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A Deep Dive into “In the Garden of Beasts” by Erik Larson

In the garden of beasts - Erik Larson
Discover the chilling journey of the Dodd family in Nazi Germany with Erik Larson's "In the Garden of Beasts." A tale of intrigue and courage.
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Diving into “In the Garden of Beasts” by Erik Larson is like opening a door to a past that’s both enthralling and terrifying. This isn’t just any history book; it’s a vivid journey into the heart of Nazi Germany, right on the brink of World War II. Larson, known for turning the dusty pages of history into living, breathing narratives, takes us by the hand and leads us through the twisted paths of a nation on the edge of moral collapse.

At the heart of this narrative is the Dodd family, who find themselves in Berlin during one of the most precarious times in history. William E. Dodd, a modest history professor, is unexpectedly appointed as the United States Ambassador to Germany. Along with his family, Dodd steps into a Berlin that’s a mix of pomp, paranoia, and propaganda. Through their eyes, we get a front-row seat to the chilling rise of Adolf Hitler and the seductive danger of the Nazi party.

Erik Larson masterfully weaves a tale that’s as informative as it is gripping. By focusing on the personal experiences of the Dodd family, Larson not only educates us about the political and social undercurrents of the time but also invites us to feel the tension, the fear, and the allure of power that defined Nazi Germany. “In the Garden of Beasts” is a testament to Larson’s ability to transform historical facts into a narrative as compelling and intricate as any work of fiction.

This introduction sets the stage for a deep dive into the shadows of history, promising a journey that’s not only about understanding the past but experiencing it. Larson’s narrative is a reminder that history, with all its complexities and contradictions, is not just a series of events but a collection of human stories. As we step into the garden, we’re reminded that the beasts we find there are not just the monsters of history but also the monsters within us all, waiting in the shadows.

In the garden of beasts - Erik Larson

Who is Erik Larson?

Erik Larson stands as a titan in the realm of historical non-fiction, with a distinct knack for breathing life into the pages of history. His approach is neither dry nor academic; instead, Larson crafts narratives that are as engaging and richly detailed as the finest novels. Born with a detective’s eye for detail and a novelist’s sense of drama, Larson delves into the past not just to recount events, but to resurrect them.

Before taking us through the ominous corridors of Nazi Germany in “In the Garden of Beasts,” Larson had already captivated readers with his unique blend of meticulous research and vivid storytelling. His works often focus on pivotal moments in history, exploring them through the lens of individuals caught in the whirlwind of events. This method transforms historical figures from mere footnotes into flesh-and-blood characters, with desires, fears, and dilemmas that resonate with contemporary readers.

Perhaps what sets Larson apart is his ability to find the human story amidst the grand sweep of history. His books, including the critically acclaimed “The Devil in the White City,” which juxtaposes the glory of the 1893 World’s Fair with the grim deeds of serial killer H.H. Holmes, showcase his ability to weave disparate narratives into a cohesive and compelling whole. Larson’s writing illuminates the past, not by shining a spotlight on the events themselves, but by casting light on the people who shaped and were shaped by those events.

“In the Garden of Beasts” continues Larson’s tradition of narrative non-fiction that educates as much as it entertains. Through the experiences of Ambassador Dodd and his family, Larson offers readers a unique vantage point on the rise of Hitler and the Nazi regime. It’s a perspective that few history books provide, one that highlights the complex interplay of personal ambition, political intrigue, and the seductive power of ideology.

Erik Larson’s contribution to historical non-fiction goes beyond simply recounting facts; he immerses readers in the period he describes, allowing them to feel the tension of impending conflict and the whisper of conspiracy in the halls of power. His work, characterized by a profound empathy for his subjects and a keen insight into the human condition, bridges the gap between yesterday and today, reminding us that history, at its core, is the story of us all.

The Premise of “In the Garden of Beasts”

In the garden of beasts - Erik Larson

“In the Garden of Beasts” unfurls the tapestry of a chilling era, setting its stage in the heart of Nazi Germany as it teeters on the precipice of World War II. At the core of this narrative is the Dodd family, whose story offers an intimate glimpse into the complexities and contradictions of life under the rising shadow of Hitler’s regime. William E. Dodd, a modest and scholarly man, is plucked from his quiet academic life and thrust into the turbulent waters of international diplomacy as the new American Ambassador to Germany.

