In the Garden of Beasts describes the changes in Germany in the early 1930’s after Hitler came to power, through the eyes of the Dodd family, all four of whom traveled together to Berlin in 1933.
William Dodd had been appointed German Ambassador in 1933 by President Roosevelt after four others had turned down the position. Ambassador Dodd, who rose to prominence by virtue of his academic achievements rather than wealth or position, retained his poverty-mindset as an adult and moreover was rather stuffy and a bit of a party-pooper. His 24-year-old daughter Martha, however, more than compensated for his stick-in-the-mud qualities. In addition, she kept a diary and later published a memoir, Through Embassy Eyes, from which Larson drew heavily. Thus Larson recounts Martha’s many affairs with anyone and everyone in Berlin, including an early head of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels.
In 1933, Hitler was not considered a serious entrant on the world’s political stage. Nevertheless, he was able to put into effect a remarkable number of outrageously appalling laws and practices with hardly a dissenting voice anywhere. In fact, the campaign known as Gleichschaltung to bring all citizens and organizations in line with Nazi beliefs and policies came to be known as Selbstgleichschaltung, or self-coordination, because of how Germans so willingly “placed themselves under the sway of Nazi rule.” New rules included a number of punitive measures against Jews, as well as censorship and restrictions on criticism. One result was the infamous “Night of Long Knives” in June 1934 when Hitler had any and all dissenting voices permanently silenced. Interestingly, after Hitler’s purge (one SS officer claimed some five hundred had been killed and 15,000 arrested), the country breathed a sigh of relief: it was assumed that now the violence and fear of reprisals would be over. Instead, of course, it was only the beginning. They should have gotten the hint: three days later, Hitler’s cabinet made all the murders legal, justified as actions taken “in emergency defense of the state.”
What was the U.S. doing all this time? Above all, the State Department, a bastion of a wealthy, homogenous, and by-and-large anti-Semitic elite, was much more concerned with Germany’s failure to repay its debts to American creditors than its behavior toward Jews. Indeed, some of them were sympathetic to the anti-Jewish measures, as were the Dodds – at first anyway.
But there was another problem with the U.S. speaking out. As R. Walton Moore, Assistant Secretary of State, explained to Dodd in a memorandum, if Roosevelt were to speak out against what the German Reich was doing to the Jews, he would be in a double bind:
If he declined to comply with the request, he would be subjected to considerable criticism. On the other hand, if he complied with it he would not only incur the resentment of the German Government, but might be involved in a very acrimonious discussion with that Government which conceivably might, for example, ask him to explain why the negroes of this country do not fully enjoy the right of suffrage; why the lynching of negroes…is not prevented or severely punished; and how the anti-Semitic feeling in the United States, which unfortunately seems to be growing, is not checked.”
Ah! There was the rub!
Eventually, Dodd became horrified by the German government, and it destroyed his health along with his desire to stay. The State Department was no less dissatisfied with him, since he tended to criticize their extravagence, and was not vigilant enough about getting loans repaid. (Dodd, who could see the German build-up of armaments, knew that Germany would absolutely not allocate any funds to paying off Americans!) He was finally recalled at the end of 1937.
By that time, Martha too had become disillusioned with the people she had once thought to be thrilling and even noble. She even went so far as to become a Soviet spy. As she left with her family in 1937, she wrote:
I had had enough of blood and terror to last me for the rest of my life.”
Evaluation: Having read a zillion books on the Holocaust, I appreciated that this one provided a fresh approach, one that not only began its coverage of Hitler’s Germany from very early on, but one that focused on Americans and the reaction of Americans on the scene. I also liked finding out about the Nazis’ reactions to and interactions with the American and international press and diplomatic communities. Yes, it’s a niche book, but a niche book is just what is needed in a subject area that is already very heavily populated with histories. And yes there are a lot of names and details, but for those familiar with the history of the Nazi regime and WWII, these are all already quite well-known. I thought it a welcome addition to the many books about the Third Reich.
Published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., 2011