Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Carolyn’s CBR4 Review #10: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin

It has often been said that for evil to win all that needs happen is for good men to do nothing. That was what the United States government did, at least officially, for much of the lead-up to World War II. Too often chances to speak out and try to stop the madness that was engulfing Germany were ignored. Too frequently the atrocities were overlooked.  There were some exceptions, some people who tried desperately to alert the United States to the horror that was building across the Atlantic. George Messersmith, who worked at the Berlin embassy, was one of those who tried, often in vain, to bring about some change in the US policies, though he was often ignored as having too vivid of an imagination. So, too, were various Jewish groups in the USA, though they were often ignored for being Jewish. And, eventually, so did William Dodd, the United States ambassador to Germany, though he was ignored because, frankly, too many people didn’t want to believe any of what was happening in Berlin.

One of the malicious nicknames given to William E. Dodd by his fellow American diplomats in the 1930s was “Telephone Book Dodd.” The joke was that Franklin D. Roosevelt, who appointed Dodd ambassador to Germany in 1933, had supposedly meant to offer the post to a Yale law professor named Walter F. Dodd but made a mistake in looking up the name.  Dodd was by no means the first pick for the job, but other candidates had already shown their reluctance to do time in what, even before Adolf Hitler assumed absolute power, was an increasingly menacing Germany.  Dodd was unusual partly due to his modest ambitions. He accepted the position, thinking it would give him more free time to complete his book, a study of the antebellum American South. Dodd, an unassuming and scholarly man, was an odd fit among the extravagance of the Nazi elite. His frugality annoyed his fellow Americans in the State Department and Dodd’s growing misgivings about Hitler’s ambitions fall on deaf ears among his peers, who were content to “give Hitler everything he wants.”

 Dodd’s daughter was Martha Dodd Stern, an indiscriminate flirt who was working her way out of her first marriage and aspired to be a writer. Immediately upon arrival overseas, however, she revealed her true talents as the town bicycle. Out every night, she has one affair after another, including with the surprisingly honorable first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels and Ernst “Putzi” Hanf­staengl, who at one stage tried to persuade her to become Hitler’s mistress. Though she would become a popular author, live a long, complicated life and eventually be accused of spying for the Soviet Union, the young Martha favored breathless, thick-headed comments that no nonfiction chronicler of the Dodd’s’ misadventure would have dared to make up. “I was slightly anti-Semitic in this sense: I accepted the attitude that Jews were not as physically attractive as gentiles and were less socially desirable.”

At first, the Dodds — like many in Germany — tried to give the new regime the benefit of the doubt. The attitude most adopted was along the lines of, “Once the dust settles, they surely can’t be all that bad.” The city was beautiful and charming and so were some of the Nazis. The U.S. State Department was more concerned about the debt than politics. People spoke excitedly about this “New Germany.” And yet the new government kept passing laws restricting the freedoms of Jews. Americans and other foreigners were frequently beaten on the streets, usually because they failed to offer the Seig Heil salute when brown shirts marched by. Hitler’s ultimate aims were arguably plain to see when he repudiated the Treaty of Versailles and began rebuilding the army. Concentration camps, like the one at Dachau, were becoming operational, even if their eventual purpose was still clouded.

Dodd eventually became critical of Hitler’s regime, although his objections were based more on history than morality. He never became a great statesman, but he was one of the few who refused to bow to German pressure. The Dodd’s story is fascinating, tinged with rising peril and pityingly persuasive about the futility of Dodd’s mission. “In the Garden of Beasts” is a vivid portrait of Berlin during the first years of Hitler’s reign and the rise of the Nazi Party told from the perspective of those previously relegated to the shadows.




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