The book’s premise hinges on the Dodd family’s unique position in Berlin’s political and social circles, offering readers a front-row seat to the eerie normalization of a society sliding into totalitarianism. Through the eyes of Dodd and his vivacious daughter, Martha, we witness the seductive allure of power and the chilling ease with which a cultured nation can slip into barbarism. Larson masterfully juxtaposes the mundane with the monstrous, encapsulating the surreal experience of witnessing a civilization’s descent into darkness.

What makes the premise of “In the Garden of Beasts” so compelling is Larson’s focus on the personal over the purely historical. The Dodds, with their initial naivety and gradual disillusionment, serve as our surrogates, navigating the complex political labyrinth of Nazi Germany. Their interactions with historical figures, from the menacing Reinhard Heydrich to the enigmatic Ernst Hanfstaengl, paint a vivid picture of a regime marked by both buffoonery and brutality.

Larson does not shy away from the moral ambiguities and personal conflicts faced by the Dodds and their contemporaries. The book explores the gradual awakening to the horrors of the Nazi regime, juxtaposed with the international community’s indifference and appeasement policies. This nuanced portrayal underscores the ease with which evil can be normalized when viewed through the lens of diplomatic niceties and political pragmatism.

The premise of “In the Garden of Beasts” serves as a stark reminder of the fragility of democracy and the human capacity for both courage and complicity. Larson’s narrative is a testament to the power of storytelling, transforming the historical record into a gripping cautionary tale of the dangers of unchecked power and the importance of vigilance in the face of tyranny. Through the intimate lens of the Dodd family’s experience, Larson not only chronicles the rise of one of history’s most notorious regimes but also offers insights into the human condition, making “In the Garden of Beasts” a profound exploration of the darkness and light within us all.

Characters and Their Real-Life Counterparts

“In the Garden of Beasts” brings to life a cast of characters whose real-life counterparts played pivotal roles in one of history’s most tumultuous eras. At the center of this narrative are William E. Dodd, the somewhat unassuming professor turned U.S. Ambassador to Germany, and his daughter, Martha Dodd, whose initial infatuation with the Nazi regime evolves into deep disenchantment.

William E. Dodd

William E. Dodd emerges as an unlikely hero in the landscape of diplomatic grandeur that defined the era. A historian by trade, Dodd’s appointment as ambassador was marked by his earnest desire to uphold American values while navigating the complex political terrain of Nazi Germany. His character arc, from an academic idealist to a disillusioned witness of tyranny, offers a compelling insight into the moral and ethical dilemmas faced by those who watched the rise of Hitler firsthand. Dodd’s steadfastness, in a world bending to the will of autocracy, underscores the narrative with a quiet but resolute defiance against the encroaching darkness.

Martha Dodd

Martha Dodd’s journey is no less fascinating. Initially dazzled by the pomp and perceived vigor of the Nazi elite, her character represents a profound arc of transformation. Martha’s interactions with key figures of the regime, and her subsequent romantic entanglements, provide a personal lens through which the seductive allure of power is explored. As her understanding deepens, so does her horror, culminating in a stark awakening to the realities of the regime she once admired. Martha’s evolution from a naive socialite to a committed anti-fascist adds layers of complexity to the narrative, illustrating the capacity for change and the power of conscience.

Historical Figures

The book is peppered with appearances by historical figures who bring depth and authenticity to the narrative. From the menacing Reinhard Heydrich, known as the “Butcher of Prague,” to the affable yet insidious Ernst Hanfstaengl, Hitler’s foreign press chief, these characters offer glimpses into the inner workings of the Nazi regime. Their interactions with the Dodds serve as a microcosm of the larger historical drama unfolding in Germany and beyond.

The Supporting Cast

Beyond the Dodds and the well-known figures of the era, “In the Garden of Beasts” is enriched by a supporting cast that includes diplomats, spies, and ordinary Germans caught in the gears of history. These characters, though lesser known, provide a mosaic of perspectives that illuminate the varied responses to the Nazi ascendancy, from complicit silence to quiet resistance.

