In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin

  • By Erik Larson
  • Crown
  • 464 pp.

A gripping account of the everyday uncertainty experienced by an alarm-sounding diplomat and his family in 1930s Germany.

Approximately six months ago, a media firestorm broke out in Germany over the publication of The German Foreign Office and the Nazi Past. This book, three years in the making, was collectively written by four eminent historians, two German, one American and one Israeli. Their findings asserted that not only were diplomats knowledgeable about the crimes of expulsion and genocide that occurred throughout Hitler’s Europe, but also that many foreign service officers, from the highest ranks to career diplomats in the field, engaged in proactive crimes against humanity. In addition, the 900-page book accused the post-World War Federal Republic of Germany of covering up these crimes and allowing officers to return to their diplomatic positions.

What does this recent recounting have to do with Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin? Both books discuss the often difficult choices diplomats had to make about a murderous regime. Larson describes the German ambassadorial tenure of William E. Dodd, a University of Chicago history professor, and his family. President Franklin Roosevelt appointed Dodd to Berlin, where he remained during the first four years of Hitler’s regime. Larson’s sprightly account, based on well-regarded secondary studies, State Department records, and the papers, diaries and letters of his chief protagonists, will appeal to professional experts in US and European history, and those with an interest in the tumultuous decades of the 1930s and 1940s.

The author focuses on William Dodd and his family, primarily his beautiful and often wayward daughter Martha. A young woman recently separated from her American husband, she accompanied her parents and brother to Germany with little knowledge of what would confront her upon arrival. As the daughter of a high ranking US official, her expectations were simply to enjoy glittering balls, teas, and other social events crowding the calendar. Politics and virulent anti-Semitism, already pervasive in 1933 when the Dodds disembarked in Hamburg, were at first dismissed by Martha, less so by her more-astute and vigilant father.

However, Dodd, as US Ambassador, needed to tread a fine line between diplomatic circumspection and truthful observations that could be relayed back to the State Department. Dodd was unlike most high-level Foreign Service officers. He did not come from a Boston Brahmin family nor possess the gold-coin credentials of private schools and inherited wealth. His frugality in Berlin, despite the global depression, made him somewhat an outsider among and within the embassy circuits.

Larson describes the daily problems confronting Americans in Nazi Germany, from finding housing (the Dodds rented part of an imposing villa from a prominent Jewish family) to avoiding physical danger. Larson recounts several incidents when Americans were manhandled, arrested, and even tortured by storm troopers, compelling Dodd and the US Embassy to launch protests. Dodd had the additional difficulty of evaluating Nazi domestic and foreign policies while under surveillance by Nazi agents. Even though the reader knows the disastrous outcome of the Nazi regime, Larson’s vivid and immediate account compels the reader to experience, with the Dodds, all the uncertainties that Germans and foreigners faced on a daily basis.

After four years of futilely attempting to present even-handed impressions of what was happening in Germany, Dodd was asked to leave, in effect fired from his job. Both the German government and insiders within the State Department disapproved of his “truthfulness.” He and his family returned home dispirited.

At a 1938 dinner in New York he warned, “Mankind is in grave danger, but democratic governments seem not to know what to do. If they do nothing, Western civilization, religious, personal and economic freedom is in grave danger.” A few months later, Dodd’s wife suddenly died at age sixty-two and Dodd himself passed away in February, 1940, having spent two years on the lecture circuit attempting to convince Americans of Hitler’s malevolent intentions. While large crowds attended his lectures, isolationists still carried the day. Until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, when Hitler promptly declared war on the US, Dodd’s warnings, for complicated reasons, had little effect.

Martha’s romantic encounters in Germany with lovers as varied as a Gestapo officer, a French attaché, and a Soviet spy would affect her post-war afterlife. In the anti-Communist atmosphere of the early 1950s, Martha and her second husband, Alfred Stern, fled to Mexico and then to Prague, where she died in 1990.

In a compelling discussion of his modus operandi in researching and writing the book, Larson acknowledges that works on the Third Reich number in the thousands. It is not for nothing that the History Channel has sometimes been dubbed the “Hitler Channel” with their frequent programs on the regime and World War II. Yet by focusing on the US Ambassador and his family, Larson surprises us with this unique glimpse of 1930s Germany. As the recent controversy surrounding publication of the activities of the German foreign office reveal, diplomats and their families could face daunting and incomprehensible dilemmas that could lead to acts of heroism, moral ambivalence, or worse. That we know the end of the story does not in any way diminish this fascinating and gripping account.

Marion F. Deshmukh is the Robert T. Hawkes Professor of History at George Mason University where she teaches courses on 19th and 20th Century German culture and history. She has curated exhibits on German art and politics and has published on German impressionist painters, Berlin Museums, German exiles to the US in the 1930s, East German cultural politics and 19th century Art Unions.

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