Twisting in the WindFebruary 11, 2012
Happiness is a Warm BowlFebruary 26, 2012
If you have any interest in twentieth-century history, do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Erik Larson’s latest book, In the Garden of Beasts. As the subtitle states, it’s a story of “love, terror, and an American family in Hitler’s Berlin,” with the family in question being that of William Dodd, a University of Chicago history professor who served as the American ambassador to Germany from 1933 until the end of 1937. From Dodd’s perch at the US embassy in Berlin, he, his wife, and their two adult children had a unique vantage point on the rise of the Third Reich.
Though this period in history is inherently compelling, Larson’s book is particularly fascinating because of the two individuals at its core—Ambassador Dodd and his daughter, Martha.
It’d be an understatement to say that Dodd was not your typical diplomat; he was only offered the post after several of the more usual suspects rejected it. A frugal, bookish, old-fashioned sort, he never cared for lavish parties and often left diplomatic soirees much earlier than was considered socially acceptable, because he wanted to get home at a reasonable hour. Unlike many of his peers, he didn’t come from money or privilege. In fact, Dodd often admonished his colleagues for their extravagant lifestyles, and publicly proclaimed his commitment to subsisting on his relatively meager State Department salary. He was a firm believer that living within one’s means (particularly at a time of economic crisis) was a vital part of his job—namely, to serve as a role model for American values abroad. While his attitude may have been admirable, it was probably his undoing, earning him the animosity of his clubbier—and much wealthier—peers.
Dodd’s daughter, Martha, on the other hand, relished opulence and ceremony. A flamboyant young woman, she seemed to have a different suitor every week, among them the head of the Gestapo and a representative of Stalin’s government, and she became the subject of much gossip within diplomatic circles. She was also quite infatuated with the Nazi movement initially, and bought into the sympathetic public image that the party was careful to manufacture—as staunch defenders of German pride and nationalism, fighting the good fight against a host of powerful enemies.
Larson does a masterful job of reconstructing what was going on behind the scenes, and he makes us feel Dodd’s and Martha’s growing sense of unease. It took Martha considerably longer than her father to see the truth of what was happening, but both father and daughter eventually came to realize that they were dealing with a regime unlike any they’d ever imagined—one steeped in a brutality that was not only meted out to Jews but also to Russians, communists, journalists, diplomats, American tourists, and even members of the government’s inner circle. Though I felt no pity for the monsters at the heart of the Third Reich, the recounting of Hitler’s ambush and murder of hundreds of his own colleagues on June 30, 1934, serves as a chilling precursor of what was to follow.
Thanks to Larson’s wonderful eye for detail, even the smallest anecdotes have been deftly selected for their power to illuminate the bigger picture. We learn, for example, that several weeks before Hitler’s June 30th purge, Ambassador Dodd and his European counterparts were invited to the garish country estate of Nazi general Herman Göring, for a tour of the grounds. Larson shares with us the misgivings felt by Eric Phipps, the British ambassador, as Phipps describes the outing in his diary: “The chief impression was that of the most pathetic naïveté of General Göring, who showed us his toys like a big, fat, spoilt child: his primeval woods, his bison and birds…And then I remembered there were other toys, less innocent though winged, and these might some day be launched on their murderous mission in the same childlike spirit and with the same childlike glee.”
Ultimately, Larson’s portrait of Ambassador Dodd reveals a sympathetic yet quirky figure, one who could be maddeningly naïve but who also had a strong sense of decency at his core. Though initially slow to grasp what was occurring all around him, Dodd saw the writing on the wall long before many of his peers. In a letter he penned to Douglas MacArthur (then the army chief of staff) in 1934, five years before Hitler invaded Poland, Dodd wrote: “In my judgment, the German authorities are preparing for a great continental struggle. There is ample evidence. It is only a question of time.” That same year, Dodd wrote to Secretary of State Cordell Hull: “With Germany united as it has never before been, there is feverish arming and drilling of 1,500,000 men, all of whom are taught every day to believe that continental Europe must be subordinated to them. I think we must abandon our so-called isolation.”
Tragically, no one seemed to be listening.
In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson (Crown Publishing Group – May 2011)