Erik Larson’s meticulous research and narrative skill breathe life into these characters, ensuring they are not merely historical footnotes but flesh-and-blood individuals navigating the moral quagmires of their time. The real-life counterparts of the characters in “In the Garden of Beasts” are portrayed with a depth and nuance that underscore the complexity of human nature against the backdrop of historical inevitability. Through their stories, Larson not only captures the essence of an era but also offers timeless insights into the capacity for both courage and compromise in the face of unspeakable evil.

Critical Reception and Impact

In the garden of beasts - Erik Larson

The critical reception of “In the Garden of Beasts” by Erik Larson was overwhelmingly positive, cementing Larson’s reputation as a master of historical non-fiction. Critics and readers alike were captivated by Larson’s ability to weave a deeply researched narrative into a story as readable as any novel. The book’s exploration of the Dodd family’s experiences in Nazi Germany offered a fresh perspective on a well-trodden period of history, providing insights into the complexities of human behavior under the shadow of rising tyranny.

Critical Acclaim

Reviewers praised Larson for his meticulous research and narrative flair, highlighting his skill in balancing historical detail with compelling storytelling. The New York Times lauded the book for bringing the pre-World War II era to life, emphasizing Larson’s ability to portray the slow boil of impending disaster with a sense of immediacy and suspense. Similarly, The Guardian commended Larson for his nuanced portrayal of the Dodd family, particularly the transformation of Ambassador Dodd from a passive observer to an outspoken critic of the Nazi regime.

Critics were especially impressed by Larson’s portrayal of Berlin during the 1930s, capturing the eerie normalcy of life in a society on the brink of moral collapse. The book’s attention to detail, from the opulent dinner parties to the sinister undercurrents of espionage and intrigue, provided readers with a vivid picture of the period.

Reader Response

“In the Garden of Beasts” resonated strongly with readers, many of whom were drawn to the human stories at the heart of the historical narrative. Book clubs and discussion groups were captivated by the moral questions raised by the book, such as the ease with which society can succumb to authoritarianism and the responsibility of individuals to resist injustice. The book’s focus on the Dodd family’s personal experiences allowed readers to connect emotionally with the history, making the events of the 1930s feel relevant and immediate.

Impact on Historical Understanding

Larson’s book has contributed significantly to the public’s understanding of the lead-up to World War II, highlighting the complexities of diplomacy and the often-overlooked signs of impending disaster. By focusing on a less-examined period of Nazi Germany — the early years of Hitler’s rise to power — Larson provides a cautionary tale about the dangers of complacency and the importance of vigilance in the face of authoritarian threats.

The book has also sparked discussions about the role of America and other Western countries in the events leading up to the war, challenging readers to consider the consequences of diplomatic decisions and the moral imperatives of international politics.

“In the Garden of Beasts” has left an indelible mark on both the genre of historical non-fiction and the collective memory of one of history’s darkest chapters. Erik Larson’s skillful blend of rigorous research and narrative storytelling not only earned critical acclaim but also deepened readers’ understanding of the complexities and nuances of a period that continues to fascinate and horrify. The book stands as a testament to the power of history to enlighten, engage, and inspire ongoing reflection on the human condition.

In-Depth Analysis

In the garden of beasts - Erik Larson

“In the Garden of Beasts” by Erik Larson offers a multifaceted exploration of the years leading up to World War II, seen through the eyes of the Dodd family in Berlin. This in-depth analysis delves into the major themes, Larson’s research process, and the narrative style that makes the book a compelling read and an important historical document.

Major Themes

The Seduction of Power: One of the book’s central themes is the seductive nature of power and its ability to corrupt. Through the experiences of Martha Dodd, who initially finds herself enamored with the Nazi elite, Larson examines how charisma and authority can blind individuals to the moral failings of those in power.

The Banality of Evil: Larson presents a chilling portrayal of how ordinary life continued in the shadow of burgeoning evil. The normalization of discrimination, intimidation, and violence under the Nazi regime serves as a stark reminder of Hannah Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil, where horrendous acts become part of daily life.

Complicity and Resistance: The book scrutinizes the varied responses of individuals and nations to the rise of the Nazis. Through Ambassador Dodd’s transformation from a passive diplomat to an outspoken critic of Hitler’s regime, Larson explores the themes of complicity and resistance, raising questions about moral courage and the costs of taking a stand.

