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All who have read about, and certainly those who experienced, World War II and  Germany’s becoming  the vicious murderer of its own people, the invader of bordering countries and a threat to all of Europe, less than twenty years after its  defeat in WW I, have wondered: how did this happen, and could it have been stopped?   Similar questions have risen in recent years following the disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq and the scarcely less happy one of Afghanistan, as Iran is seen by western nations to be be on the cusp of nuclear weapons capability:  should countries intervene in the affairs of others?  Ever?  If so, and if diplomatic and economic interventions fail, are military strikes ever the answer?

The question wanting to be answered is:  would power applied now bring less destruction and death than power applied later?  Does the case of Germany in the 1930s provide us with any wisdom regarding Iran, Serbia, Syria?

It is this question which led Erik Larson to William E. Dodd, U.S.  Ambassador to Germany from July 1933 to December 1937, and to his family, but particularly his 24-year-old daughter Martha.  What he found resulted in his 2011 book  In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s BerlinThough Larson shies away from calling this a history, in favor of a narrative non-fiction, the genre of his other books, it is a welcome addition to the mountain of research and writing, history and otherwise, about Hitler, the Nazis, the build up to WW II and what on-lookers, even players, were seeing and doing.   With Martha Dodd and her many, and scandalous, love affairs forming a major thread of the book, it may attract readers who would not open a standard book of history.  And in the process they will learn much. In fact, Tom Hanks has reportedly seen enough, of popular interest, to have purchased the movie rights.

Larson does a good job, as he tells us in his preface he wants to,  of helping us see Berlin in the summer, fall and winter of 1933 after the Dodd’s arrival in mid July.  By this time Hitler had been Chancellor for 6 months and lots of people knew things were going seriously wrong in Germany.

Every morning [the Dodds] moved through a city hung with immense banners of red, white and black.  They sat at the same outdoor cafes as did the lean, black-suited members of Hitler’s SS, and now and then they caught sight of Hitler himself, a smallish man in a large, open Mercedes…They knew Goebbels and Goring as social acquaintances with whom they dined, danced and joked….   Goebbels was known for his wit… one of the few men with a sense of humor in Germany…

 Not only are we introduced to those days and months in Berlin,  we become privy to the not very noble world of U.S. diplomacy.  Likely to be more small-minded and back-stabbing than we might wish, in any era, in the 1930s,  the “Pretty Good Club,” as Hugh Wilson, Dodd’s successor in Berlin, called it, was as pompous and wrong about what they prided themselves in as it is possible to be.  Scurrilous rumors were floated about Dodd, his secret cables were leaked to the powerful, material was fed to Walter Pearson, the infamous political columnist, who FDR more than once had called a liar, for nasty, personal attacks. Dodd, for the taste of many, was too confrontational with the Germans!

Though not dynamic and dramatic in his opposition to the Nazis,  even at times lending a hand to supressing news accounts of what was happening –including pressuring  Edgar Mowrer of the  Chicago Daily News, to leave Germany ahead of his Nazi pressured depature date —  Dodd was essentially what FDR had wanted:  a decent, stalwart expemplar of professed American values.  He was a constant irritation to State Department seniors and juniors who were offended by his declared principle of living in Berlin only on his Ambassadorial salary;  no more luxurious parties as had been the norm in the past.  Dodd felt such show would be an insult to Americans, one-third of whom were unemployed in 1933.

After refusing to attend the annual Nuremberg Nazi Party rallies for several years, Dodd managed to take a home leave in August, 1937, partly because of severely declining health and partly to avoid having to refuse, again, to go to the mammoth Hitler celebration.  State, having allowed him ‘to make his own decisions’ about going at the start of his tenure, now instructed Prentiss Gilbert, the charge d’affairs, in Dodd’s absence  to go.  Engineered by Under Secretary Sumner Welles,  top member of the “Petty Good Club” Gilbert went.

