I am always interested in history, especially the history of WWII. It was a time that touched me because my parents were active in the conflict, my mother a WAVE and my father in the Air Corps. Looking for a book to read on vacation, I came across Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts.
When I finally had the chance to pick the book up, I read it in two days. I could not put it down. I had read some 25 years ago, Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920’s by Otto Friedrich, published in 1972. I had the sense that this book, by Larson would help fill in the blanks for me, giving further depth to Berlin and the time before the actual war began. I felt that this book did indeed transition me on the rise of Hitler, better even than the factually accurate The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer. It comes close in intimacy to Victor Klemperer’s book, I Will Bear Witness, his second work based also on his wartime diaries as a Jew married to a gentile, To the Bitter End and his post war entries where he is now living under Soviet occupation, The Lesser Evil.
To Larson’s profound credit, he mentions the works of these authors and several others in filling in various details and nuances for the reader, as he sets the stage and develops the story of four very difficult years for an American Ambassador in Germany. The years of the “Long Knives” event, “Kristallnacht”, the death of Hindenburg, and the arming of a Germany which had become Nazified.
For historians this is the most interesting microscopic peek into a very critical time, a dangerous time, a time when things could have been turned around, but by waiting, holding to promises, wanting to believe that the lessons of war had been sufficiently learned at Versailles, that does not happen.
An intellectual who was poised to quietly live out the rest of his rather boring academic existence as a university professor, was thrust somewhat by the fates into a position of diplomacy that he was not ready for, unskilled at, ill-suited and not a member of the “elite diplomatic club”. (PCC)
But when you are at the ball, and no one else is available to dance, do you not go with the partner who is available? Do you not just wish to dance after all? So it was with Roosevelt, who had asked about 7 dance partners to take a turn on the floor for him in Berlin and was refused. By the time he got to William E. Dodd, a mild mannered professor from Hyde Park in Chicago, he was scrambling and told Dodd to let him know in 2 hours if he would take the job. Dodd was told his main focus was to see that Germany paid it’s loans, or at the very least the interest. Knowing what we know now, can you imagine? The people were forced into sacrificing to build a war machine, no money was being paid back to foreign governments.
Dodd, a man of simple taste, highly intellectual, better with a book and warm milk, thought of his upbringing in the rural, poor south, his wife, whom he had “married up” with, his great respect for Thomas Jefferson and his appreciation of the left leaning politics of his beloved President Roosevelt, so he saw the opportunity. He thought he could finish his book on the history of the south, live frugally in Berlin on his diplomat salary and do what needed to be done. At the time, only those with wealth, Ivy League credentials and grand style, were ambassadors. Not so with Dodd, and he brought his wife and children with him to the task. His son was 28, his daughter 24. She was in the process of being divorced and quite a modern girl. She was rather loose and even according to her own accounts in her books and diaries used for this publication, does not serve to deny her activities. Her name was Martha Dodd. His son was quiet and reserved and so with his wife. Father and daughter had a strong bond and while she could have done her “living” anywhere, she chose to come to Berlin with her father and she was quite a flamboyant mover and shaker. Her various political, social and romantic escapades, make for some interesting reading, unbelievable almost. In stark contrast to her father’s diplomatic efforts, she was a live one, while he was known as Ambassador Dud.
He was intelligent, but at the same time rather powerless. He did not have the schoomze factor anywhere in his person. He made a few brilliant professorial speeches and gained some support because he began to see the real writing on the wall. That is his credit and his brilliance. There was absolute power-grabbing chaos in Germany at the time of the “Night of the Long Knives”. It was after that time when those who had plotted against each other in Hitler’s inner circles settled on their spoils of power. It all came undone with the death of Hindenburg and the rest, well the rest is history.
More fascinating were things that I had not known before, people whose names were common to the Dodds and part of their social circle there in Berlin, who turned up dead, who lead resistance, who were the voices of reason in a time when few could find their voice. Without the aid and intervention early of America, or England and France, there was no power that could stop the lying, plotting, ravaging of a people and an enslavement in a terrible ideology. There was so much violence, intimidation and horror happening, that unless you were completely blind, deaf and dumb, you saw some things that were unsettling, perhaps with no understanding, but still not what the bucolic picturesque country continually promoted to outsiders.
The intimacy in this book is astounding, as well as historically accurate. It defies dry history but forces the reader to see these people, flesh and blood, to understand in a way never presented before the failures of speaking out, demanding support for what you know is right, and the utter chaos of the state department who in a campaign to oust someone who was not their “type” of ambassador created crippling situations and more embarrassment for our own country. In the end, as is always possible, history writes its own story, giving a truer ending to the tale than anyone at that time could have imagined. The danger of politics, power, greed and ignorance is the astounding plague of man as he must be governed fairly and equitably to live in peace.
On October 12, 1933, he gave a speech to the Berlin branch of the American Chamber of Commerce. At a time when the controls and chaos were rising, he dared to speak of history, of Julius Caesar, Louis XIV and concluded saying this “ One may safely say that it would be no sin if statesman learned enough of history to realize that no system which implies control of society by privilege seekers has ever ended in any other way than collapse.”
The applause was extraordinary, as Dodd noted in his diary, also he recorded the following remarks by Germans in attendance: “You have said what all of us have been denied the right to say.” An official of the Deutsche Bank also phoned and told Dodd, “ Silent, but anxious Germany, above all the business and University Germany, is entirely with you and most thankful that you are here and can say what we cannot say.”
I think that shows that Dodd, while considered inept by some, had the intelligence to say what needed to be said and it was recorded that Roosevelt was approving of his speech. The real test of its significance was proven when German officials sought to keep the public from knowing about it, blocking its radio and newspaper distribution. However, the people found a way to get it out there. They even handed out copies of it in cafes. The sad thing is there were people in Germany who did want to stop what was happening, but they could not get any support to accomplish it.
Larson closes the book with a quote by Christopher Isherwood, Down There on a Visit;
I walked across the snowy plain of the Tiergarten – a smashed statue here, a newly planted sapling there; the Brandenburger Tor, with its red flag flapping against the blue winter sky; and on the horizon, the great ribs of a gutted railway station, like the skeleton of a whale. In the morning light it was all as raw and frank as the voice of history which tells you not to fool yourself; this can happen to any city, to anyone, to you.
That is profound. It made me think of the state of our nation today. The same forces are at work. We have just named them differently, but the same kinds of greed and power are changing us here; making us powerless and victims. If we are the world’s policemen, the master’s at democracy, who do we call on to help us?