Saturday, March 3, 2012
In the Garden of Beasts
History professor William E. Dodd of Chicago has no idea what he’s getting his wife, son, and daughter into when he accepts the United States ambassadorship to Germany in 1933. Happy to leave the bogged down feeling he had of academia and seeking to recapture the nostalgia of a early time he spent in Germany as a student, Dodd finds himself and his family on the cusp of a “New Germany,” one fraught with signs of the horrors and persecution yet to come.
Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts “narrative nonfiction” of this time uses Dodd’s own notes, historical references, Martha Dodd’s letters and journals to recapture the harrowing days set during Hitler’s rise to power.
Excited to be in Berlin, the Dodd family settled into their role as diplomatic, American family and embraced the German government in place. Martha Dodd, a promiscuous young woman and recently separated from her husband, used the current “enthusiasm for restoring German” to immerse herself into the social scene where she enjoyed many parties courtesy of her position as diplomat’s daughter. William Dodd, stodgy and frugal, found the climate of Germany unsettling and the expensive entertaining that went along with being an ambassador a hard adjustment.
During that first year in Berlin, the Dodds experiences ran the gamut -- excitement for their company to be held in high esteem but also horrified as they watched the changes in Germany, part of Hitler’s new regime and its politics, unfold into an atmosphere of secrecy, tension, and murder.
The Dodds had relationships with historical figures who would later be significant in Germany’s spiral downward. From sharing conversation and meals at polite diplomatic gatherings in various places in Berlin, the Dodds knew intimately men who would eventually be killed by Hitler or who would carry out Hitler's orders to kill.
Not used to playing the games of diplomatic protocol and horrified by what he heard, Dodd attempted through telegrams and letters to let the State Department back home know of the changes in Berlin. Due to pettiness and jealousies and internal strife in that area of our government [perhaps a little more complicated than that], the State Department seemed to offer up little help and an indifference, that borders on lack of human compassion, to the atrocities of Germany -- this both angered and puzzled Dodd.
The two Dodds involvement with these men and women of Hitler’s regime gives a first-hand account of an American inside that country in one of its most volatile times.