“In the Garden of Beasts” by Erik Larson

He’s the same guy who wrote Devil in the White City. I guess he likes juxtapositions in his titles.

It’s about the American Ambassador to Berlin, William E. Dodd, and what he and his family experienced in Germany from 1933-1937 when Adolph Hitler and the Nazis were consolidating power, rebuilding the army and ratcheting-up their persecution campaign. We see the changes in German society, from the freewheeling Weimar Republic days and the change in these Americans’ views of the Nazis.

Ambassador Dodd was a self-made man who grew up poor and rose to a professorship at the University of Chicago. He had spent part of his education in Leipzig, spoke fluent German and was enamored of the German people. Yet, he had no diplomatic experience. His posting to Berlin at such a touchy time is portrayed almost as a whim of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s, spurred by a Foreign Service funding deadline. This portrayal is supported by one of Dodd’s main reasons for accepting the post; he thought it would give him plenty of time to finish his book The Old South.

Dodd could be very clever figuring out people, yet was bamboozled by Adolph Hitler, German Chancellor and head of the Nazi party, and his henchmen. When he took the post, Dodd was so naïve he believed his good example and gentle pressure could bring the Nazis in line and ease tensions. It took about a year in Germany to convince him that the Nazis could not be dealt with. Once his mind changed, he consistently pressured the Administration to communicate the danger to the American public. After he left Berlin, he formed the American Council Agaisnt Nazi Propaganda and gave extensive lectures around the US, warning Americans of the danger that Germany posed.

Larson makes Dodd’s relationship with his Consular officers into an interesting story. At this time, the Foreign Service was full of east-coast blue-bloods who Dodd felt partied away their overseas postings and used their personal wealth to support opulent lifestyles. Dodd wanted to portray himself as a good Jeffersonian, vowing to live on his Ambassador’s salary alone and even driving his own car, an old Chevrolet, to the apparently endless formal balls and dinners thrown by the diplomatic community. The tension between these opposing views makes for some great stories.

Dodd’s view of himself was as distorted as that of the Foreign Service. While the “Pretty Good Club” (PGC, as one insider wag called them), was elitist, wealthy and creatures of society, they also seemed to have been competent diplomats and bureaucrats. Certainly many had been in Berlin long enough to make important contacts in the German government and in the wider society. Their experience and connections in Washington should have made them invaluable assets to the Ambassador. Doubtless the Ambassador availed himself of them in this way, but Larson’s take is there was no cooperation.

Larson does not examine how much of staff’s disdain was envy and resentment. The Foreign Service professionals must have viewed Dodd as just another political appointee with no experience in foreign affairs. Indeed, outside of his knowledge of German, Dodd appeared to have no qualifications for the post.

After just nine months on the job, Dodd made a speech in Washington in front of many of these diplomats, excoriating them for their largesse and proposing a new, more modest way of conducting foreign affairs. He can’t have had much judgement to set about trying to change an entrenched bureaucracy and challenge an entire privileged class with almost no power base of his own.

Somehow, he stayed Ambassador for over four years, in spite of enemies in the Embassy in Berlin and at the Department of State in Washington. How he managed this would have been very interesting to learn, but it is never mentioned.

There is alot of coverage of his daughter, Martha Dodd’s, social life, her affairs with Nazis and Communists, and her change of heart from supporting the Nazi regime to despising it. She had a lengthy relationship with Rudoph Diels, one-time head of the Geheime Staatspolizei (Gestapo, or SS). The Russian NKVD tried to recruit her as a spy and she had a passionate affair with a Russian diplomat/spy Boris Winogradov. She also made friends with Germans, some of whom were trying to resist the Nazis by creating an underground movement.

The sexual affairs were a distraction from the much more interesting story surrounding Martha. As much as these new friends may have liked her, they were deliberately using their association with the American Ambassador’s daughter to save their own lives. Martha seems to have been unaware of the power her position held, indeed, she seems to me to have been flighty and batty, not perspicacious and sophisticated. The only time she deliberately used her influence was when Diels asked her to and explicitly spelled-out what they should do and what help it could be to him.

Diels struck me as the most interesting player. He somehow survived repeated demotions and threats of murder, rising up and down in Hitler’s regime. As with Dodd’s survival as Ambassador, how Diels – once so intimate with Hitler and head of the SS – managed to live through the war and write a memoir about it, would be a fascinating story.

