In the Garden of Beasts

The assumption of power by Adolf Hitler, step by malignant step, a progress that was far from inevitable, continues to exercise a grotesque fascination. One can’t help feeling a sense of appalled wonder at the dismissive flippancy with which this monster’s rise was greeted by Western leaders or being staggered by what seems to be their willful denial of his intentions once he had consolidated his power. The many junctures at which he might have been stopped—by resolve, by assassination, by intervention, or simply by chance—still make one squirm in an anguish of hindsight.

Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin capitalizes on this feeling; indeed, the family of the book’s subtitle is that of the American Ambassador to Germany, William E. Dodd. It is knowing what lies ahead that makes the appointment of this particular man, only months after Hitler had been named Chancellor, seem as bizarre as it does. Dodd, a Jeffersonian who firmly believed that men are guided by reason, was a professor of history at the University of Chicago. Unable to carve out time to complete his projected three-volume, History of the Old South, he had lobbied for a posting to Belgium or the Netherlands, somewhere quiet where he could finish his work. In the event, he was offered Germany by a frustrated FDR, desperate after four politically savvy and far more worldly men had turned the position down. The choice was decidedly haphazard, but Dodd was not completely unqualified: he had spent time in Germany as a student, knew the language, and, as a friend pointed out, “when conferences grew tense, he would turn the tide by quoting Jefferson.”

Rather than meeting Nazi pomp with American ostentation, Dodd shipped over the family’s old Chevrolet, a veritable flivver—much to the consternation of those masters of good form, the State Department old boys. Along with his car and his frugal, republican virtues, the new ambassador brought his wife and two grown children, the younger of whom, Martha, 24, was a prodigy of indiscretion. At least half of the book is taken up with a record of this young woman’s carryings-on: her infatuation with the Nazis and, later, with the Soviets, and her many romantic affairs. Among her conquests were the head of the Gestapo, a Soviet spy, and the writer, Thomas Wolfe (she was, he wrote, “like a butterfly hovering around my penis”). The rest of the book dwells on Germany’s descent into murderous madness and Dodd’s growing disgust with the Nazi government which he was meant to be courting.

For courting was, indeed, Dodd’s charge: FDR had instructed him that his chief mission was to prompt the German government to repay the enormous debt owed to American banks. He was also to do what he could do to protect American citizens from Brown-Shirt attacks and to encourage Germany to moderate its increasingly brutal treatment of Jews. The last two commissions, however, were to be pursued without giving offense lest they jeopardize repayment of those all important (and high-interest) loans. Dodd, whose custom it was to entertain guests at the embassy table by reading them chapters from his History of the Old South, took a scholarly approach: at his first audience with Hitler he brought up the loans, but also expressed sympathy for Germany’s plight, comparing the punitive terms of the Treaty of Versailles to the North’s treatment of the South after the Civil War. Hitler, Larson tells us, just stared.

It is painful to read of the cover-ups and temporizing which Dodd pursued in the hope that the prickly German government—it did so hate to be criticized—would make good on its debts. He connived at keeping attacks on Americans out of the press and strove not to offend the anti-Semitic sensitivities of the Nazis. Though not as congenitally anti-Semitic as the Ivy Leaguers back at the State Department, Dodd did express worry in his dispatches that the number of Jewish employees (“six or eight”) at the embassy was an affront to the present German government. He also explained to angry, incredulous Nazi officials that neither he nor the American authorities could stop protests in the U.S. against German persecution of Jews—but on a trip back to America, he did manage to quash a mock trial of Hitler in Chicago. It is depressing.  

Though Dodd was ambassador for four and a half years, the book is chiefly concerned with the first one, from the summer of 1933 to that of 1934 and the Night of the Long Knives. After this demonstration of murder and lawlessness, Dodd’s feelings toward the Nazis turned to revulsion and horror. He warned the State Department and FDR himself of what he saw was afoot in Germany, its mounting militarism and persecution of Jews. He became, wrote William C. Bullitt in 1936, “almost ideally ill equipped for his present job. He hates the Nazis too much to be able to do anything with them or get anything out of them.” Dodd was finally removed in December, 1937, FDR succumbing to pressure from both his own State Department and the Nazi government.  

As he did in his bestselling The Devil in the White City (where he showed greater command over his subject), Larson tries to give novelistic flair to an historical account. I can’t say that it is successful. He says many times that Dodd had a dry wit, but we never taste it; indeed, none of the characters ever really show their distinct personalities, but seem to be manufactured from research notes. As for the story itself: Larson attempts to build suspense by stalling lines of narrative, sometimes never to return, and tries to give such findings as meteorological data narrative heft with frankly ludicrous results. “The weather chilled and with each day the northern dusk seemed to make noticeable advance. There was wind, rain, and fog. That November the weather station at Tempelhof Airport would record periods of fog on fourteen of thirty days.” Surely, this book’s title promised something a little bit more dramatic.