In the Garden of Beasts

Cover image for In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson by Erik Larson

ISBN 9780307408846

“There existed at this time a widespread perception that Hitler’s government could not possibly endure.”

In the diplomatic service, Berlin would normally be considered a plum ambassadorial appointment, a great European capital exceeded only by London or Paris. But in the spring of 1933, the recently elected Franklin Roosevelt was having trouble filling the position. The political situation in Germany was turbulent, and Adolf Hitler had just been appointed Chancellor. Meanwhile Roosevelt had more consuming problems closer to home, dealing with the Great Depression. Just before congress closed session in June 1933, Roosevelt appointed William E. Dodd, a historian from the University of Chicago, to the post. At least four previous candidates had declined the position. Dodd, his wife Mattie, and adult children Bill and Martha, decamped for Berlin, becoming first-hand witnesses to the rise of National Socialism during their four year tenure in the German capital.

In terms of the diplomatic service, Dodd was an unconventional choice. He was not a Harvard graduate, a captain of industry, or a friend of the president. Most ambassadors, and even junior diplomats, were independently wealthy, but Dodd lived on his professor’s salary. The year before, Dodd had quietly felt out the possibility of a small ambassadorial appointment in Europe, perhaps Belgium or the Netherlands, looking for a sinecure where he could turn his attention away from teaching and academic administration, and dedicate more time to writing his history of the Old South, which he feared he would not be able to complete before he died. Thus, his name was in the air when Roosevelt became desperate to name an ambassador before congress recessed for the summer. Having attended the University of Leipzig for his doctoral studies, Dodd spoke German, and was familiar with the country. By phone, he agreed, with some misgivings, to accept the post, and he was confirmed by congress in absentia.

As ambassador, Dodd is one of Larson’s two main characters for In the Garden of Beasts. The second central point of view in the book belongs to Dodd’s daughter, Martha, who was twenty-four when her father invited her and her older brother Bill to join him and Mattie in Berlin for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Martha, recently secretly married and then immediately separated, accepted with alacrity. If Dodd himself was a staid figure, determined to live on his ambassador’s salary, and temper the excesses of the Berlin embassy, his daughter was his flamboyant opposite. Initially charmed by what is euphemistically termed “the New Germany,” Larson tracks Martha’s increasing disenchantment with the Nazi regime, as well as her many love affairs with both German officials and foreign diplomats. Less emphasis is placed on her later involvement as a Soviet asset. It is Martha who adds pizzazz to the story, and perhaps this is why Larson handles her so lightly.

Although the Dodds were in Berlin for four years, the majority of the book focuses on their first year in residence, from their arrival in August 1930, through The Night of the Long Knives, a purge of the Sturmabteilung (SA) that began on June 30, 1934, and the death of President von Hindenburg on August 2. Following Hindenburg’s death, Hitler combined the offices of Chancellor and President. Despite the narrow focus, this is a key and interesting period of German history. Having attended university in Germany around the turn of the century, Dodd was immediately struck by the change he found in the country when he arrived as ambassador. By contrast, Martha was more readily seduced by the energy and enthusiasm of the Nazi movement, and it took longer for the scales to fall from her eyes.

Although he does not dig broadly into European history, Larson does a good job of painting a picture of the political situation that made the United States reluctant to interfere in the German situation. Hitler’s government was not expected to last, and in any case, the State Department was more concerned with Germany’s debt to American creditors than with the “Jewish Problem,” as it was often called. Some highly placed people within the State Department even believed that the United States had its own Jewish Problem. With so many troubles at home stemming from the Great Depression, the American people were increasingly turning away from Woodrow Wilson’s legacy of international engagement, and pinning their hopes on isolationism. They did not want to become involved in another European war. Roosevelt also intimated to Dodd that directly standing up to Germany would put the United States in the uncomfortable position of having to account for the lynching of African Americans, and the fact that black people did not enjoy full civil rights.

The Dodds entered the foreign service with a good helping of naiveté, and a fair share of their own prejudices, most of which are brought to light by Martha’s flip comments. Early on, she wrote in a letter to a friend that “we sort of don’t like the Jews anyway.” Later, she thoughtlessly bragged to a Russian lover that both of her parents came from slave owning families as a means of emphasizing their deep roots in the American south. For his part, Dodd did his best to keep stories out of the press when American visitors were beaten by Stormtroopers for failing to heil, even if he protested loudly through diplomatic channels. But by the time he returned to the United States in 1937, Dodd wad decidedly anti-Hitler, and possessed a grim certainty that war was coming. Instead of settling down to work on his book, he toured the country sharing what he had seen and experienced in Hitler’s Germany.

In the Garden of Beasts is richly described, from the scenery to the characters, in a manner that gives a horrifying immediacy to a crucial turning point in history. From our vantage point in the future, we are forced to see through the eyes of people living in the time, who had no idea of the horrors to come. It is an uncomfortable but revealing perspective.

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