of actual and potential political opponents between June 30 and July 2, 1934. Shortly after the bloody events that cemented Hitler’s grip over the German nation, Dodd was recalled by Roosevelt at the urging of State Department officials who felt he had become too critical of the German government. History tells us what followed, but that part of the story falls outside the pages of Larson’s enthralling tale.

Larson’s story is filled with historical figures who today seem a distant memory: Hitler, Goring, Goebbels, Himmler – all the Nazi leaders are there, interacting with the Dodds and members of their social and diplomatic circles. We know who and what they are because we have the benefit of hindsight, which Dodd lacked. His was a gradual awakening to the horrors of Nazism, and that awakening is vividly related in the pages of Larson’s book. We see the evil as it grows, and the lapse of nearly eighty years is insufficient to insulate us from the feelings of unease we experience as the curtain draws upon a world soon to be forever altered by a monster in its formative stage.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Oh Canada!

Nothing happened. There were no reports of riots, no instances of tourist attacks in an area that historically has seen its share of street violence.

When the Miami Heat, consensus favorites to win the NBA championship, blew the final series and lost the deciding game at home to an underdog and less talented Dallas team, fans strolled out of the American Airlines Arena, got into their cars, exited lots with inflated prices, and quietly drove home. There were no demonstrations of angst or anger outside the sporting venue, no confrontations with men in blue. All that police officers assigned to the event were left to do was stop traffic on Biscayne Boulevard long enough for departing fans to cross safely.

Contrast this with images from Vancouver a few days later. The Canucks attained the best record in the NHL during the regular season, and marched to the Stanley Cup finals as the favorite to defeat the Boston Bruins, a team with more grit than goals. The series went to a deciding game seven, played in Vancouver, where the home team had not lost. Then it all fell apart. Roberto Luongo, the all-star goaltender whom many have for years contended is the best in the game despite a scarcity of playoff accomplishments, gave up four goals to an underwhelming Boston offense. The rest of the Canucks team fared no better, succumbing 4-0 to the Bruins.

While the visitors celebrated their first Stanley Cup championship in nearly forty years, taking turns skating around the playing ice with the trophy held aloft, things quickly turned ugly outside the Rogers Arena. Film and photos from Vancouver displayed a city in chaos. Disgruntled fans looted nearby businesses, vandalized property and set police cars on fire. Police officers squared off against rioters, dodging flying objects, while non-participating fans stood by and watched.

Vancouver officials have blamed the violent display on fifty thugs whom they insist do not represent Canucks fans or the city of Vancouver. But in 1994, when the New York Rangers overcame a three-games-to-two deficit to defeat the Canucks in the series finale, Vancouver fans had a similar reaction.

I have been to Vancouver twice and my memories of the area are quite different from the media images of recent days. I recall a clean, inviting, pedestrian-friendly city with ethnic neighborhoods, restaurants and parks overlooking a picturesque bay. People were so friendly that it aroused my New Yorker’s mistrust: surely, the strangers who came up to us and offered help when they saw us struggling with a city map were up to no good!

The riots which last week engulfed the city were likely the result of national frustration. It has been nearly two decades since a Canadian team took home the ultimate prize in a sport Canadians claim as their own. Since 1993, five Canadian teams reached the Stanley Cup finals, all losing to American teams, with four of the five series extending to seven games. The latest near miss caused an eruption of emotion by the frustrated Vancouver fans, ardent in their support of their sport and their team.

There is a reason why Miami fans reacted differently. The city has long been dubbed a haven of frontrunners, with sporting events routinely playing before half-empty stadiums and arenas. The season-long excitement caused by LeBron James’ decision to bring his talents to South Beach waned as fans began their parade from the American Airlines Arena with time expiring in game six.

Miami fans will not change. They will exercise selective passion and sell out only big events, not the Thursday afternoon matchup of losing teams. Thus, Miami will never match Vancouver as a sports town. After all, nothing says “fan loyalty” like burning police cars.