Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Review: "In the Garden of Beasts: An American Family in Hitler's Berlin

Ambassador William  Dodd and family, Hamburg, 1933  
Eric Larson's 2011 non-fiction book focuses on the first twenty months  of Adolph Hitler's  reign as chancellor of Germany, starting in January of 1933, and then his becoming total dictator after the death of revered general and President Paul Von Hindenberg in the Summer of the following year.

"In the Garden of Beasts" focuses on events in that crucial, brutal and somewhat fluid time in the development of the Third Reich. It is framed through the experiences of the American Ambassador William E. Dodd and his family. Dodd served as US Ambassador to Berlin until late 1937. He later became the male "Cassandra of America", giving lectures trying to convince Americans just how brutal and total was Hitler's lust for control over Europe and how complete and pathological his desire was to "rid Europe of every last Jew." He was not truly heard, neeless to say, given several factors including America's own anti-Semitic prejudices (which went all the way up to the State Department) ans the general desire to avoid entanglements in Europe during the long climb out of the Great Depression.

One of Larson's key points in the book is that Hitler's control over the populace and the key elements outside the Nazi apparatus, particularly the German Army and Navy, was tenuous during these early times, or so many people inside and outside of Germany hoped. The Brown Shirts (The SA, or Stormtroopers, led by Hitler's friend Ernst Rohm) were the mass revolutionary movement in Hitler's terror machine, the Gestapo, were the intimidating super-police force eventually put under the direct control of Henrich Himmler, and, finally, the black-uniformed S.S. units---the most dangerous of all.

None of these groups were contained by any military or civil non-nazi forces although Larson makes the case as other historians like William Shirer did they might have been stopped in this crucial first eighteen months in power.
But the thinking was among many that Hitler could in his brief moments of reason be controlled conservative and moderate politicians like Fritz Von Papen into mollifying the worst elements of the national socialists movements. Meanwhile, those who knew better such as the Communist and Social Democratic leaders either left the country, went into hiding or were picked up and sent to Dachau and other prison camps for "protective custody".

Violence in the streets of major German cities by S.A. units was sporadic at first but grew in intensity after January of 1933 with a ferocity that they included not only German Jews but also foreign visitors. American or British citizens who refused to shout "Seig Heil" or raise the fascist salute when the Brown Shirts went on parade were beaten. Some American citizens were actually whipped severely and many who protested to the police received no assistance from cowed authorities. They appealed the the US Embassy for help but the embassy could do little other than offer formal protests and get them out of the country when they were recovered enough to travel.

A few months after the elevation of the Nazi leader, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed Dodd, a 61 year old academic at the University of Chicago, to the post in Berlin. Dodd on one hand was a good pick---he had studied for a couple years at the University pf Leipzig as a young man, and was familiar with the language and culture. But Dodd's pre-1914 Germany idea of Germany was dead, and soon his passions for German culture had to be reassessed in the light of the terror all around the Tiergarten section of Berlin, where the first three floors of a mansion housed the US Embassy. (The fourth floor of the mansion was occupied by a German-Jewish businessman and his family who rented the lower floors to the State Department as a form as diplomatic-ensured protection.)

It is interesting to see how Dr. Dodd, who himself wrote a book about his experiences in 1940, handled his social and official dutires with major political players such as Hermann Goering and Himmler. He also has more personal dealings with the first Gestapo chief, Rudolph Diels. This brutal but apparently charming (to some) man carried on an affair with his divorced daughter Martha for a time.

He also had a series of increasingly tense meetings with Hitler himself in the Reich Chancellery, where he was "treated" to the full spectrum of Hitler's mood swings from his sometimes plaintive and occasionally well-mannered demeanor to his turns as a cold and dismissive autocrat, pushing away American concerns about loan repayments to US creditors and his apparent steamroller-style plans for expansion of German territory.

At the same time Dodd was trying to finish a series of books he had been trying to write for years on the American South before the Civil War and was caught up in a rearguard fight with certain members of the American diplomatic service called "The Pretty Good Club" made up of rich diplomats and their minions in the State Department who tried to leak confidential information Dodd was sending to the department in a way to embarrass him enough to leave his post. Many in Washington did not want to believe what was happening in Berlin, and many in Berlin could not make them believe it because they were not there to feel the full weight of the Nazi fist on all the general public. (It was said as a joke by many Berliners that only dogs and horses were happy in Germany under the Third Reich.)

Eventually these pressures, plus and angry protests from the German ambassador in Washington about Dodd's slightest rebuke of fascist terror put an end to both his career and his health.

Before that point, it had taken a few months but Ambassador Dodd and his family lost any illusions they would have about the nazi revolution while having front row seats to some of Hitler and Goering's rigged show trials (including the notorious Reichstag fire trial, blamed on a mentaly-challenged man and a few German Communists, and the purge of the Storm Trooper hierarchy in late June of 1934 where dozens of loyal nazis were swept away in the first act of the bloody internecine "purification" of the party.

There are a number of interesting characters in this book, not least of which would be the aforementioned grown daughter Martha Dodd. (The Ambassador's family also included a wife and nearly grown son.) In addition to her dalliance with the Gestapo chief, Martha, a vivacious and quite intelligent high-society type, she also had affairs with a young French diplomat, and was part of a salon of journalists, intellectuals (both pro-and anti-Hitler) and other embassy "bright lights" at the Hotel Albion in Berlin.

At one point she even was introduced to Hitler himself in a hapless attempt to set them up in an apparent romantic pairing. (It came to nothing, but not without trying, at least on the part of Hitler's pianist and Harvard -educated friend, Putzi Hansfstaenglm who thought it would make a match "appointed to change the course of history in Europe").
Her most intriguing and profound affair was with a Russian attache to the Soviet Embassy named Boris Winogradov, the longest of her time in Germany. Whether Boris loved her is somewhat of a mystery I will leave to other readers of the book as he was also being manipulated by Stalin's NKVD via Moscow's order to continue to see the young American divorcee for espionage purposes.

Larson is a very good writer with a knack for bringing to life a vast panoply of historical characters, large and normal-sized. Anyone who has read his previous book "Devil in the White City" (about the Chicago Columbia Exposition in 1893 and a certain serial killer in the midst of it all) can attest to that. Those interested in a relook in detail to a horrible but exciting time in pre World War II European and American history will like this book.

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