December 3, 2013
By Ben Cohen
I picked up Erik Larson’s book, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, with great trepidation. The book describes the experiences of U.S. ambassador William Dodd and his family in Nazi Germany. The other book at the library available from Erik Larson was The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, a book about 19th century Chicago serial killer H.H Holmes. Since I don’t want to give serial killers the attention they crave, even posthumously, I picked In the Garden of the Beasts instead. Still, I worried about selecting a book written by an author who chooses morbid and depressing topics to write about. I was pleasantly surprised to find Erik Larson’s book was informative and engaging, while not being sensationalistic.
William Dodd came from a very atypical background for a diplomat of that period. An obscure history professor from The University of Chicago, he had no background in diplomacy, and came from humble roots in rural North Carolina. He wasn’t Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first choice, but due to the violence and chaos in Germany at that time, Roosevelt’s preferred choices declined the position. Like most outsiders, Dodd didn’t think much of Hitler. The conventional wisdom held that, although the Nazis were quite unsavory, their bark was worse than their bite and they would be gone from power soon enough. Dodd quickly found out that the conventional wisdom was wrong. In spite of their absurd appearance, the Nazis were quickly solidifying their hold on power along with their popularity. Dodd, along with other Americans who spent time in Nazi Germany, quickly discovered that reports of Nazi violence were not exaggerated. Thuggish storm troopers patrolled the streets beating up anyone who refused to give the Nazi salute. He personally witnessed the persecution of Jews and anyone associated with Jews. He also became alarmed at the signs that the Hitler was preparing the country for war, becoming convinced that the Nazis intended to launch a war of aggression.
Unlike her father, who disliked the Nazis from the very start, Martha Dodd initially sympathized with the Nazi revolution. The enthusiasm of Nazi party supporters following Hitler’s ascension to power exerted a istrong nfluence on her. This enthusiasm made her feel that Germany was about to be reborn; a great nation humiliated in war and ravaged by economic depression was going to be restored to greatness. Her hopes for the revolution inclined her to overlook Nazi brutality, since she saw it as a net positive. During her time in Berlin she became romantically involved with a Soviet diplomat named Boris Vinogradov. The most serious of a series of romantic partners she had while in Berlin, Boris helped to recruit her as a Soviet spy. The most unsympathetic of the major American characters, Martha demonstrated how ordinary people could sympathize with the vilest regimes in history. (Following WW II, Martha Dodd defected to the Soviets and spent much of her later life in communist-run Czechoslovakia.)
The book devotes considerable wordage to one of the more disturbing aspects of the period, what the author described in an interview as the “ambient anti-Semitism” of the time. It was a commonly held belief that the disproportionate success enjoyed by German Jews constituted a “problem” to be rectified by government intervention. This belief was voiced even by those otherwise sympathetic toward German Jews, including ambassador Dodd himself. Others within the State Department expressed comparatively mild hostility toward Jews, such as Undersecretary of State William Phillips, who complained that his favorite vacation spot was “overrun” with Jews.
Still, it deserves to be pointed out that there was almost no sympathy within the American State Department for the extreme anti-Semitic attitudes of various high ranking Nazis. Roosevelt, Dodd, and others were horrified by the violent pogroms carried out by Nazi street thugs, and the deranged laws passed by the Nazi government; however, the State Department, along with Roosevelt, insisted on prioritizing the repayment of debts owed to American creditors over human rights issues. With the benefit of hindsight this decision seems exceedingly amoral, but in all fairness, few people at that time understood how fanatical the Nazis really were.
This book will provide food for thought for people of all ideological stripes. Conservatives, confronted by the ugliness of 1930s era casual racism, will have to admit that political correctness isn’t all bad. Liberals will find the similarity between arguments in favor of anti-Jewish quotas and arguments in favor of affirmative action disturbing. Within the book, people evincing little if any personal animus toward Jews still subscribed to the idea that the German’s had a legitimate complaint about the overrepresentation of Jews in certain areas of life. As economist Thomas Sowell has explained, the worst examples of racial violence are typically directed against successful groups, not unsuccessful ones.