Monday, June 20, 2011

Book Review: Erik Larson, In the Garden of Beasts

Every day on this site I blog about issues of crime and punishment. Today’s post is different. Although not the usual law and order subject matter, below is a review of Erik Larson’s In the Garden of the Beast. The book chronicles diplomatic activity in pre-WW II Germany—as well as the rise to prominence of the most infamous mass killer in world history.

William E. Dodd arrived in Germany as American Ambassador about six months after Adolph Hitler was appointed chancellor. Erik Larson in his book, In the Garden of Beasts writes about Dodd and his family during the early years of Hitler’s ascent to absolute power. Dodd was a history professor at the University of Chicago. A close relationship with FDR helped him gain the diplomatic post over the objection of some in the state department.

Under Secretary of State William Phillips, whose wife was a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, felt Dodd was not fit for such an important diplomatic post. Dodd was not part of the “pretty good club.” In Phillips’ eyes club membership was exclusively for men in the Foreign Service who came from wealth—and Harvard, Yale or Princeton.

Although Larson suggests that Dodd practiced “rudimentary anti-Semitism,” he complained about the number of Jews on his staff, and referred to the mistreatment of Jews in Hitler’s Germany as the “Jewish problem,” he did acknowledge early in his German service that the treatment of Jews by the Nazis was shameful.

Larson’s book focuses on Dodd’s first year in Germany. In fact, 340 of 365 pages of text spans July 1933 to August 1934. Dodd initially believes that the Nazis were becoming more “moderate.” That notion is short lived. Dodd’s daughter Martha soon observed SA Storm Troopers brutally parade a woman through the streets with a placard around her neck, “I have offered myself to a Jew.”

Larson dedicates a significant portion of the book to Martha’s romantic trysts. She was recently divorced from her American husband, a New York City banker. She became involved with Rudolf Diels, the Chief of the Gestapo; Boris Winogradou a Soviet diplomat, who was later revealed as a Soviet spy; Putzi Hansfstaengl the Nazi foreign press chief who introduced Martha to Hitler with a view toward bringing the two together “romantically.”

Despite the frivolity of Dodd’s offspring, he sensed the impending doom hanging over Berlin as described In the Garden of Beasts, “It was something everyone who lived in Berlin seemed to experience. You began to think differently about whom you met for lunch and for that matter what café or restaurant you chose…In the most casual of circumstances you spoke carefully and paid attention to those around you in a way you never had before. Berliners came to practice what was known as the ‘German Glance’—der deutsche blick—a quick look in all directions when encountering a friend or acquaintance on the street.”

Dodd’s sense of dread and foreboding came to a head about a year after his arrival in Germany. On June 30, 1934, the “night of the long knives” Hitler ordered the murder of hundreds of SA officers including his long time friend Captain Ernest Rohm.

Although Washington refused to take an official position against Nazism in the aftermath of the massacre, Dodd refused to attend Nazi political functions saying, “It is humiliating to me to shake hands with known and confessed murderers.” Dodd met resistance from the U.S. State Department but managed to hold on to the post for three more years, although Larsen reveals little about those years.

Larsen credits Dodd with being one of the highest ranking American officials to see the Nazis for what they really were, blood thirst mad men who would do anything to advance their agenda and expand their power. Dodd is adulated by Larson, in retrospect, the way Winston Churchill was adulated at the time—a lone voice of dissent. Dodd, through Larsen, was out of his league.

Larson superficially addresses a revealing incident in Dodd’s post diplomatic career. In December of 1938, a year after leaving Germany, Dodd hit a four-year-old girl with his car on the way to a speaking engagement. He left the scene of the accident. He explained his action as, “It was not my fault.” He was later prosecuted and convicted.

Martha, Dodd’s daughter, married again, and lived her life as an expatriate in Prague.

Larson offers a glimpse into Hitler’s early years and how men of intelligence and diplomatic skill failed to intervene. However, the book neither inflames outrage, nor prompts one to seriously reflect on how this could have occurred. Maybe, the genius of Larsen’s book is that its matter-of-fact presentation demonstrates to the reader how easy it is to ignore the obvious when it does not touch one directly.


Top Recommended Website Design Indianapolis Company said...

This is a well written story of the life of the American Ambassador to Germany just prior to WW2. Any fan of European spy fiction set during the intra-war period will find it fascinating and a great source of background about the period.

Unknown said...

Anyone with even a casual interest in the events leading up to the war will find this an invaluable read. It's easily the best book I've read this year, and likely to stay that way. A truly wonderful read!
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