Larson, Erik. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. New York: Broadway Books, 2011, 448. Reviewed by Steven Harkness
In the 1930s, Adolph Hitler succeeded in eliminating political opposition, consolidating power under a violent regime, extracting Germany from the hated Treaty of Versailles, rearming the military, acquiring control of the press and other cultural institutions, annexing Austria, occupying Czechoslovakia, and invading Poland. While the west looked in mixed disbelief through most of these developments, it was the last move that catalysed the worst military struggle in all of human history. Due to Hitler’s stranglehold on the German press, and a general unwillingness on the part of American leadership to take seriously the occasional reports of brutal violence against Jews being directed from Berlin, American’s luxuriated in their own isolationist ignorance and tended to their own domestic crises accompanying the Great Depression. In the midst of these years, a single American ambassador and his family had the dubious privilege of helplessly watching the German government cannibalize itself. His name was William Dodd, and his story is delivered in a masterful and compelling dramatic novel by Erik Larson in The Garden of Beasts.
Larson is the author of at least a dozen other critically acclaimed works, such as Devil in the White City, and Dead Wake. His telling of Dodd’s tail received high praise as well. The New York Times describes this book as “By far his best and most enthralling work of novelistic history...risch with incident and populated by fascinating secondary characters, tinged with rising peril...powerful, poignant,... a transportingly true story.” The Cleveland Plain Dealer says of the author that “Larson excels at examining a dramatic movement in time by constructing intersecting stories: the big, historical story and the smaller, more human one-- each illuminating and enriching the other.” Newsweek describes his work more succinctly, “A stunning work of history.” From this reviewer’s point of view, these are apt descriptions of an enthralling and tragic story of intrigue, violence, apathy, and inertia.
For the avid consumer of political history, this hefty 448 page-turner can be consumed over the course of a weekend. The work is supplemented with a couple of maps of the Tiergarten, (read, Beast Garden) where the Dodds lived, a smattering of illustrations, a table of contents, bibliography, and an index. The book is broken into seven parts, and includes a prologue and an epilogue. The chapters, on the whole, tend to be short (in some cases, a half-page), which lends a concise brevity to the snapshots of events and narratives which Larson winds together, and grants the work a kind of swift pace without undermining the quality and quantity of detail which make the work so satisfying. The bibliography includes more than two hundred unique sources, many of which are the actual memoirs, papers, and correspondence of the diplomats themselves. In short, Erik Larson is no slouch, and this book is incredibly useful, informative, and entertaining, however tragic and seemingly pointless the substance may be.
The setting of the book is 1930’s Germany, specifically the period of Dodd’s appointment between the summer of 1933 and the winter of 1937, when the beleaguered ambassador, depressed and physically broken by his experience, finally tossed in the towel and called it quits. Aged sixty-four at the time of his appointment, Dodd was called from a professorship and a chair of the Chicago University history department by incoming president Franklin Roosevelt. Dodd was not Roosevelt’s first, second, or even third choice for the position. It is not immediately clear what Dodd’s qualifications were for the job, or that he had any. He had published a biography of Woodrow Wilson, a work which earned him national recognition and the friendship of the twenty-eighth president. Unsatisfied with the decade of do-nothing in Washington, he threw his support behind Roosevelt’s campaign, both men hailing from the Hyde Park area, and Roosevelt surely appreciated Dodd’s support, but as Larson makes clear, his choice of Dodd to fill the vacant seat in Berlin resulted more from an inability to persuade better men to accept the position than of any cognitive belief in Dodd’s ability.
Dodd was accompanied to Germany by his wife (Mattie), his twenty-four year old daughter Martha, and twenty-eight year old son, Bill. He hoped for a quiet, uneventful post where he could work on his four-volume history project The Rise and Fall of the Old South, which he viewed as his life’s work, and which, unfortunately, he would never finish. He had completed his dissertation at the University of Lepzig prior to the first World War, and looked forward to revisiting the Germany of his youth. Such hope, unfortunately, would also go unfulfilled. Germany, under Hitler, would not be the quiet, verdant, beautiful countryside of his youth. Larson describes a nation violently tearing itself apart, immersed in intrigue and a vehement power-struggle:
“Upon Hitler’s ascent, the country had undergone a brutal spasm of state-condoned violence. Hitler’s brown-shirted paramilitary army, the Sturmabteilung, or SA-- the Storm Troopers, had gone wild, arresting, beating, and in some cases, murdering communists, socialists, and Jews. Storm Troopers established impromptu prisons and torture chambers in basements, sheds, and other structures...An estimated five hundred to seven hundred prisoners had died in custody, others endured mock-drownings and hangings....”
