Erik Larson’s “In the Garden of Beasts” — an American Ambassador and his family in Hitler’s Berlin

Erik Larson’s IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS: LOVE, TERROR, AND AN AMERICAN FAMILY IN HITLER’S BERLIN is an outstanding work of narrative non-fiction that reads very much like a novel, except this all actually happened.  This is the story of William E. Dodd, academic and ambassador, the first American Ambassador to Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany.  Dodd brought his whole family, which included his wife, Martha (called “Mattie”), his daughter Martha and his son, William, Jr., (called “Bill”).  Martha and Bill were both in their twenties at the time Dodd, Sr., was sent to Berlin in 1933, and it’s the story of this entire family which makes IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS so compelling.

When Dodd and his family arrived in Germany, it was July 13, 1933.  At this time the official President of Germany was Paul von Hindenburg — Hitler was only Germany’s Chancellor, a lower posting but still one with much power (under Hitler, the Chancellor position acquired more power, and is now seen as the equivalent of the Prime Minister in other countries).  Hindenburg was not blind to Hitler’s lust for power and tried to put other ambitious men, such as Franz von Papen as Vice Chancellor, around Hitler to contain him, but this didn’t work.

By mid-1933, Hindenburg was old and ill and was losing his grasp on Germany.  His advisors also didn’t seem to want to overtax the man — this I know from reading history as it’s lightly sketched at best IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS — and perhaps there wasn’t much Hindenburg could’ve done about Hitler due to Hitler’s own brand of personal magnetism.  But what is known, historically, is that not much aside from the attempted “hemming-in” of Hitler was ever done to try to thwart Hitler’s rise to power.

At any rate, our American family (the Dodds) arrived in Germany and as Dodd, Sr., had studied in Germany previously, he immediately noted the changes.  There were many men, all the physically fit and well-groomed, marching in the streets under the auspices of various German ministries, and people seemed much quieter than Dodd had remembered.   All of this marked Hitler’s rise to power and was the first harbinger of many ill omens to come.

Ambassador Dodd was an able man, though not a rich one, and this is something to keep in mind.  Dodd and his family were what you might call upper middle class, while most Ambassadors of that day and time were flat-out wealthy.   This set up a sort of mini-class struggle between Dodd and his fellow diplomats, which might’ve been one reason for why so many of them back in the good old USA didn’t believe him when he said things in Berlin were awful, worse than Dodd had expected (and Dodd’s expectations, might it be noted, were astonishingly low to begin with).

Dodd had been appointed as the Ambassador to Germany  because he was a loyal American citizen who spoke German and loved Germany and its people — Dodd was someone then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt trusted to provide American values and give a good example to the German people.  As Larson notes on pages 19-20:

Dodd seemed unlikely to spark the isolationists’ passions.  He was a  historian of sober temperament, and his firsthand understanding of Germany could prove valuable.

Berlin, moreover, was not yet the supercharged outpost it would become within the year.  There existed at this time a widespread perception that Hitler’s government could not possibly endure . . . .

No one appeared to give much thought to the kind of personality a man might need in order to deal effectively with Hitler’s government.  (Commerce) Secretary Roper believed “that Dodd would be astute in handling diplomatic duties and, when conferences grew tense, (Dodd) would turn the tide by quoting Jefferson.”

All of this points to the fact that William Dodd, Ambassador, was a very mild-tempered, moderate man who was unlikely to make the situation in Germany — which FDR realized was highly-charged even if no one else did — any worse.

But that leaves aside Dodd’s family; his wife, Mattie, was an able woman, someone who enjoyed creating a sense of home anywhere she was.  But we don’t really hear much about her, or Dodd’s son Bill; instead, we read a great deal about Martha (Dodd’s daughter), who was apparently not only a socialite but a budding novelist and writer, and someone who quickly grew frustrated with the air of tension and strife in Germany.  Martha was an outspoken woman who eventually aligned herself with the Communists in the USSR because she saw them as the only ones trying to stop Hitler before it was too late.

