I just finished reading Erik Larson’s latest best-seller, “In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin,” about the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich, and now I can’t sleep. If the name Erik Larson sounds familiar, it is because he also wrote the mega-seller “The Devil in the White City,” the true story of a serial killer who not only murdered his victims, but thought nothing of removing their skin and dissecting them. Disturbing? Extremely. Yet, “Devil” never once affected my REM.
“Garden of Beasts” is the true story of an American family who comes to live in Berlin in 1933 just as the Nazis are coming to power. It is not just any American family, but the family of the new (and reluctant) American ambassador to Germany, William E. Dodd. It is a family that harbors the generic low-grade anti-Semitism that was endemic in America in the 1930s. A poll taken at the time found that 41 percent of Americans believed Jews had “too much power in the United States”; another poll found that one-fifth wanted to “drive Jews out of the United States.” The book is as much about what was occurring in Germany that allowed the Nazis to transform a democracy into a dictatorship as it is about what was occurring in the United States that allowed a democracy to sit silently and watch it happen.
Larson, an experienced journalist, and thus, well acquainted with the depravity of human beings, also lost sleep over the contents of his book. In his personal notes at the end of the book he comments: “What I did not realize as I ventured into those dark days of Hitler’s rule was how much of the darkness would infiltrate my own soul. I generally pride myself on possessing a journalist’s remove, the ability to mourn tragedy and at the same time appreciate its narrative power, but living among Nazis day in, day out proved for me a uniquely trying experience.”
While I empathize with Larson’s feelings, the darkness in my soul was not caused by the barbarity of the Nazis. Not because the Nazis aren’t worthy of disgust, but because I expect Nazis to be disgusting. That is who they were. But what I did not expect was to be equally disgusted by the American government. What caused me to lie awake at night, counting backward from 500 and making it all the way to zero, is that America could have easily done something that might have stopped the Nazis and would not have cost one American soldier’s life or a single greenback: speak out. At a time when both Hitler and then German President Hindenburg were still somewhat solicitous of international public opinion, American criticism might have given the numerous internal factions aiming to unseat Hitler the moral courage to stop him. Instead, America responded to Nazi atrocities with another form of barbarism: silence.
So why didn’t Americans, the very people who felt that protecting speech was so important that they made it the First Amendment to their Constitution, exercise that right? Larson’s book is packed with examples demonstrating that Roosevelt, the State Department and Ambassador Dodd had numerous opportunities to criticize the Nazis but repeatedly chose not to. Some of the silence can be traced to economic interests (Germany was millions of dollars in debt to the United States, and bondholders were worried about a German default), and some of it was the result of our isolationist mood, but much of it was due to the simmering anti-Semitism that stretched from the common working man to the highest ranks of our government.
Take Ambassador Dodd, who had front-row seats to the Jewish scapegoat show, and who also had the ear of the German government, which had yet to be taken over by Hitler.
In an early meeting with German Foreign Minister Konstantin Freiherr von Neurath, Neurath asked Dodd “whether the United States ‘did not have a Jewish problem’ of its own.” Dodd responded, “We have had difficulties now and then in the United States with Jews who had gotten too much of a hold on certain departments of intellectual and business life,” and acknowledged that some of his peers in Washington “appreciated the difficulties of the Germans in this respect,” although they did not share the Germans’ “method of solving the problem.” Not exactly a resounding endorsement of Jews. Or, as the saying goes, “With friends like that, who needs enemies?”
And our State Department and President Roosevelt were no better. Toward the end of the book, after the Nazis had snatched power by simply assassinating other government leaders who threatened them, Dodd finally comes to realize that his policy of appeasement was flawed. Like a man who watches his house burn down and then calls the fire department, Dodd returns to the United States and finally speaks out, publicly, against the Nazi regime: “Mankind is in grave danger, but democratic governments seem not to know what to do. If they do nothing, Western civilization, religious, personal and economic freedom are in grave danger.”
When the Nazis protested Dodd’s remarks, did our government finally take the opportunity to say something? No. In fact, State Department officials debated whether they should issue an apology along the lines of “We always regret anything that might give resentment abroad.” Ultimately, the State Department decided to say nothing.
In an interview with the Huffington Post, Larson was asked: “Dodd had done a lot to quiet Jewish resistance in the United States. How much did the prevailing anti-Semitism of the time affect what could be done to stop the atrocities that eventually occurred under the Nazis?”
Larson responded: “I think the anti-Semitism at the time blunted, to some extent, the energy with which they were willing to seek a resolution to Hitler’s excesses. It really is pathologic to think about: You have the Dodds, who have anti-Semitic leanings. It wasn’t that [Dodd] hated Jews or wouldn’t associate with Jews, but he did have this sort of ambient, low-grade acceptance of the stereotypes that were in play back then.”
So that is why I can’t sleep. It is not because the bad guys acted badly … that is to be expected. It is because America, a country founded on the ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, chose to stay silent while another government blatantly deprived select citizens of all three. Essentially, the United States aided and abetted a monster by not calling one out. If America had spoken up, would it have mattered? Could it have prevented the Holocaust? Because history does not come with a replay button, we will never know. But how can you sleep when you suspect that it might have?