“He rode in a special train for diplomats whose arrival in Nuremberg was greeted by seventeen military aircraft flying in swastika formation.”

Dodd, in Washington, was furious.

After 4 years of warnings from both Dodd and the US Chief Consul in Berlin, George Messersmith, about events in Germany, including dozens of bloody beatings of American citizens,  after the Night of the Long Knives, after the de-citizenizing of all Jews, after Krystallnacht,  Hugh Wilson who succeeded Dodd began to emphasize “the positive aspects of Germany.”  He promised Ribbentrop, the new foreign minister, that if war began in Europe he would do all he could to keep America out.  He accused the American press of being “Jewish controlled,’ and of “singing a hymn of hate while efforts are being made over here to build a better future.”   As Jensen tells us, he particularly admired the “strength through joy” program which provided all German workers with expense paid vacations and other entertainments.  (It helped keep down demands for higher wages.)  He thought it was an idea that could be emulated around the world.

In the Garden  is the kind of a book that pushes the reader to pin down events and dates that are vaguely remembered from earlier  readings and now need more concrete connections:  the invasion of the Rhineland 1936, the Night of the long knives, June 1934 ; Krisstalnacht Nov 1938 [which finally, after years of warning by Dodd, got Roosevelt to take a strong public stand against what was happening in Germany].

It tells you things you might have inferred but never had: the summer of 1934 was a dire year of drought, not only in Bavaria — increasing the support for Hitler’s state assistance policies — but in Texas and Oklahoma — the second of the major droughts that led to the dust bowl.  That  Roosevelt was being firecely attacked by Republicans as he tried to bring work to milli0ns, with his  National Industrial Recovery Act, and that isolationism held immense sway over citizens and the politically powerful who  were fond of characterizing European anxiety over  Hitler’s rise, the imprisonment of tens of thousands, and an army that had grown ten-fold in size  as a “squabble” the US should not engage in, that Berlin cleaned itself of much of the Nazi trappings, so ubiquitous in the streets and on buildings, in preparation for the 1936 Olympics:  see, everything normal, emnjoy the show.  Even the benches in the Tiergarden, yellow for Jews and green for Germans, were all painted the same.

And it tells you things you likely didn’t know at all. I was surprised how often, and how many observers in Berlin at the time thought Hitler and his coterie was likely to fall, at any moment.  Until Hiddenburg’s death, and Hitler’s assumption of the dual role of President and Chancellor, many thought the old WW I hero, with the regular army behind him, would at long last step in.  Wrong.  I was surprised how strong public opinion in the United States opposed loosening of immigration laws as news of atrocities began to arrive: some 95% opposition up until nearly the end of the war. It was interesting to read of the deep division among American Jews as to what should be done: the American Jewish Conference, led by Rabbii Stephen Wise, wanting demonstrations and public oppostion. It sponsored a Madison Square Garden mock trial of Hitler that drew the wrath of the Furher himself. The American Jewish Committee, wanted a quieter presence so as not to increase American opposition to immigration, and get as many refugees in as possible.

I was surprised, but not much, that the chief concern of the State Department, and mentioned by FDR to Dodd as he prepared to assume his duties, was to ensure that the German government did not default on its debts to American lenders.  The concern grew as the months went by: Dodd,  by his mid-western blunt speech, was irritating the Germans, and they might not pay! This, as thousands were imprisoned, beaten and murdered.

I was unhappy that Larson did not give us the end to his story of H.V. Kaltenborne, famous radio commentator of the day.   On the day of his departure from Berlin, still unconvinced that the Nazis were as terrible as Dodd and Messersmith had told him,  his 16 year old son was sucker punched by a SA brownshirt, aggrieved that the family had not Sieg Heiled the passing troops. Presumably his views changed, and his views mattered alot in the United States.  We don’t know, however.  Larson doesn’t tell us.

