How can a work of non-fiction, one that is devoted to such a dark time in our world’s recent history—the rise of Nazism in Germany—turn out to be such an absolute page-turner, so completely riveting and illuminating, that you find you cannot put it down? Such is the genius of author Erik Larson. He has produced a book that appeals to a general readership, to those of us with a rote memory about the build-up to World War II, who desire a deeper understanding. He succeeds in making this inconceivable period accessible to all.
Thousands of dense tomes about Hitler and Nazism fill somber library shelves all over the world. What makes this book unique is its perspective, for the stories within come from the point of view of the Dodd family, an American diplomatic family stationed in Berlin from 1933 through 1937. They associated with the leaders of the new Nazi regime both politically and socially and witnessed, first-hand, Hitler’s demonic grasp for absolute control over Germany’s vulnerable population. Mr. Larson performed an exhaustive examination of diaries, letters, memoirs, as well as official U.S. and German document archives, to piece together these years using the Dodds’ own words to describe each moment.
William E. Dodd was a moderately successful professor of history at the University of Chicago. In 1933, the same year Adolf Hitler became Chancellor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appointed Dodd U.S. Ambassador to Germany. He was not the president’s first choice, but the position had proven difficult to fill. Dodd, naively and even selfishly, accepted the appointment because he thought it would give him more time to devote to writing his life’s work, a multi-volume history of the American South. Dodd and his wife, along with their two adult children, Martha and Bill, moved to Berlin.
Successful in the world of academia, Dodd was an outsider to the world of U.S. politics and a non-entity in Berlin from the moment he arrived. One cannot help but question whether, had a savvier political entity been appointed, the course of history might have been diverted. Regardless, anti-Semitism existed in our country at the highest levels of our government. State Department officials went so far as to manipulate immigration quota rules for Germany to keep Jews who sought escape from entering America—and lied to Dodd regarding this. Many of Dodd’s official memoranda to Washington D.C. regarding escalating violence towards Jews went ignored—several of Dodd’s most important documents never arrived in the U.S., as many strove to undermine his work. The U.S. government was more focused on pressuring Germany to repay loans made to it prior to the 1929 stock market plunge than it was on attending to Hitler’s blatant rejection of the Treaty of Versailles, his overt buildup of arms, and the worsening violence against the Jews. I had always been aware of a seeming lack of humanity on the part of the United States; but to read some of the direct quotations from key U.S. politicians coldly responding to Dodd’s dispatches from Germany was absolutely chilling.
Dodd’s daughter, Martha, brings a surprising novelesque quality to this already dramatic work. An aspiring novelist, she documented with all-too-intimate detail, her self-indulgent years in Berlin, and her words do not cast her in a good light. A pseudo-intellectual, she comes across as vapid and shallow—more like a character stolen from the pages of The Great Gatsby, than the daughter of the American ambassador to Germany. We read of her various escapades and trysts, thinking them quite unbelievable, but a multitude of supporting resources corroborate her tales. Martha was smitten with the Nazis and their crisp uniforms, banners, and marches. She slept with the head of the Gestapo and other well-positioned Germans, and behaved in ways that turned her father into even more of a laughing-stock to his staff, other diplomats, and the Nazi government itself. Without the protection of her diplomatic stature, she would certainly have died at the hands of the Nazis because of her behavior and associations. Eventually, she became disillusioned with Nazism and dabbled in Communism, only because of a love affair she had with a spy. Later on during the McCarthy years, she had to flee the U.S. to Prague, where she lived out the rest of her life. If this were a novel, we would appreciate Martha as a well thought up character, but she was not fictional which makes her behavior even more audacious—and repugnant.
I’ve recently read numerous novels that relate to both world wars. I found that I wanted to attempt to go beyond my own simplistic knowledge of these catastrophic times to better understand their root causes, so the publication of In the Garden of Beasts this May was timely. Not familiar with Erik Larson’s prior work, I half-expected to slog through this history book, perhaps becoming so overwhelmed by its density that I eventually would put it down. However, the opposite was the case. If every history book read like this, we would all be much more knowledgeable about our various pasts.
This is a valuable addition to the existing body of research, especially as it relates to the United States’ political and cultural attitudes towards Germany during the formative years of Nazism. Highly recommended.