Monday, March 19, 2012

In The Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

In The Garden of Beasts; Love, Terror, and An American Family In Hitler's Germany by Erik Larson
Published May 2011 by Crown Publishing Group
Source: this one was a gift from me to my hubby

I've been trying to write my review of this one for two weeks. But, as I so often do when I'm reading nonfiction, I took a mountain of notes. It's been hard to winnow the details down to what you need to know to understand the story of William E. Dodd's tenure as the U.S. Ambassador to Germany. In In The Garden of Beasts, Erik Larson uses Dodd's time in Germany as a way to highlight activity in Germany leading up to the second World War and failure on the part of the American government to grasp what was happening in time to do anything about it.

Dodd was an unlikely choice for such an important position. A college professor, whose life's ambition was to write the definitive trilogy about the American South, Dodd preferred time on his small farm to any thing else. He did have a deep interest in politics and actively pursued a diplomatic post, but hoped for one with very little actual work. Germany was not on his list of choices, although it was a country he had fallen in love with forty years earlier when he studied there. When Franklin Roosevelt, unable to find anyone else to take the ambassadorship in Germany, approached Dodd about the post, Dodd reluctantly agreed.

He was right to be reluctant. His attempts to live within his salary,  his early view of his ambassadorial role as more of an observer and reporter (Dodd hoped he could exert a "moderating influence" over Hitler's government through reason and example), and the belief of the American people that the U.S. should maintain an isolationist stance all made Dodd's job more difficult.

Rudolf Diels

Dodd's daughter, Martha, added to his troubles. Martha had long been interested in being part of the intellectual set; in the U.S. she counted among her friends Thornton Wild, Carl Sandberg and Thomas Wolf. Her interactions with this same type of set in Berlin, however, raised eyebrows, particularly since many of those people were suspected communists. But it was her easy virtue that really made State Department and Nazi Party officials alike take notice. Among her conquests, Martha counted German officers, Gestapo leader Rudolf Diels (a man who was known as the "Prince of Darkness" and didn't mind it), and Boris Winogradov, officially an attache to the Soviet embassy but in reality a spy. At one point, it was even suggested to Martha that it would be a good political move to seduce Adolf Hitler and she agreed. Nothing, however, came of that.

While there were some who sounded the alarm early on (U.S. Consulate, George Messersmith warned that "something fundamental had changed in Germany" when Hitler became Chancellor), Dodd and his family originally arrived in Germany believing only the best. The U.S. Government preferred to believe only the best as well. Roosevelt's first and foremost concern in the early 1930's was the economy and the hope that Germany might one day repay the massive debt left by the first World War made him loathe to rock the boat. Roosevelt was also reluctant to act on behalf of the German Jews because of his concerns about a backlash from the American public. Even the American Jewish population was divided on how to react.

While the world turned a blind eye, the Nazi party instituted a program, "Coordination,"  to bring citizens, government ministries, universities and cultural and social institutions in line with National Socialist beliefs and attitudes. A central element was the insertion into law of "Aryan clause" which effectively banned Jews from government jobs. Hitler and his cohorts also amped up the production of arms and Hitler withdrew Germany from the League of Nations and from a long-running disarmament conference in Geneva. In the spring of 1934, Hitler finally made his move to fully secure his power and to wipe out those opposed to him. By this time, Dodd was strongly warning the U.S. in regard to Hitler's true ambitions and the danger of continued isolationism. His reward? The U.S. government accepted his resignation after the German government turned him out. As ill-equipped and ill-suited as he was to the job, it's impossible not to think what might have happened if anyone had respected Dodd enough to listen to him.

As many German government buildings and other embassies were, the American Embassy was located across the street from the Tiergarten in Berlin, a name which literally translates to "animal garden" or "garden of beasts," hence the reason Larson chose the title of his book.

Trish of Love, Laughter & A Touch of Insanity and I read this one together. She actually listened to it while I had the book in my hands. This is a surprisingly difficult book to keep track of the players in and Trish found it harder than I did which also made it more difficult for her to become invested in the story. I know we both feel that we learned a lot and that Larson did a fine job of giving Dodd a fair shake. But both of us also felt like this one was a lot of work to read and that, as narrow as the topic already was, Larson might have fared better having chosen a tighter focus. Certainly Martha had the more interesting story line and her life would make a fascinating book in and of itself. But William Dodd was clearly meant to be the linchpin of the story and Trish and I concur that he tended to get lost, poor man.

No comments:

Post a Comment