Cultural Clash and Diplomatic Naivety: Larson highlights the cultural and ideological clashes between the American Dodds and the German political elite. The Dodds’ initial naivety about the true nature of the Nazi threat underscores the dangers of underestimating authoritarian movements.

Larson’s Research Process

Erik Larson is known for his rigorous research, and “In the Garden of Beasts” is no exception. Drawing from a wealth of primary sources, including the Dodds’ personal letters, diaries, and official government documents, Larson reconstructs the era with meticulous detail. His ability to weave these sources into a narrative that reads like a novel allows readers to engage with the historical material in a deeply personal way. The authenticity and depth of the narrative are a testament to Larson’s commitment to uncovering the truth behind the historical facade.

Narrative Style

Larson’s narrative style is a key element of the book’s success. He employs a novelistic approach, focusing on character development, setting, and plot to draw readers into the historical period. This approach makes the complex political and social dynamics of 1930s Berlin accessible and engaging. Larson’s use of foreshadowing and suspense keeps readers invested in the outcome, even though the broad strokes of history are already known. His ability to capture the emotional and psychological states of his characters adds a layer of depth to the historical events, making the past resonate with contemporary readers.

“In the Garden of Beasts” provides a nuanced and penetrating look at a critical moment in history. Erik Larson’s in-depth analysis of the period, combined with his meticulous research and engaging narrative style, offers readers a unique lens through which to view the rise of Nazi Germany. The book not only illuminates the past but also serves as a cautionary tale for the present, reminding us of the enduring relevance of history’s lessons. Through its exploration of major themes such as power, evil, complicity, and resistance, Larson challenges readers to reflect on the complexities of human nature and the choices that define us in moments of crisis.

Comparisons and Connections

In the garden of beasts - Erik Larson

“In the Garden of Beasts” by Erik Larson stands out not only for its meticulous recounting of the Dodd family’s experiences in Nazi Germany but also for how it connects with and compares to other works of historical non-fiction and Larson’s own oeuvre. These comparisons and connections enrich our understanding of the book’s place in historical literature and its contribution to our understanding of the era it depicts.

Connections with Other Works by Erik Larson

Larson’s signature approach to historical non-fiction—combining rigorous research with compelling narrative—echoes throughout his body of work. “The Devil in the White City,” for example, explores the dual narrative of the Chicago World’s Fair and a serial killer who exploited the fair’s chaos for his own grim purposes. Similar to “In the Garden of Beasts,” it delves into the juxtaposition of human achievement and depravity. Both books demonstrate Larson’s ability to find and flesh out riveting historical narratives that inform and captivate readers.

Comparison with Similar Historical Non-Fiction

“In the Garden of Beasts” shares thematic and stylistic similarities with other notable works in the genre, such as William Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.” While Shirer’s work provides a comprehensive overview of Nazi Germany from a journalist’s perspective, Larson’s focus on the personal experiences of the Dodd family offers a more intimate lens through which to view the historical events. This personal approach allows readers to connect emotionally with the material, making the history feel more immediate and impactful.

Another comparable work is “Berlin Diary” by William L. Shirer, which presents a first-hand account of the journalist’s experiences in Nazi Germany. Larson’s book complements such works by providing a unique perspective through the eyes of an American ambassador and his family, adding depth to our understanding of the era.

Complementing Historical Records and Literature

Larson’s narrative contributes significantly to the tapestry of literature on Nazi Germany and World War II. By focusing on the experiences of a relatively obscure figure in history, Ambassador Dodd, and his family, Larson adds a unique perspective to the historical record. This personal story enriches our understanding of the period by highlighting the complexities and nuances of life under the Nazi regime, the international community’s response to Hitler’s rise, and the moral dilemmas faced by individuals in positions of power.

Influence on Public Perception and Academic Discussion

“In the Garden of Beasts” has sparked discussions about the early years of Hitler’s regime, emphasizing the importance of vigilance in the face of authoritarianism. It has influenced public perception by illustrating how easily societal norms can be eroded and how crucial it is to stand against tyranny before it gains momentum. The book serves as a reminder of the fragility of democracy and the importance of recognizing and confronting threats to freedom and human rights.

Moreover, Larson’s work has contributed to academic discussions by providing a detailed case study of the challenges faced by diplomats in totalitarian regimes. It has encouraged scholars to reexamine the period with a focus on the personal dynamics at play in diplomatic relations and the impact of individual actions on broader historical outcomes.