The book brings up some interesting reasons why the US and President Roosevelt did not condemn Nazi persecution of Jews more forcefully and earlier. One argument I hadn’t thought of, was that to criticize the Nazis for persecuting Jews, when the US was doing the same or worse to blacks, would have made Roosevelt look foolish. I’ll have to think about that one some more. A much more believable reason Larson brings up for the length of American appeasement was that Germany still owed to American bondholders over $1 billion from World War I. The bondholders exerted tremendous pressure on the Administration to get it paid back. There was also overwhelming public support for isolation and distaste for getting the US involved in another European conflict.

Dodd and his daughter were anti-semitic, in keeping with the majority of Americans at the time.  They were appalled at Jewish persecution in Germany, but their own anti-semitism was casual and  the suffering in Germany apparently did not lead them to examine their own prejudice.

The book creates good background leading up to its climax, June 30, 1934, the “night of the long knives”. Hitler and his closest allies arrested, imprisoned and murdered anyone who they viewed as a threat, including the head of the Sturmarbleitung (also known as the SA or “Stormtroopers”), Ernst Röhm. SA troops, which were seen as a threat to HItler’s power, were consolidated under the regular army – the Reichswehr – and the SS.

The first 300 pages of the book covers the initial nine or ten months of Ambassador Dodd’s tenure, leading up to the “night of the long knives”. The next three-and-a-half years of his tenure are covered in about 70 pages. If Larson had treated these last years as thoroughly as he did the first ten months, the book would have been much more interesting.

Oh, and Dodd’s wife, Martha (“Mattie”) and his son, Bill, Jr., also lived with him in Berlin, but they are invisible. More undoubtedly interesting stories that Larson chose not to cover.

Most of the chapters in the book are just a few pages long, some as short as two or three paragraphs. Larson jumps around from story to story and character to character. This maintains the chronological storyline, but it prevents him from extended examination of characters, their motivations and their identification. It is probably why he mentions what a character’s title or position is almost every time he mentions their name. For some characters whose titles changed often, like Diels, this is helpful, but for many others it becomes pedantic.

This is not a Nazi primer – you should be fairly familiar with Germany during the Nazi era – but, it gives an overview of the factions within Hitler’s regime and their internecine struggles. The Reichswehr, the SA and the SS did not exist in harmony with one another, but their egotistic leaders fought over turf and fought for Hitler’s approval and attention.

During his time in Berlin, Dodd was very frustrated. He discovered how powerless he was, faced the opposition of the PGC, mourned the changes to the German people who he once admired, found he was unable to work on his book and felt incredulous at the world’s inability to see the obvious German threat. Larson conveys the isolation and sadness Dodd must have felt, which settles over the household and must have contributed to his health problems. I felt sorry for how he naïvely put himself in a position that did not draw upon his many strengths and experiences, but which instead led to ignominy when he was finally forced-out and replaced with a member of the PGC.

There is lots of gossip! Martha’s indiscreet love life is like a sad soap opera. Her great love during this era, Boris, turns out to have just been using her under the direction of his NKVD superiors. She even has a bizarre “date” with Hitler, who was only interested in using her to control her father and the PGC comes off as a jealous group of sneering upper-class queens, constantly using subtle and gross means to register favor and displeasure. I can imagine them clucking to themselves as they write another withering diary entry about Dodd, or almost see their single raised eyebrow as they ponder the cleverness of their latest veiled insult in official cables.

Hermann Göring – founder of the Gestapo, later commander of the German army and air force –  is particularly ridiculed for his ever-changing, self-designed costumes and theatrical, paganistic rituals.

It also contains great tidbits. For example, the philologist (he is called that every time his name comes up) Victor Klemperer was a cousin to the conductor, Otto Klemperer, who was the father of Werner Klemperer – Colonel Klink on Hogan’s Heroes. It doesn’t mean anything, but it’s fabulous.

Dodd does not seem to have been prepared for his life as an Ambassador, nor skilled enough to succeed in the role. The highest praise he received was not for his diplomatic work, but for the image he portrayed. According to Thomas Wolfe, he possessed “…dry, plain, homely unconcern…” for the glistering trappings of Consular life that would “…do your heart good to see.”

Yet, in spite of his shortcomings, in spite of his many frustrations, how did he last over four years in Berlin? I want to know, and Erik Larson just won’t tell me!

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