The title In the Garden of Beasts, is a felicitous re-translation of Tiergarten— usually, Animal Garden– the big park in Berlin.  It was near Dodd’s home, and one of the few places he and fellow ambassadors would walk without fear of being heard.  Germans walked their dogs and horses in the Tiergarten, and Larson pauses to comment how devoted they were to their animals.  Not only was this personal but also required by German law.  Cruelty to animals was forbidden — this as savage beatings of human beings took place on a daily basis, with some large segment of the citizenry approving.

You will learn of Mildred  Harnack one of Martha’s friends, a fellow mid-westerner and, in my opinion, a far more interesting person than butterfly Martha.  Martha and Harnack co-wrote a book column in Berlin Topics, an English language newspaper.  But while Martha slowly gave up her early admiration of the Nazi spit and polish and devoted herself to her Russian lover, Harnack founded, with her husband, Arvid, a resistance organization, referred to by the Gestapo as The Red Orchestra.  They were members until their deaths by execution, his by slow hanging in Dec 1942, hers by guillotine in February 1943.  Several books have been written about the group, here, here and here. I’m sure Hanks will make a fine film about the Dodds, but the Harnack’s look to have a more compelling story to tell.

Not that Martha was only a debutante romantic.  On her own, she undertook a tour of the Soviet Union, in part to see what it was her lover, Boris Winogradov, loved so much about his country.  She didn’t have the same feelings, as her letters confided to him, but the deaths of millions in famine and purge apparently went unseen.  It was the small, aesthetic things she didn’t like.  She did have the moxie to ask Stalin himself, to allow her to marry Boris.  He refused, and in any case Boris was dead a year later in one of Stalin’s many purges.  Martha went on to further adventures in New York, married to her third great love, as she referred to them, her second husband, with whom she did work for the Soviets, eventually fleeing the United States for Mexico and then Prague.

She met one afternoon with one of the “internal exiles” of the German literary establishment — Hans Fallada.  Most authors we know well now, had fled by this time.  Fallada stayed, playing footsie with Goebbels and other Nazis, to keep publishing.  He was famous for ‘Little Man, What Now,’ which told, fictionally,  of the privations under the Weimer Republic.  Eventually, we was to write one of the most gripping storis of individual resistance to the Nazis, title “Every Man Dies Alone.”  When Martha met him, there was good reason to suspect his choices, and personal/politcal backbone.  It would have been great to have had more of her conversation with him, or with others about him, had there been any to include.

[Speaking of other books which Garden Of Beasts informs us of, Victor Klemperer‘s Language of the Third Reich, an analysis of how Nazis changed the German language, to frame their world view as righteous, is already on its way to my desk, via Alibris.]

It is with Martha’s role in the book I am left a bit unhappy.  While useful in showing us Berlin, and particularly how a naive and playful young woman was beguiled for a while by the take-charge Nazis, that use is gone when she is followed to Russia, her whole itinerary listed.  It’s a wander too far for my taste.  I’d have like those pages to be replaced by more conversations she might have had with others in Berlin.  How did she remain friends with Mildred Hanck and Sigred Schultz, a fearless reporter for the Chicago Tribune, their views being so different ?  What were their arguments and accomodations?  Did she and Boris discuss events they had seen together, or was it really all just “dear” and “darling” and “miss you so much” as the quoted letters seem to imply.

She was a lover of Carl Sandburg and friends with Thornton Wilder, and corresponded with them.  One of her letters quoted to Wilder is simply appalling, certainly in hindsight, but really, did he ask her no searching questions having read it?

” The youth are brightfaced and hopeful, they sing to the noble ghost of Horst Wessel with shining eyes and unerring tongues.  Wholesome and beautiful lads these Germans,  good, sincere, healthy, mystic, brutal, fine, hopeful,   capable of death and love.  Deep, rich, wonderous and strange beings, these youths of modern hakenkreuz [swastika] Germany.”

