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Book Reviews, Literary Essays


Reviews: Current Books In The Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

Heil Hitler!
In 1933 Franklin Roosevelt appointed a University of Chicago history professor, sixty-four-year-old William E. Dodd, ambassador to Germany, a country still agonizing under the restrictions of the Treaty of Versailles and now going through more change and upheaval under the leadership of its newly appointed Chancellor, Adolf Hitler. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Propaganda Minister, ominously warned: “All during the 12 years of the Weimar Republic our people were virtually in jail. Now our party is in charge and they are free again. When a man has been in jail for 12 years and he is suddenly freed, in his joy he may do something irrational, perhaps even brutal.”

Though self-effacing, Dodd was nobody’s fool. He possessed an academician’s objectivity. Fluent in German and adept at personal relationships, he was a keen observer of his surroundings and a wise interpreter of the nuance flowing beneath apparent human actions. Yet he suffered from the delusion that his assignment to Berlin would not only allow him to make his mark on the world, it would also afford him the time to complete his erudite book on the old South.

Accompanying Dodd to Berlin was his wife, Mattie, a son, and his pride and joy, his 24-year-old daughter named Martha who was anything but self-effacing: “She was five feet, three inches tall, blonde, with blue eyes and a large smile. She had a romantic imagination and a flirtatious manner, and these had inflamed the passions of many men…”

At the time of the move to Germany, Martha was technically married to a New York banker, Bassett Roberts. The couple was in the midst of a “geographical separation,” a fact that allowed Martha to carry on affairs with other men, among them such high-profile individuals as Carl Sandburg and Thornton Wilder.

In In the Garden of Beasts, writer Erik Larson (author of The Devil in the White City,) has created a meticulously researched, brilliant and compelling narrative out of one small segment of early World War II history. The book succeeds not only in its portrayal of the launching of the Nazi regime; of Hitler and his cronies, Góring and Goebbles; of the mindset of FDR and the U.S. Department of State; but also in his depiction of Dodd and the colorful Martha.

The Dodd family settled in an opulent, four-story house across the street from Berlin’s equivalent of Central Park – the Tiergarten, which means “animal garden” or “garden of the beasts.” Its name is apt because in earlier times it was a hunting preserve for royalty. In the 1930s it consisted of “630 acres of trees, walkways, riding paths and statuary that spread west from the Brandenburg Gate to the wealthy residential and shopping district of Charlottenburg.” A two-story mansion near the Dodd’s new residence housed Hitler’s personal office. It would soon become the home of a Nazi program to euthanize people with mental or physical disabilities.

Despite the ideal location of their new home, Dodd was uncomfortable when he learned that the Jewish man, from whom he had leased the house, intended to live on the fourth floor with his mother. Dodd’s landlord had devised a clever scheme to hide from the Gestapo – as far as the public knew, the house was the American Ambassador’s residence, nothing more.

Disconcerted by his new living arrangements, Dodd was at the same time appalled by the extravagance he discovered in the diplomatic world. He vowed to live on his ambassador’s salary, but in keeping with the traditions of the Foreign Service, his colleagues at the embassy “spent money with wild abandon, their own and the embassy’s.”

But more serious issues attracted Dodd’s attentions. For example, Storm Troopers were beating American tourists to death on city streets. Almost always the offense was failure to proffer the Nazi salute. The family of well-known American radio commentator, H.V. Kaltenborn was attacked on the streets of Berlin. Jews were targets of brutal violence, and their rights as citizens were mercilessly curtailed. At the core of Nazi doctrine was the “Aryan Clause,” which had been inserted into Germany’s civil service law. It restricted Jews from practicing medicine or becoming lawyers. It banned them from government jobs.

Despite the Nazi Party’s penchant for staging elaborate and sentimental displays of party force and energy, not only in Berlin but in other cities, too – most notably Nuremburg -- Dodd for a time believed that the Hitler regime was merely a flash in the pan. But as the weeks passed his innate optimism was smothered and an awful certainty engulfed him: Hitler would one day wage war in order to take over Europe.

Meanwhile Martha remained enthralled with all aspects of the very visible Nazi movement. Larson relates that she was “unshaken in her view that the revolution unfolding around her was a heroic episode that could yield a new and healthy Germany.”

Swiftly she insinuated herself “into the social fabric of Berlin.” Martha prodigally indulged in love affairs. Her lovers included Rudolph Diels, chief of the Gestapo; a French diplomat; a Luftwaffe flying ace; and most important, Boris Winogradov, a Soviet spy who would eventually be killed in one of Stalin’s purges. Martha was in love with Boris.

Boris’s influence on Martha tarnished her rosy view of Nazism. It caused her eventual disillusionment with the Nazis and her infatuation with Soviet Communism. Was she a Soviet spy? Perhaps. Larson allows readers to draw their own conclusions from the information he presents. After the War, when Martha returned to the U.S., she became active in Communist causes, and in the 1950s she and her husband, Alfred Stern, were to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. But they fled to Mexico and then to Prague where she died in 1990.

As to her father, he returned home after a five-year stint in Berlin. He died shortly after Hitler invaded Poland in 1939. Even the most generous of historians would have to concede that Dodd’s ambassadorship to Germany was not a success. Larson writes: “He [Dodd] wanted to have an effect: to awaken Germany to the dangers of its current path and to nudge Hitler’s government onto a more humane and rational course. He fast realized, however that he possessed little power to do so.”