We seldom recognize evil at its birth. We see warning signs, but fail to grasp their meaning. It is only later, when the unthinkable occurs, when lives are shattered and we stare in disbelief at the desolate landscape left behind that we realize the significance of what we have witnessed. Yet by then it is too late and we are left to wonder whether things might have been different had we seen through the façade to the darkness that lay within.
In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed William E. Dodd as United States ambassador to Germany. Dodd was not Roosevelt’s first choice for the post. His was the third name on a list of possibles, and he was selected only after the first two turned the President down.
Dodd was an academic, a University of Chicago professor whose principal goal was to write a history of the South during the Civil War. He had no political aspirations and no desire to represent the U.S. abroad. He accepted the post due to a sense of patriotism and out of deep respect for Roosevelt, who personally entreated Dodd to take the position after being rejected by his preferred candidates.
Dodd and his family arrived in Berlin at the outset of the Nazi regime. He was skeptical of rumors about Nazi mistreatment of Jews, and assumed that they were exaggerated. His daughter Martha, a twentyish divorcee with liberal sexual attitudes and a thirst for adventure, immediately fell for the pageantry of Nazi parades and the contagious excitement with which the German populace embraced their leader, Adolph Hitler. Over the next three years, however, the veil of deception lifted and the Dodds were able to witness firsthand the brutality and amorality that would eventually define the Nazi government.
The story of the Dodds and their time in Berlin, during the formative years of Nazi Germany, is powerfully related by Erik Larson in his gripping In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin (2011). Larsen, the author of The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America (2003), one of the better works of American non-fiction of the new millennium, uses journals, correspondence and writings of the time, to bring to life the tale of the Dodds’ awakening to the evils of the Nazi world.
Told in a style reminiscent of the stories of spy novelists John le Carre and Len Deighton, In the Garden of Beasts reads like a work of fiction. Larson’s short, unswerving chapters operate as a series of doors opening gradually to the reality of Nazi Germany. Dodd’s growing alarm at the unabashed violence around him is at times matched by the apathy and thinly-veiled anti-semitism he encounters within the American State Department. His warnings are not heeded, and the Nazi brutality against Jews, Americans and all who pose opposition to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party continues unabated.
The story climaxes in what has become known as The Night of the Long Knives, Hitler’s purge and execution of actual and potential political opponents between June 30 and July 2, 1934. Shortly after the bloody events that cemented Hitler’s grip over the German nation, Dodd was recalled by Roosevelt at the urging of State Department officials who felt he had become too critical of the German government. History tells us what followed, but that part of the story falls outside the pages of Larson’s enthralling tale.
Larson’s story is filled with historical figures who today seem a distant memory: Hitler, Goring, Goebbels, Himmler – all the Nazi leaders are there, interacting with the Dodds and members of their social and diplomatic circles. We know who and what they are because we have the benefit of hindsight, which Dodd lacked. His was a gradual awakening to the horrors of Nazism, and that awakening is vividly related in the pages of Larson’s book. We see the evil as it grows, and the lapse of nearly eighty years is insufficient to insulate us from the feelings of unease we experience as the curtain draws upon a world soon to be forever altered by a monster in its formative stage.