IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS – Erik Larson

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.

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7 Responses to IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS – Erik Larson

  1. kathy d. says:

    This sounds interesting, though I shy away from books that delve too much into the horrors of the Nazi war machine.
    The book, “While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy,” by Arthur Morse tells of inaction and indifference by the U.S. and other Western governments to the Holocaust. It is disturbing to say the least, but students of this horror should read it.

  2. kathy d. says:

    One of my points, which I didn’t stress enough, is that anti-Semitism was intrinsic to many in the U.S. millionaires’ club and in the government. Henry Ford propagated very virulent anti-Semitism during the 1930s to make it appear as if the Jewish people were responsible for the economic crisis which was harming so many non-wealthy people.
    This bigotry was promoted far and wide here and in Britain, too. (The writer, John Lawton, wrote an excellent essay about British anti-Semitism at the beginning of WWII.)

  3. What an absolutely incredible book. I am now going on line to find a copy of the April, 1934 Fortune Magazine.

  4. Beth says:

    Michael, please let us know what you find.

    I think many people had trouble understanding that Larson was writing about Germany as it was in 1934, not as it came to be known at the end of the war. Despite the Depression, there was a sort of “eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die” sort of atmosphere. The people who surrounded the Dodds, especially Martha, didn’t experience the hunger and the fear of the 1930’s. The German people wanted/needed/had to believe their worlds were going to get very much better after the war years. They had no idea what was waiting for them; the Nazis were still building consensus and trust.

  5. Vesna Yourkin says:

    What a fantastic book, despite the subject matter. I have never had the privilege to read such an account. This is the type of book that if taken to heart, leads to much further research and investigating and knowledge. I too, like Michael, am looking for an online version of the Fortune magazine. So far, have only found magazines for sale. Anyone find an online version of the magazine to read – more specifically the article mentioned in the book ?

    Highly recommend reading it.

    – Vesna Yourkin

  6. Beth says:

    There can never be too much information about this period. The current popularity of the neo-Nazi movements in North America and Europe must not be considered men playing games.

  7. Pingback: AUTHORS I – M | MURDER by TYPE

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