Through its connections with and comparisons to other works of historical non-fiction, as well as Larson’s own previous books, “In the Garden of Beasts” occupies a unique place in the literature on Nazi Germany and World War II. It complements existing historical records and literature by providing a deeply personal view of a critical moment in history. Larson’s book not only enriches our understanding of the era but also prompts readers and scholars alike to consider the enduring lessons of the past and their implications for the present and future.

In the garden of beasts - Erik Larson

Why Read “In the Garden of Beasts”?

Reading “In the Garden of Beasts” by Erik Larson offers a multitude of enriching experiences, making it a compelling choice for anyone interested in history, human psychology, or the art of storytelling. Here’s why delving into this book is a journey worth taking:

Educational Value

First and foremost, “In the Garden of Beasts” is an educational powerhouse. It meticulously unpacks the complex socio-political landscape of 1930s Berlin, providing readers with a deep understanding of the rise of Nazi Germany. Unlike traditional history books that may offer a detached recounting of events, Larson’s narrative invites readers to experience history through the eyes of the Dodd family, making the lessons of the past vivid and accessible. It illuminates the gradual processes by which democracy can erode and tyranny can take hold, offering crucial insights into the importance of vigilance in the face of authoritarianism.

Human Stories at the Heart of History

Erik Larson masterfully places human stories at the forefront of historical events, providing a personal and emotional connection to the past. The experiences of Ambassador Dodd and his daughter, Martha, as they navigate the treacherous waters of Nazi society, reveal the complexities of human nature—our capacity for denial, the allure of power, and the courage to stand up for what is right. These personal narratives offer a unique lens through which to understand the broader historical context, making “In the Garden of Beasts” a deeply humanizing read.

A Masterclass in Narrative Non-Fiction

For enthusiasts of narrative non-fiction, Larson’s book is a masterclass in the genre. Larson blends rigorous research with compelling prose, creating a page-turning narrative that rivals any work of fiction. His detailed portrayal of 1930s Berlin—complete with its tensions, intrigues, and day-to-day life under the shadow of a growing tyranny—demonstrates the power of narrative non-fiction to inform, engage, and inspire.

Moral and Ethical Reflections

“In the Garden of Beasts” prompts readers to reflect on moral and ethical questions that are as relevant today as they were in the 1930s. It challenges us to consider our responses to authoritarianism and injustice, both as individuals and as a society. The book serves as a reminder of the dangers of complacency and the importance of standing against oppression, encouraging a deeper understanding of our responsibilities as global citizens.

Timeless Lessons for the Present and Future

Lastly, Larson’s work transcends its historical setting, offering timeless lessons on the fragility of democracy, the importance of critical awareness, and the need for moral courage. In an era where authoritarian tendencies are re-emerging in various parts of the world, “In the Garden of Beasts” provides a cautionary tale that underscores the need for vigilance and action to protect democratic values and human rights.

“In the Garden of Beasts” is more than just a recounting of historical events; it is an immersive experience that educates, challenges, and inspires. Erik Larson’s narrative invites readers on a journey into the heart of darkness that was Nazi Germany, offering invaluable insights into the human condition and the lessons history can teach us. Whether you are drawn to the book for its historical significance, its psychological depth, or its storytelling prowess, “In the Garden of Beasts” promises a reading experience that is both profound and profoundly impactful.

In the garden of beasts - Erik Larson


In the Garden of Beasts” by Erik Larson is not merely a recounting of historical events; it is a profoundly impactful narrative that delves deep into the human psyche, societal dynamics, and the intricacies of political power. Through the intimate lens of the Dodd family’s experiences in Nazi Germany, Larson offers readers a unique vantage point on the terrifying ascent of Hitler’s regime. This book stands as a testament to the power of narrative non-fiction to illuminate the darkest corners of our collective past, making it not just accessible, but deeply relatable.

The educational value of Larson’s work cannot be overstated. It serves as a crucial reminder of how easily the fabric of society can unravel, giving way to tyranny when warning signs are ignored, and moral compromises are made. The personal stories of Ambassador Dodd and his daughter Martha, with their initial naivety and eventual disillusionment, are emblematic of the broader world’s slow awakening to the horrors of the Nazi regime. Through these human stories, Larson bridges the gap between past and present, urging a reflection on our current political and social climate.

