Much like those of the Civil War, the stories of World War II can – and do – fill the shelves of bookstores and libraries. Plenty may overlap or prove superfluous, but new research, archival discoveries, and fresh perspectives can still reap rewards for historians and
Into this category goes Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts, a disturbing but highly compelling account of the life of the American ambassador to Germany and his family during Hitler’s rise to power. Larson, author of “The Devil in the White City” and other bestsellers, focuses on a narrow yet intriguing chapter of the buildup to the war: what life was like in Berlin among the social and political elite as Hitler became chancellor, told through the eyes of a most unusual ambassador and his family.
William E. Dodd was the 64-year-old chairman of the history department at the University of Chicago when he fell into the unlikely role of ambassador to Germany.
Dodd, an established historian, had hoped for a quiet State Department posting in a region with little strategic importance (the Netherlands, perhaps), something that would leave him largely free to work on what he really cared about: an ambitious four-volume history of the American South.
President Franklin Roosevelt, however, was desperate to find someone to send to Berlin. The newly appointed Chancellor Hitler had already created an air of menace that caused several more likely candidates to turn down the job. Eventually Roosevelt turned to Dodd.
The new ambassador, a “humble Jeffersonian,” grew up a farm boy and lacked the typical Ivy League background and résumé. He eschewed finery and pageantry and became a State Department joke when he shipped his family’s battered Chevrolet to Berlin to navigate among the Mercedes-Benzes that ferried Nazi officials.
Dodd also economized by leasing a four-story mansion owned by a Jewish banker on the edge of the Tiergarten, Berlin’s Central Park. (“Tiergarten” translates, literally, as “garden of animals” – or beasts.)
Dodd and his family – his wife, Mattie; his son, Bill; and his daughter, Martha – paid a paltry $150 per month for the first three floors of the mansion. The banker, a man named Panofsky, squeezed into the top floor with his family, hoping that living with the American ambassador would make persecution much harder, even for Hitler and his goon squads.
Dodd arrived in Berlin as isolationism ran rampant in America. Even when American tourists in Germany were beaten and detained for the flimsiest of reasons, the State Department and others in government paid little heed. Martha, Dodd’s 24-year-old daughter, became a fixture on the Berlin social scene, promiscuous and outspoken if naively smitten with what she at first believed to be a German renaissance.
Drawing on letters and government accounts, Larson brings Berlin roaring to life in all its glamour and horror during the first year of Dodd’s ambassadorship. Martha flirts and gossips with Nazi power brokers, including the head of the Gestapo, as well as foreign correspondents and a Russian spy. When she meets Hitler, he kisses her hand.
William Dodd was briefly persuaded that the situation in Germany wasn’t as bad as critics charged, that Hitler’s promises of moderation would be realized. Within several months, however, he saw clearly that Hitler and his cronies were madmen who must be stopped.
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.”
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.