Again, Erik Larson proves that history is an endlessly fascinating story, especially when in the hands of a master story teller who understands the importance of the role of fallible humans pushed onto the stage of great events. IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS is subtitled “Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin”. The American family of the title is that of William Dodd, an academic with no experience in diplomacy who was chosen to be the United States Ambassador to Germany only months after Adolf Hitler became Chancellor.
In the April, 1934 edition of Fortune magazine, sixteen American ambassadors were listed with information about their wealth. The world of international diplomacy is always the preserve of the very wealthy who use their personal fortunes to provide a lifestyle that enhances the reputation of the United States, especially when assigned to the major European capitals in the 1930′s. Dodd stood out in the millionaires club; he had to live on the less than $20,000.00 salary paid by the government.
Born in 1869 in North Carolina, Dodd received his Ph.D from the University of Leipzig in 1909. It was during this period that he developed his fluency in the German language. Dodd did not possess the background that would be necessary for the ambassador to the country which will become the hottest hot spot in Europe. “The writer [ of the Fortune article] called Dodd ‘ a square peg in a round diplomatic hole’ who was hampered by his relative poverty and lack of diplomatic aplomb. ‘Morally a very courageous person, he is so intellectual, so divorced from run-of-mine human beings, that he talks in parables, as one gentleman and scholar to another; and the brown-shirted brethren of blood and steel can’t understand him even when they care to. So Dodd boils inwardly, and when he tries to get tough, nobody pays much attention.”
As an analysis of an ambassador from the United States, it is a portrait of a man supremely unsuited for the job. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inaugural was on March 4, 1933. He was faced with the emergencies created by the depression. The choice of ambassador to Germany was not at the top of his list of things requiring his immediate action and his focused attention. Hitler had become chancellor of Germany less than two months before. Roosevelt offered the post to two men who refused. Dodd was willing and the need to fill the post was imperative. Seventy years after the fact, it is hard to understand how no one in Washington realized the dangerous period Germany was entering. MEIN KAMPF ( MY STRUGGLE] was published in 1925. Hitler had set out his entire plan in the book he wrote while he was in jail. Nothing that happened after Hitler came to power should have been a surprise, including the Final Solution. Why did no one in Washington appreciate the need for a career diplomat in that post?
The other members of the Dodd family were the ambassador’s wife, Mattie, his daughter, Martha, and his son, William, Jr. Martha was a sexually liberated woman who loudly proclaimed that everything about Germany was perfect, that the beatings on the street were just the activities of young men eager to defend and support the new Nazi government. Her championship of the Reich reads as the utterances of a spoiled woman who had no idea what she was espousing. There is nothing about Martha that makes her sympathetic in any way.
Martha was intoxicated by the power of the new leaders of Germany. She was not particular about the men with whom she became involved. If she found them physically attractive, she did not care about the role they played in the wider world. One of her first lovers, a man with whom she had a long relationship, was Rudolf Diels, the first director of the Gestapo. The man with whom she fell in love was Boris Winogradov, an official at the Soviet Embassy, who was actually an operative of Soviet Intelligence in the NKVD, which would become the KGB. Both relationships could have severely compromised the role of the American ambassador to Germany. Martha Dodd was a verbal bomb-tosser, an apologist for the Nazi policies on racial purity and, like her father, something of an Anti-Semite.
Larsson becomes the story-teller without parallel when he tells the story of the Night of the Long Knives. One of Hitler’s supporters from the time he was jailed in Munich was Ernst Rohm, the leader of the SA, the Stormtroopers, the dreaded brown shirts. He was a man without conscience, a murderer and a firm believer in the policies of the Nazi party. As Hitler became more powerful, control of the divisions of the party apparatus became increasingly important. Goring, Goebbels, and Himmler, joined Rohm as the group who brought Hitler to power. In the summer of 1934, Hitler determined that Rohm, as leader of a private army, was a threat to his power. June 30 and July 2, Rohm and most members of the SA were executed. The official figure given by the Nazi party was eighty-eight dead. Rumors at the time suggested the number was in the hundreds. Later investigation indicated it could have been over a thousand killed in three days, but no researcher has been able to find a definitive number. Larson describes the events of those nights in such a manner that the dread and the oppressive atmosphere that fell over Germany can be felt on the page.
I have done a considerable amount of reading about Nazi Germany but IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS contains material that I have not yet come across. Martha Dodd is the epitome of the vapid attitude toward international politics that grew out of the isolationist attitude after World War I. Larson does a brilliant job of making it clear that the world created Hitler by pretending that he was the character created by Charlie Chaplin.