Martha was interesting because she had many, many, many lovers.  This was 1933; being in a foreign country for the first time hardly stopped Martha, who was petite, blue-eyed, blonde, had a nice figure, spoke well and wanted to know everything there was to know (she appeared to have had a restless intellect).  She had already been divorced and saw no reason to rein in her sexual appetites, which appear to have been voracious.

One of Martha’s many lovers was a man named Rudolf Diels, the first head of the Gestapo.  Diels was a man of conscience who later testified against many other German officers during the Nuremburg trials after the end of World War II, and Diels didn’t like what he was seeing even in 1933.   Diels felt Martha was a relatively safe person to talk with because of her position as the Ambassador’s daughter, and perhaps he was right.

The Dodds watched in mixed fascination and horror over the next year as bad things, even worse things, and astonishingly horrible things happened around them, culminating in the “Night of the Long Knives” on June 30, 1934.  This is also sometimes called the “Röhm Putsch” as the head of the Sturmabteilung (SA), Ernst Röhm, was one of the more high-profile Germans killed on that night.  Others killed included prominent German General Kurt von Schleicher (Hitler’s predecessor as Chancellor) and his wife and many of Vice-Chancellor von Papen’s personal staff.  No one knows how many were killed; estimates range from 85 to well into the mid-hundreds, partly because the Nazis in power refused to give a complete list of those executed.

During the days that followed, Dodd and his family became gravely concerned.   Ambassador Dodd sent many telegraphs (cables) to Washington, DC, asking what they wanted him to do and urging some sort of action — and nothing at all happened.  (This may have been why Martha, later on, decided to go all-in with the Communists.)  Though they held their Fourth of July ceremonies at the American Embassy as per usual, Dodd really didn’t know what he should do next.

While Goebbels himself tried to calm the unrest by an unequivocal radio address on July 2, 1934, where he insisted that the actions taken during the “Night of the Long Knives” were absolutely essential for the continuation of Hitler’s Germany, the countryside mostly didn’t believe it.  Finally on July 13, 1934 (one year to the day from the Dodds’ arrival in Germany), Hitler came out with a very long, nationally-broadcast speech that more or less confirmed what Goebbels had said earlier; quoted verbatim from Wikipedia (link: (note that Larson also quotes most of this on page 331):

In this hour I was responsible for the fate of the German people, and thereby I became the supreme judge of the German people. I gave the order to shoot the ringleaders in this treason, and I further gave the order to cauterise down to the raw flesh the ulcers of this poisoning of the wells in our domestic life. Let the nation know that its existence—which depends on its internal order and security—cannot be threatened with impunity by anyone! And let it be known for all time to come that if anyone raises his hand to strike the State, then certain death is his lot.

The only thing Ambassador Dodd could do (or was allowed to do) was to refuse to go see Hitler’s speech in person; instead, he listened to it via the radio.  He hoped by refusing to observe what Hitler was doing that it might send some sort of message that the United States, in the person of its ambassador, refused to dignify such remarks.   Dodd wasn’t the only one to take this tactic; many other diplomats did the same, including the then-French Ambassador, André François-Poncet.  But it still was a brave action in the context of its time.

What I got out of IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS was this: some things must be opposed.  Ambassador Dodd and his family did their best in their disparate ways to oppose Hitler, oppose Nazi Germany, and be some sort of bastion for American democracy in the middle of a horrific nightmare.  In that, Ambassador Dodd became, in Larson’s words (from page 356),

Dodd proved to be exactly what Roosevelt had wanted, a lone beacon of American freedom and hope in a land of gathering darkness.

As for a grade, I believe this book is an A-plus.  It’s a must-buy for everyone.  This is essential reading, mostly because of the Dodds’ struggle to maintain any sort of stability as Hitler’s Germany grew crazier all around them, and partly because of the inexplicable refusal of other world governments and leaders to do anything to curb Hitler and his men until it was nearly too late.
reviewed by Barb

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