Larson takes the reader through dozens of micro and macro dynamics along the course of Dodd’s tenure in Berlin. Overarching the whole story is Roosevelt’s response to, and isolationist America’s preoccupation with the Great Depression. Credible information about what was really happening in Germany, which was already sporadic, heavily censored, and often beyond the belief or comprehension of those who paid attention to such things, was otherwise wholly off the radar of the American people. The various factors at play, as Larson describes them, produces a unique dilema. Nooone is really listening to Dodd, who must be careful not to run afoul of the Nazi regime on his doorstep in any case, and there was simply no political will at home to acknowledge, let alone confront, the mounting abuses of Hitlers’s regime.
To make matters worse, Dodd was not well liked. He was a provincial outsider in a foreign service comprised almost exclusively of wealthy, privileged, and indifferent lilly-white-collars. His aversion to lavish parties, his thrifty lifestyle, and most importantly, his willingness to openly challenge and criticise the wasteful and inefficient habits of the “Pretty Good Club” of diplomats and their staff, made him no friends at all. By the end of his term, Hitler’s government was openly suspicious of Dodd, who was hamstrung at times in his ability to report his observations with candor by the immediateness of the threat to the safety of himself and his family. For his efforts, whenever he was able to get through to anyone at home, he would be viciously attacked by the isolationist press for any departure from the status-quo of appeasement, all while being conspired against by those government officials and others in the foreign service for his refusal to abide by time-honored traditions of schmoozing, boozing, and wasting tax-payer dollars on fancy clothes and other such accoutrements of the trade.
And then there’s Martha, his wayward, dangerously naive, and promiscuous daughter, whose character in the story is perhaps the most interesting of all, especially given Larson’s delicate-but-full-throated treatment. Her clandestine affairs with an almost comical array of high-profile figures threatened to undermine Dodd’s ability to work almost upon arrival. Among these suitors were Ernst Udet, “a flying ace from the great war, who in the years since had become famous throughout Germany as an aerial adventurer, explorer, and stunt-pilot.” More notably, there’s the inevitable American author, Thomas Wolfe, who “would tell a friend later that she was ‘like a butterfly hovering around [his] penis.’ ” Most importantly, her affairs with Rudolph Diels, “the young chief of the Gestapo,” and Boris Winogrudov, the witless Soviet spy, would prove to be quite consequential indeed. Larson respectfully, but realistically, delivers the sordid details of these encounters with clarity and gravitas.
In Germany, there was the famous trial and subsequent execution of Marinus van der Lubbe for the crime of arson which both catalyses and justifies the ensuing purge of disloyal (and oftentimes simply unlucky) conspirators and traitors from Hitler’s government, military, and police forces, effectively clearing all remaining opposition from the dictator’s path. Amidst this turmoil, and contributing to it, were the (literally) spectacular rivalries and feuds between “Captain Rohm’s SA and Heinrich Himmler’s SS, and the regular army, the Reichswehr,” under Blomberg, the German Defense Minister. Hitler would eventually publicly humiliate Rohm by subordinating his forces to Blomberg, and later, during the violent purges, would have Rohm arrested along with countless other German officials, while murdering many others, for offenses real, imagined, or flat out manufactured. These events would lead to a Berlin under martial law, and from this point, there would be no rolling back the malevolent tide of Nazi control.
In the end, Dodd was brought low by the stress of “the violence, the obsessive march to war, [and] the ruthless treatment of Jews,” which would all contribute to a profound decline in Dodd’s health, to say nothing of his spirit. Impotent to change or challenge Hitler’s hateful policies, and under siege by colleagues and reporters alike, Dodd was finally recalled by Roosevelt upon Hitler’s invasion of Poland. There was simply nothing else the embattled ambassador could hope to accomplish, and the world around him was rapidly disintegrating.
Dodd’s tale is tragic and pointless. He was like the character in A Clockwork Orange, with hands bound and eyes pried open to watch the senseless collapse of the international order from a front row seat. But Larson captures his experience in vivid detail, and for that reason, the usefulness of this magnificent work will stand the test of time. The book is, by turns, sad, funny, intense, and even sexy. The reader will understand by the end that there was nothing this one man could have done to stand against the momentum of history, but will see that he was indeed a decent, honest, and capable man, doing the best he could in an impossible situation. Larson preserves Dodd’s integrity and humanity in spite of the voluminous and venomous criticisms which must have made up the bulk of the materials he had to wade through to construct this narrative. Such an outcome is the hallmark of true genius. A fantastic and enjoyable accomplishment, highly recommended for students and the general public alike.