Moreover, Larson’s narrative is a masterclass in storytelling, blending impeccable research with the compelling drama of real-life events. His ability to draw readers into the historical moment, to feel the tension, fear, and intrigue of 1930s Berlin, showcases the immense power of well-crafted narrative non-fiction. It’s a stark reminder of the importance of storytelling in preserving our history, not just as a record of events, but as a mosaic of human experiences.

“In the Garden of Beasts” also serves as a moral compass, challenging readers to consider their own responses to injustice and tyranny. It raises poignant questions about complicity, resistance, and the price of inaction in the face of evil. The book is a call to vigilance, a reminder that the lessons of the past are perennially relevant in guarding against the erosion of democratic values and human rights.

In conclusion, Erik Larson’s “In the Garden of Beasts” is a seminal work that transcends the confines of historical non-fiction. It is a poignant, terrifying, and ultimately enlightening exploration of a critical moment in history, offering timeless lessons on the importance of vigilance, moral courage, and the enduring power of the human spirit. This book is not just a journey into the past; it is a mirror held up to the present, compelling us to reflect on the choices we face today and the legacy we wish to leave for future generations. Through the detailed narrative of the Dodd family’s confrontation with the burgeoning evil of Nazi Germany, Larson has crafted a work that is both a cautionary tale and a beacon of hope — a reminder that even in the darkest of times, there are those who will stand against the tide.


Key ConceptsDescription
Erik Larson’s Narrative StyleLarson combines meticulous research with compelling storytelling, making history feel immediate and personal.
The Premise of ‘In the Garden of Beasts’The book details the Dodd family’s experiences in Nazi Germany, offering a unique lens on the rise of Hitler.
Characters and Their Real-Life CounterpartsFocuses on William Dodd, the US Ambassador, and his daughter Martha, highlighting their personal growth and disillusionment.
Critical Reception and ImpactPraised for its research and narrative, the book has significantly impacted public understanding of pre-WWII Germany.
Major ThemesExplores power, evil, complicity, resistance, and the seduction of ideology against the backdrop of Nazi Germany.
Larson’s Research ProcessExtensive use of primary sources like letters and diaries to authentically reconstruct the 1930s Berlin atmosphere.
Comparisons and ConnectionsConnects with Larson’s other works and similar historical non-fiction, enriching the literature on Nazi Germany and WWII.
Educational ValueProvides deep insights into the socio-political dynamics of the 1930s, emphasizing the importance of vigilance against tyranny.
Moral and Ethical ReflectionsChallenges readers to consider their responses to authoritarianism and the moral costs of inaction.
Timeless Lessons for the Present and FutureThe narrative transcends its historical setting, offering lessons on democracy’s fragility and the importance of moral courage.


What is “In the Garden of Beasts” about?

It’s a narrative non-fiction book by Erik Larson, detailing the Dodd family’s experiences in Nazi Germany during the 1930s.

Who is the main character in “In the Garden of Beasts”?

William E. Dodd, the US Ambassador to Germany, and his daughter, Martha, are the central figures.

What themes does the book explore?

Themes include the rise of Nazi power, the seduction of evil, political naivety, and moral courage.

Is “In the Garden of Beasts” based on a true story?

Yes, it recounts real events and experiences of Ambassador Dodd and his family in 1930s Berlin.

How does Erik Larson’s book differ from other WWII histories?

Larson focuses on personal stories within the broader political context, offering a unique, intimate perspective.

Why should I read “In the Garden of Beasts”?

It provides a deep understanding of the lead-up to WWII, highlighting the importance of recognizing and opposing tyranny.

What makes Erik Larson’s narrative style unique?

Larson combines rigorous research with compelling storytelling, making historical events feel immediate and personal.

Can “In the Garden of Beasts” be considered educational?

Absolutely. It offers valuable insights into Nazi Germany’s political landscape and the complexities of diplomacy.

What critical reception did the book receive?

The book was praised for its meticulous research, narrative drive, and ability to illuminate a dark chapter of history.

Does the book discuss the Holocaust?

It focuses on the early years of Nazi rule, touching on the ideological groundwork for the Holocaust rather than the event itself.

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