[OK. I’ll admit it.  I just didn’t like her.  This letter to Wilder came just days after witnessing, in Nuremberg, with her brother, and newspaperman Quentin Reynolds, the parading by hundreds of SA troops, a woman who had intended to marry her Jewish fiance;  parading her covered with flour and a sign hung around her neck: “I gave myself to a Jew.” (Search for Anna Rath in Reynold’s story, here.) ]

Martha’s larger presence than that of her mother, Mattie, or brother Bill, both of whom were in Berlin with Dodd,  to tips the book out of balance for me; the spotlight gets de-trained from Berlin and Germany to follow her.  Certainly, in an ideal writer’s world, the Ambassador’s wife would have much to contribute to a sense and feeling of what Berlin was like.  If Goebbels was her favorite dinner companion at Embassy parties, what did she learn, and think and feel?  If Martha was a lothlario of the first order, what about her older brother?  Surely he had experiences with young German women?  And perhaps their Nazi or anti-Nazi fathers?  Nothing of this appears.

Of course it’s not a perfect writer’s world, and in narrative non-fiction, only that can be written which can be found.  Ambassador Dodd and Martha must have been far and away the more profic writers, and so much more is available to be known about them, even if it is Martha’s many conquests. Larson has done an incredible amount of research to bring us this story: letters, diaries, telegrams and books written by almost all the major characters. A lot of it contributes to the sense of the times, and the characters of the people — though again, with Martha, I’m not sure what declarations of love from an early boyfriend, who never became serious, or part of the larger story, contribute, unless to add to a sense of Martha’s hypnotic effect on men.

Whether Larson thinks he answered for himself his propelling question —  “during that fragile time , the course of history could have been so easily changed.  Why then, did no one change it?  Why did it take so long to recognize the real danger posed by Hitler, and his regime?” — I can’t say.  For me, not quite, though he certainly helped me think about it.

In a sense he answers that some people, including Dodd, did recognize and try to get intervention, as did Geroge Messersmith, his General Consulate officer.  Dodd traveled all over the United States, after his return, speaking of the dangers in Germany, and founding several associations to ring the alarm.  Stephen Wise of the American Jewish Conference certainly did, as early as 1933.   Larson doesn’t answer why the State Department didn’t, or why Roosevelt, who knew at Dodd’s appointment interview in June 1933 how bad it was, didn’t publically raise his voice until Kristalnacht, some 5 years later, though to be fair,  both these things are outside the purview of the book.

He can’t actually answer the question as we might wish, given how he has taken up the story.  The book isn’t an analytical history, set to schematicize events  and draw such conclusions.  It’s a narrative non-fiction.  We can read of the events and of the people.  We can see that had better or different men and women been in the State Department (not to mention the Armed Forces who today would be heavily in the mix of such observation, intelligence, and decision making,) things might have gone differently.  We can sense in general that if FDR or the U.K.’s Ramse MacDonald, or any of France’s Prime Ministers in this period had acted more surely, the Nazi train might have been slowed, if not derailed.  But we don’t have any sharp precision about who, when, what and how.

But by being curious about the question, and showing us one set of players he sets it up for us to keep it alive nowm in our own times: what was going on then (now) and what might have been done (be done) by whom?  The question was relevent then and it is relevant now. Jensen’s narrative brings it alive in many ways.

He also helps those who think of mean people, or people who yell, or even shout down public speakers, as Nazis, see what real Nazis were. Organization, mass belief, utter willingness by many to put aside all fellow-feeling for ‘the other,’  it didn’t take long to grow it, but it was grown.  Organization, process, power consolidation and utter ruthlessness, time and time again.  A Nazi is not a single yeller, or even a small group.  Don’t confuse ourselves with hyperbole so we can’t even sort the terrible from the annoying.

I might mention also that Larson is also the  author of Lethal Passage: The Story of a Gun, a different kind of narrative non-fiction/ history that may interest many of you.  His website is here, and his other, interesting, books.