Tag Archives: Erik Larsen

All I Ever Needed to Know About Adolf Hitler, I Learned From Daffy Duck

7 Jul

In the days and weeks after 9/11/01, I recall being very disappointed in some of my friends and acquaintances who, through one instance or another, proved themselves to be racist assholes. I admit and have admitted that right after the Twin Towers fell, I had a little bloodlust, myself. I wanted to pound Osama bin Laden in his ugly face and carpet bomb whatever sand-choked hellhole he had squirreled himself away in. But I never felt like attacking Muslims, frankly I didn’t make the direct connection between Islam and the events of 9/11 until FOX News kindly pointed it out for me. When someone carries out hurtful acts in the name of a religion that otherwise preaches peace and moderation, then they are not representatives of that religion. They’re wackos.

So right after 9/11, I noticed that a lot of my peers and neighbors were fucking dickfaces. It wasn’t just the people around me, either, but all over America there were flags on car bumpers and anti-Muslim slogans and outbursts of racist violence that, quite honestly, scared the shit out of me. As our army was pulled from Afghanistan and sent to Iraq in order to ferret out those elusive Weapons of Mass Destruction, I wondered what the fuck is happening in my country? I felt powerless, the events that directly affected my life were out of my control and coalescing into something I could not understand. There is nothing wrong with owning and displaying the American flag, if that’s your thing, but the implied and actual jingoism of the early twenty-first century was a little much.

I got a similar sense reading In the Garden of Beasts by the engaging and talented Erik Larsen. It’s about a family of four, the Dodds, the head of which was a Midwestern university professor, tapped by President Franklin D. Roosevelt for travel to Berlin as an ambassador of America. He takes his clan: wife, son, and his free-spirited and sexually liberated daughter Martha, and when they arrive to Germany in 1933, Hitler has only just become Chancellor and the Nazi Party is gaining its footholds. In just one year, the Nazis break the Treaty of Versailles, remove practically every right of Jewish citizens, and stage a bloody coup in which as many as a thousand people are simultaneously assassinated. In the middle of it all is the Dodd family, beholden to American isolationist interests, but recoiling in horror at what is happening in Germany.

It’s easy to pretend that the Nazis rose to power overnight, confounding an otherwise peaceful public who went to bed one evening and discovered Stormtroopers goose-stepping down their streets the next morning. But it didn’t happen like that, and political coups are rarely that abrupt. We remember the acts of violence: Kristallnacht, concentration camp murders, the bombing of London. But we don’t recall the legislation put into place years earlier that forbade gentiles to marry Jews, or made it mandatory to salute parades and any Nazi officers that happened to pass within one’s field of vision. It’s a subtle ramp up to accepting a fascist dictatorship, so sneaky that you barely realize anything’s changed until you discover that all of your Jewish neighbors have disappeared. And then you remember that they had an awesome radio in their living room.

I wonder how far along this path we Americans went in the years following 2001. We accepted the Patriot Act, we accepted an unjust military foray into Iraq, we accepted that we would have to sacrifice some of our personal freedom for the hope of safety. Often I wonder if we’re still headed down that path. We subject ourselves to a degrading experience every time we travel by air, is it impossible to think that at the end of a line of people taking off their shoes and belts, wearily but willingly being prodded by metal detectors, there might be a communal shower filled with Zyklon B? Would you step into the shower if you thought that it would stop another 9/11 from happening, or would you resist? At that point, would resisting even be an option?

I’ve heard from a few people that don’t know what the title of this essay is about. I’m surprised at all of you! See below.

I Romanticize the Shit Out of the 1939 New York World’s Fair

17 Mar

Growing up in Eastern Queens, seeing the towers of the New York State pavilion from the 1964 World’s Fair rise above the Grand Central Parkway like twin homes from the Jetsons cartoon, I had an inkling that something a little weird had happened here, before I showed up. The decommissioned rockets standing proudly outside the psychedelic edifice of the New York Hall of Science, the ice skating rink housed in a building that might have looked more at home in ancient Rome, all of these strange relics that implied something had happened right in Flushing Meadows Park. Something important. And because I am just that kind of asshole who can’t let nagging questions go unanswered, I eventually found out that New York City had hosted not one, but two World’s Fairs a couple of miles from my house! And most of the relics I was familiar with were from the shittier one that my parents’ generation recalls so fondly!

It’s not really, well, fair of me to venerate the 1939 World’s Fair over the 1964 World’s Fair, considering I wasn’t alive to attend either. At the same time, I am afforded a vantage point where I can compare the two events, as if that needs doing, and in the end it’s my personal decision. My appreciation for these auspicious occasions does not affect their respective facts. However, I’m not alone in elevating the 1939 World’s Fair to a legendary, untouchable status, and it’s not difficult to see why. The ’39 fair was built on a garbage dump that was converted to park land in three years; the ’64 fair simply built on the grounds that were already established. The ’39 fair happened at the end of the Great Depression and the beginning of World War II; the ’64 fair seems to have precipitated years of protest and civil unrest. Trinkets surviving from the 1939 World’s Fair are mainly of silver and porcelain; surviving junk from the ’64 fair is almost all plastic crap.

Twilight at the World of Tomorrow by James Mauro is another brick in an ethereal monument to the grandeur of the 1939 World’s Fair, and Mauro pays homage without having to compare it to 1964 at all. There’s little in the way of new information in this title, but if you were thinking you’d like to read some kind of comprehensive narrative about the ’39 fair, well you need look no further. It’s reasonably well-written, and I could tell that the author really enjoyed writing about some of the famous New York characters that populate the story behind the story of the fair. James Mauro takes a rather worldly point of view, contrasting the fair with bubbling political events abroad. The problem is that you never know how he means to contrast the two occurrences: is the fair a microcosm of European political tensions and war, or a beacon of peace and democracy that is the reverse of fascist oppression happening in the other hemisphere? The point is never made clear. Perhaps the World’s Fair can be both, or neither, or whatever you’d like it to be when viewed through the petroleum jelly-smeared lens of retrospect.

My gripe with Twilight at the World of Tomorrow is that it so desperately wants to be Devil in the White City, which is a brilliant book about the Chicago Exposition of 1893. It wants to be that book, but it’s not, and in trying to be that other book (and match its success, naturally), Twilight at the World of Tomorrow sells itself short. Devil in the White City is, loosely, about ambitious men who are able to capitalize during the last decade of the nineteenth century as the Industrial Revolution took hold. The 1939 New York World’s Fair also occupied a sliver of history which somehow illuminated and magnified the preceding and following events. However, Mauro seems keeps projecting a kind of naivete on the masses that attend the Fair, one that doesn’t seem to apply to a generation that would go on to fight in World War II. For all of his romanticizing of the fair, Mauro’s story is more about the aristocratic men who created and operated the World’s Fair, not the faceless rubes and yokels that paid admittance.

While I’d recommend Erik Larsen’s book to just about anyone, I’d only recommend Twilight at the World of Tomorrow to people for whom this topic is remotely within their sphere of interest: fans of New York City history, people interested in the American Jewish reaction to Adolph Hitler, or (as is my case) folks who romanticize the shit out of the 1939 New York World’s Fair. I admit that fantasizing about a defunct, overblown carnival is a little strange, but I’ve been hooked ever since I first glimpsed those Jetsons homes so many years ago. I was even mildly annoyed when they were used as part of the central plot to the movie Men in Black.

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