In the Garden of Beasts has consumed my life for a week. Author Erik Larson states in his acknowledgements: “There exists a vast oeuvre of historical writing on Hitler and World War II that must be read no matter how small the episode one plans to study.” Larson’s own book is an important study in the way it reveals the insidious sycophancy that allowed Adolph Hitler to rise to singular zeniths of depravity. It is well and fine to point fingers at the German populace who, doubled over by post WWI debt and despair, fell under Hitler’s hypnotic vision of a better future. What country, what group of people, placed in similar circumstances would not have not fallen prey to ludicrous visions? Likewise, we now understand that the individual reticence of each neighboring European country contributed to Hitler’s ability to pull the fleece over our eyes as he bulldozed borders and executed his opponents. Historically, we understand the United States’ isolationism following the horrors of our involvement in the war to end all wars. Larson quietly demonstrates how no single person or group of people bear the entire burden of this pinnacle of human depravity.
In the Garden of Beasts paints the portrait of a kind and gentle-spirited academician, thrust into the boiling maelstrom of Berlin during the pivotal years of 1933-37. Far down the list of preferred ambassadors to Germany, William E. Dodd’s assignment arrives out of the blue. The professor, who would rather be home working on his own four-volume history of the Old South, arrives in Berlin with no diplomatic experience but with an overarching desire for and belief in peace between rival powers. His naiveté of Hitler’s thinly veiled goal of world hegemony makes him appear weak and helpless in the eye of the gathering storm. At home, the State Department is enraged at Dodd’s failure to press Germany for its delinquent WWI war bond payments. In Germany, Dodd is dismissed for his impotence and seen as a means of political manipulation.
Martha, Dodd’s 24-year old daughter, arrives in Berlin with similarly idealistic notions about the German people and the Nazi party. Wild and sexually promiscuous, she flirts with dangers utterly concealed by her political innocence. Larson mines copious notes, diaries, and letters that Martha saved, using them like a hidden camera to show the inner workings of Nazi intrigue and duplicity. By comparison to Martha’s rich escapades, the rest of the family—her brother Bill and her mother Mattie—devolve into oatmeal, probably because they left fewer artifacts in their wake.
Ambassador Dodd sticks stubbornly to his Jeffersonian belief that the best he can do in a bad situation is provide the German people with a model of American values and tolerance. His tactic of watching and doing nothing frustrates himself as much as it does his colleagues back home in the State Department. In hindsight, it may have been his outwardly calm acceptance of Nazi terrorism that made it possible for him to bear witness to the tumultuous death squads and “The Night of the Long Knives” during which Hitler orchestrated the execution of more than a hundred of his own feared henchmen.
Dodd was no dummy. He saw Hitler’s mad ambitions. He recognized the looming catastrophe and inevitability of European war. His frequent walks in the Tiergarten—the only safe place to exchange information—changed his perspective about American isolationism. Once back in the states and relieved of his post in Berlin, Dodd traveled the country predicting the outbreak of a devastating European conflict that would pull our country in, no matter how much we tried to look the other way. Though it seemed he was in over his head, Dodd may have been the perfect man for the job at that treacherous moment in time.