Sunday, March 11, 2012

In The Garden Of Beasts by Erik Larson

What a apt title for a book about a simple, middle class American family thrown into the chaos and terror of Hitler's Germany in 1933. In that year, United States president, Franklin D. Roosevelt faced what initially seemed to be a fairly straightforward task - that of appointing a new ambassador to Germany. Yet he was unable to find anyone to take the job. Roosevelt eventually was encouraged to offer the appointment to William E. Dodd, a mild-mannered university professor from Chicago. Despite reservations and a deepening sense of foreboding, Dodd accepted the post and traveled to Berlin along with his wife, his 24 year old daughter, Martha and his 28 year old son Bill Jr.

The Germany of 1933 was still adjusting/reacting to the changes  newly elected Chancellor Adolf Hitler had implemented. Despite repeated attacks on Americans in Berlin and other areas of Germany, and the continuation of other unsettling "incidents", Dodd and his family at first remained uniquely blind to the true situation in Germany. They still believed the Nazi regime overall was going through a phase that would lead eventually to calm and reasonableness. As history tells us, they, along with most of the world,  were very wrong.

Dodd was by no means to only one to have such delusional views of Nazi Germany. American correspondent H.V. Kaltenborn maintained his rosy view of the Nazi's up until the night he and his family were scheduled to return to America. On that night, his family experienced several terrifying minutes at the hands of the SA troops that forever changed his outlook.

Of particular interest was Martha, Dodd's adult daughter. Described as an "enchantress -- luscious and blonde, with luminous blue eyes and  pale translucent skin", Martha was a promiscuous woman who had numerous liaisons and many affairs with German and French men as well as a long term relationship with a Soviet operative, Boris Winogradov. Martha was initially taken with the Nazi regime but subsequently grew to understand just who and what Hitler was.

Divided into seven parts with and epilogue and a coda, In The Garden Of The Beasts is a compelling read that takes readers deep into prewar German society. Larson's considerable archival research fleshes out a story that is both horrific and tragic.


Larson is effective in setting the stage for the modern reader who is likely unfamiliar with the world as it existed in 1933. In particular,  he effectively describes the changing political and social situation in Berlin, and the American reaction to Hitler during this time. For example, having read many books about the Holocaust and also about World War II, I have often wondered why America and other western nations did not act more decisively to help the Jews or to express their displeasure over what was happening in Germany, at what appears in hindsight, to have been a crucial point in time - early in the Hitler regime.
Larson explains,
"There existed at this time a widespread perception that Hitler's government could not possibly endure. Germany's military power was limited - its army, the Reichswehr, had only one hundred thousand men, no match for the military forces of neighboring France, let alone the combined might of France, England, Poland, and the Soviet Union. And Hitler himself had begun to seem like a more temperate actor than might have been predicted given the violence that had swept Germany earlier in the year."

As for the "Jewish problem", we learn that Roosevelt refrained from expressing condemnation of the treatment of the Jewish people in Germany by the Nazis. The Jewish problem was seen in America more as an immigration problem. In a country crushed by the depression, with thousands out of work, inviting thousands of Jews to America as immigrants would have been politically volatile. American isolationists also took the view that America had no business being involved in what was essentially a German problem. It was a situation that even the Jewish people in American were divided over.

Into this complex situation, Dodd and his family arrived in Germany, determined to live in a frugal manner, quite different from that of his predecessors. Not a member of the "Pretty Good Club", Dodd managed to turn most in the American foreign affairs against him. At times Dodd focused more on problems with embassy staff than on what was going on around him in Berlin and in protecting American interests.

Yet is was also most remarkable that Secretary Hull of the U.S. State Department, along with many others, expected Dodd to protect the interests of American holders of German bonds. For the US State Department, the primary focus at this time was not Hitler, but that Germany continue to make it's payments on the bonds.

The fact is, Roosevelt placed a man eminently unsuited for the position of Ambassador, someone concerned more about financial frugality in a department known for its excesses. Like many American's, the American government and foreign service had no real understanding of what was occuring in Germany. And like many throughout the world, their view and understanding was tempered by an undercurrent of prejudice against Jews.

In the end, Dodd and others, came to realize the danger the Hitler regime posed to the world but it was too late. The events of June 30, 1934, known as The Night of the Long Knives, or the Rohm purging, would provide those who chose to pay attention, with the understanding of what Hitler really was. Yet many in the US and British Government still refused to acknowledge the threat. Larson quotes historian Ian Kershaw,

"The killings demonstrated in what should have been unignorable terms how far Hitler was willing to go to preserve power, yet outsiders chose to misinterpret the violence as merely an internal settling of scores..."

Erik Larson's In The Garden of The Beasts is a brilliant analysis and recounting of the years William Dodd acted as Ambassador to Germany. He captures all the main characters in this unfolding drama which ultimately led to the Holocaust and another World War.

Book Details:
In The Garden of the Beasts by Erik Larson
New York: Crown 2011
448 pp.

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