Erik Larson attracted a loyal and appreciative readership — and that includes me — with his potent blend of social history and serial murder in the best-selling “The Devil in the White City,” a work of meticulous research that reads like a thriller. Now he puts the same skills to work in “In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin” (Crown: $26), an account of the early years of Nazi Germany as experienced by William E. Dodd, who served as U.S. ambassador to Germany from 1933 to 1937.
What Larson did for Chicago at the turn of the 20th century in “The Devil in the White City,” he now does for Berlin in the 1930s. “How did the city look, what did one hear, see, and smell, and how did diplomats and other visitors interpret the events occurring around them?” Larson muses in a passage that gives us a clue to the workings of both his intellect and his imagination.
Dodd was a history professor from the University of Chicago in his early 60s who aspired to “a job that was not too demanding yet that would provide stature and a living wage and, most important, leave him plenty of time to write.” Ironically, his involvement in the Roosevelt campaign earned him an ambassadorship that no one really wanted, precisely because Berlin was ground zero of the Nazi revolution, which many people already saw as something profoundly evil. But Dodd accepted the post and invited his 24-year-old daughter, Martha, to join him. Thus began a diplomatic adventure story that coincides with the explosive early history of the Third Reich.
The book is decorated with telling anecdotes about the education of an American diplomat. One of the fellow passengers on the liner that carried him to Europe was Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, and the two men chatted about Dodd’s work as an American historian. “One cannot write the whole truth about Jefferson and Washington — people are not ready and must be prepared for it,” Dodd observed. Wise subsequently wondered: “If people must be prepared for the truth about Jefferson and Washington, what will [Dodd] do with the truth when he learns it about Hitler?”
Indeed, Larson points out that the Nazi’s worst excesses appeared implausible to Dodd at first, precisely because they were unimaginable. When the Chicago Tribune correspondent in Berlin told Martha Dodd about the Nazi invention of the Konzentrationslager — concentration camp — the young woman was annoyed at what she regarded as an effort to dampen her enthusiasm for “a heroic episode that could yield a new and healthy Germany.”
The Dodds were not immediately ready to recognize the real nature of Nazi Germany. On a visit to Nuremberg, for example, they encountered a young woman with a half-shaven head and a placard around her neck being dragged through the street by storm troopers: “I have offered myself to a Jew,” the sign said. Martha continued to explain away what she’d seen with her own eyes: “I tried in a self-conscious way to justify the action of the Nazis, to insist that we should not condemn without knowing the whole story.”
They found themselves in remarkably close quarters with the Nazi leadership. Seated behind Goering on delicate chairs at a concert at the Italian Embassy, they were forced to watch as the oversized Nazi “attempted to fit his gigantic ‘heart-shaped’ rump onto the little chair.” And their relations might have been even more intimate. Putzi Hanfstaengel, a Nazi press official, once proposed to make a match between Martha Dodd and Adolf Hitler: “Hitler should have an American woman,” he insisted, “a lovely woman could change the whole destiny of Europe.”
The scenes that the Dodds witnessed range from the comical to the horrific. On a visit to Goering’s country estate, for example, members of the diplomatic community in Berlin were invited to witness the coupling of a pair of bison, but the bull refused to cooperate. On another occasion, Dodd heard a death threat against the Jews of Germany fall from Hitler’s lips in a private meeting: “We shall make a complete end to all of them in this country.”
Slowly, the Dodds awoke to the nature of the beast that was Nazi Germany. Martha, for example, was courted by Rudolf Diels, an official of the Gestapo, who took her for walks in the Tiergarten; her father found the liaison to be useful “for extracting foreign nationals and others from concentration camps,” while Martha began to understand that she was living amid “a vast and complicated network of espionage, terror, sadism and hate, from which no one, official or private, could escape.”
Martha, in fact, is the liveliest character in the book. To hear Larson tell it, her erotic adventures were quite cosmopolitan, including French, German and Russian lovers, and she was singled out by the communist secret police, the NKVD, as a likely candidate for recruitment as a Soviet spy. Dodd, by contrast, seems bland and ineffectual. “He can hardly speak German and made no sense at all,” Hitler said after one of their meetings, and Hanfstaengel characterized Hitler’s estimation of the American diplomat as “almost pitying.” Indeed, he was literally sickened by stress, and Roosevelt eventually “bowed to pressure from both the State Department and the German foreign office” to replace him.
“In the Garden of Beasts” does not adopt the novelistic stance that Larson used so effectively in “The Devil in the White City,” but Larson’s real motive is to rescue Dodd from obscurity. Like so many other decision makers in the 1930s, Dodd’s flaw was to be, at first, willing to overlook German atrocities, but he deserves some credit for finally recognizing and reporting the real nature of the Third Reich. When his health declined, a headline in a Nazi newspaper announced: “End of notorious anti-German agitator Dodd.” Larson allows us to see this headline as a fitting eulogy for a man who sounded the alarm at a time when others were still willing to appease the devil in Berlin.