In the Garden of Beasts ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
In 1933, a new U.S. president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, appoints a new ambassador, William E. Dodd, to Germany. He is sixty-four years old, a history professor, scholar and writer. With his wife and adult children (Bill and Martha), he moves to Berlin to take up his duties. It is a tumultuous and transitional time in German history. The elderly president, Paul von Hindenburg, has recently appointed Adolf Hitler as chancellor, more as a move of appeasement than anything else. People feel uneasy about Hitler, with good reason. He rants and raves in his speeches. He is quietly and systematically arming Germany for war, in spite of protestations to the contrary. Hitler and his Nazi regime favor suppression of Jews, which manifests itself in beatings, intimidation, banishment to prison camps, and laws that forbid Jews from marrying non-Jews and from working in journalism and other jobs. Anybody, Jew or Aryan, who opposes Hitler and his government is subject to intimidation and professional ruin or, at worst, imprisonment or death.
Into this maelstrom, the innocent, well-meaning Dodd family is dropped. Ambassador Dodd’s twenty-three-year-old daughter, Martha, is a recent divorcee. Her favorite thing is men. In Berlin she gradually gains a reputation as something of a tramp. She goes from man to man, some of them Nazis and even a Russian communist, with whom is she is so much in love that she wants to tour Russia for a month to gain an understanding of his country. She is also an idealist who is slow at seeing things as they really are. When she first arrives in Berlin, she believes the Nazis are doing good things and improving life for all German people. Gradually she begins to see things in a different, more realistic way.
According to many observers, William E. Dodd is not a successful or effective ambassador. Being the American ambassador to Germany during the rise of Nazism is no easy task. Not only must he deal with radical Nazis, he must also deal with people from his own government who don’t like him and believe he was the wrong choice for the ambassadorial post in the first place. He seems to believe, wrongly and naively, that all he has to do is advocate moderation and common sense and the Nazis will “tone down” just because he thinks it is the right thing for them to do. This, of course, is not the way the world works. Secretary of state Cordell Hull and others in the U.S. government are mainly interested in getting Dodd to press for repayment of German debt, which Dodd does not consider as important as other matters.
During the early years of Nazism (early 1930s), many believed that Hitler and his inner circle (Goebbels, Goring, Himmler) were so radical that it was just a matter of time before rational people would see them for what they were and force them out of office. We know in retrospect, however, that this is not what happened. When President Paul von Hindenburg died in August 1934, Hitler assumed absolute control over Germany and proclaimed himself “Fuhrer and Reich Chancellor.” If it had ever been possible for anybody, any foreign power, to stop the Hitler juggernaut, now it was too late. The next ten years or so were going to be a very difficult time for the entire world.
Ambassador Dodd proved to be more right about the threat that Germany posed to the world than a lot of people, during his lifetime, were willing to give him credit for. He and his family were in the unique position of viewing the rise of Nazism as outsiders. After Ambassador Dodd’s death, he was mostly vindicated as the lone voice who saw what was really happening in Germany, while most Americans were still hoping to remain uninvolved.
In the Garden of Beasts is “nonfiction narrative” written by Erik Larson. It’s a chronical of true events, written in such a way that it seems to be a novel, a fictional story, but it’s all true and it really happened. If a fiction writer had written the story of Hitler, it would have been too fantastic and far-fetched to be plausible. What story of the twentieth century is more compelling and at the same time more frightening than the story of the small, mustachioed man who aspired to conquer the entire world and would stop at nothing to achieve his goals?
Copyright © 2017 by Allen Kopp