When Franklin Roosevelt called William Dodd in 1931 and offered him the position of Ambassador to Germany, Roosevelt politely avoided telling Dodd that he was his eleventh or twelfth choice for the position. Dodd politely avoided telling Roosevelt that he had really just wanted a cushy ambassadorship that would allow him to finish his books about the Old South. And the book “In the Garden of Beasts” became destiny for a talented author and historian named Erik Larson.
The short overview: Dodd and his family travel to Germany just as Hitler is accumulating power. Dodd’s daughter Martha is a bit of a trollop, and she finds herself juggling Nazis and Russian spies as lovers. Germany adjusts to a new regime and the out-in-the-open but little-acknowledged torture and murder of her citizenry. Outside Germany, the world struggles to accept that a second world war is imminent. The bulk of this book is centered around 1933-1934, from Dodd’s arrival to the “Night of the Long Knives,” when Hitler took control of the SA and defeated his internal enemies.
Reading this book is a little like observing an earthquake before it rises up to the surface and shakes and crumbles buildings. Dodd arrives in Germany with only a cursory understanding of how Hitler is using the apparatus of government and military to crush his opponents. He is not convinced things will get really terrible. His daughter arrives with rose-colored glasses affixed to her face. Even when faced with police brutality, her nature is to defend the Germans and offer excuses. Day by day, Nazi Germany shows its true colors and the Dodds slowly begin to see the world as it is. Larson brings us along on this journey, and it is nothing short of astounding.
William Dodd was the most interesting to me, despite the fact that Martha’s love life and personality were interesting enough for a TV miniseries. Here we have William Dodd, thrust into a situation of international importance, and he seems like such a small man. His personality is that of a contrarian—his first professorship was at Randolph-Macon (a fine liberal arts college in Virginia, with a talented Shakespeare professor, I might add), and while there, he writes a book that is critical of the South and the Confederacy. It nearly gets him fired twice, but he plugs away, almost ignorant of the storms he was causing. Larson includes this anecdote to demonstrate how Dodd lives his life with a certain tone-deafness.
Through a confluence of events (and the benefit of living in a time period where the President actually read letters from professors) he ends up friends with Woodrow Wilson and then Franklin Roosevelt and finds himself in a position to receive an important ambassadorship. His political tone-deafness remains a disability for him, and within days of his appointment, he has offended several constituencies.
And then, in Germany, responsible for communicating the world events to the State Department, by all accounts an exclusive and often anti-Semitic world, Dodd at first seems the wrong guy for the job. Or was he?
Look, I’m not sure I would have been capable of standing in Dodd’s shoes. He stood face-to-face with Hitler and chastised him on occasion. He saw firsthand and warned of the violence and the gathering storm. Dodd refused to attend the political events that Hitler staged, offending his host country. Over the objections of others, he began to urge action from the U.S. How would you have handled yourself? Would you have been too “political,” or too worried about your own status? Too obsessed with the trappings of the ambassadorship? I worry that I might have been. I was frustrated that Dodd wasn’t sensible enough to manage his political problems back in the U.S. But after some consideration and conversation, I think ultimately it took someone with Dodd’s detachment from the political world to be in Germany at the time he was. Indeed, Larson demands we acknowledge the unusual circumstances facing the characters and puts it best in the final line of the prologue when he notes: “These were complicated people moving through a complicated time, before the monsters declared their true nature.”
Larson rewards Dodd at the end of the book by noting he was the “Cassandra of the American diplomats.” He leaves us with the impression that, though somewhat awkward, it was Dodd that pulled an early alarm bell. He writes: “Dodd proved to be exactly what Roosevelt had wanted, a lone beacon of American freedom and hope in a land of gathering darkness.” (Larson is also kind to Messersmith, one of the more prolific anti-Hitler voices of the early 30s.)
Not only does Larson subtly pose the “what would you have done?” question to readers, he places us in Berlin in the early 30s. Early on in the prologue, he references the colors of the City, reminding us that what we know of these places is exclusively black and white. But he has painted colors into the city—often fiery and violent colors. I have heard that Larson’s other books bring alive a time period or city in a unique way, and if they are anything like how he describes Berlin, then maybe Larson possesses the ability to travel through time. When I finished the book, I had lived in Berlin with the Dodds.
There is too much to discuss about this book, too many issues to consider, and frankly this books lends itself to a discussion rather than a blog post. Choose this as your next book club book and you won’t be disappointed. It was really fantastic. One more thing, read all the way through the footnotes. Larson carries his conversational and sometimes irreverent tone all the way to the final page in the binding.
Thanks for reading.