In the Garden of Beasts
How a cautious American academic and his flirtatious daughter met evil in Hitler’s Germany.
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By September 1933 – three months into his tenure – Dodd was talking tough with Nazi leaders. In a private meeting with the German foreign minister, Dodd said, “You cannot expect world opinion of your conduct to moderate so long as eminent leaders like Hitler and Goebbels announce from platforms, as in Nuremberg, that all Jews must be wiped off the earth.”Skip to next paragraph
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Europe and the United States, however, didn’t want to hear of German aggression, and at every turn Dodd and his reports were undermined by colleagues back home. Dodd’s health suffered – he endured constant headaches and stomach trouble – as he watched Germany become a police state where people were routinely beaten (or worse) for crimes such as failing to salute storm troopers or for dating a Jewish person.
Larson effectively juxtaposes political machinations and persecutions with more quotidian events. Even amid tense and scary times, people went to dinner, danced, fled or stayed, fought, and loved. As Hitler launched the Night of the Long Knives purge – a series of cold-blooded murders carried out under the false claim of an imminent coup – Martha and a boyfriend set out for a romantic lakeside picnic, oblivious to the 500 to 1,000 deaths carried out at Hitler’s orders.
Much to William Dodd’s distress, little changed even as Hitler, Goebbels, and others all but acknowledged they would do whatever they wanted while offering no plausible justification for the seemingly endless atrocities. Hermann Goring, during a press briefing to foreign correspondents, offered this answer about the fate of General Schleicher, a former minister of defense: “[He] had plotted against the regime. I ordered his arrest. He was foolish enough to resist. He is dead.”
Frustrated and disillusioned, Dodd now refused to go through the pretense of reasonable negotiation or diplomatic meetings with the German government.
Unfortunately Dodd’s attitude earned him only scorn in Washington. The undersecretary of State asked of Dodd: “What in the world is the use of having an ambassador who refuses to speak to the government to which he is accredited?”
Four-and-a-half years after he arrived, Dodd was forced to resign. He returned to the US and traveled the nation, lecturing on the German menace and what he had witnessed in Berlin.
Dodd’s successor, Hugh Wilson, took a different approach, blaming the American media for criticizing Hitler and the Nazis, and describing Hitler as “the man who has pulled his people from moral and economic despair into the state of pride and evident prosperity they now enjoyed.”
The German disaster Dodd predicted unfolded after he left Berlin. In similar fashion, no one in Larson’s story has a happy ending. Dodd’s wife died unexpectedly at 62, while Dodd himself suffered increasingly poor health and made no progress on his Southern history.
In February 1940, more than a year before the Pearl Harbor bombing ended the American dream of isolation, Dodd died. Now, thanks to Larson, Dodd’s courage and foresight live on, a welcome new chapter in the vast canon of World War II.
Erik Spanberg, a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C., frequently reviews books for the Monitor.