In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson

In the Garden of Beasts tells the story of William Dodd, American ambassador to German during the years immediately after Hitler`s rise to power, and Dodd`s family who accompanied him to Berlin, with a particular focus on his daughter Martha, probably because she was the one who left behind written reflections on her years in Germany.

It’s an interesting viewpoint into those chilling years, as well as into the world of international diplomacy at the time. Dodd, a history professor, was an unusual and in some quarters unpopular choice for ambassador, since he didn’t come from the wealthy upper class that traditionally provided diplomats, and was determined to live modestly on his salary rather than making an ostentatious display of wealth. But even more important than the hostility Dodd faced from his American peers and some of his employees, was the threat of the new regime just taking hold of power in Germany.

What makes this book interesting is that the primary documents included here — letters, diary entries, etc — give us a glimpse into the Third Reich as it was seen by foreigners within and outside Germany, at a time when its grasp on power was still recent and tenuous. It’s so easy to look back at the story we’ve all learned (and some of us have taught) in History classes and imagine a sort of Nazi juggernaut rolling over Germany and eventually over most of Europe, inexorable and inevitable. A book like this reminds us that Hitler was made chancellor because others believed he would be an easily controlled figurehead, and that while they were eventually proved horribly wrong, there were plenty of people still active in the German government in those early years who still believed this was true. Both among Germans themselves and among foreign observers there were those who believed that Hitler, Goering and Goebbels were the “moderates” who would purge the party of the extremists and rule sensibly, as well as those who thought that Hitler, Goering and Goebbels were themselves the extremists and that they would be unable to hold power and wiser heads would soon prevail. Both groups were wrong, of course, but that’s hindsight for you. Things weren’t nearly as clear-cut at the time, including things that seem obvious today, like whether other nations should have cut diplomatic ties with Germany and whether the harrassment of Jews was really anything serious that the rest of the world needed to worry about (remember this is 1933-1934, before even the Nuremberg Laws were passed).

On the note of the “Jewish problem,” which understandably takes up a good deal of space in this book, it’s important to remember that one of the reasons Americans and other non-Germans were slow to condemn Hitler’s anti-Jewish policies was that so many Americans (and Europeans) had their own deep vein of unacknowledged and unquestioned anti-Semitism which made Hitler’s policies seem to them to be, if not acceptable, at least understandable. Dodd himself often seemed to feel there were just too many Jews around everywhere: in a world where the Holocaust hadn’t yet happened, it’s perhaps understandable that the average person did not make the leap from his or her own casual racism to a policy that would eventually try to deal with “too many of them” by eradicating an entire population.

It’s so easy now to look back and say, “Why wasn’t more done to stop Hitler and the Nazis before 1939?!” but this book helps to expose why the whole area was so much grayer, as things always are when you’re living through them. Between those who thought Hitler wasn’t all that bad, those who thought he was terrible that wouldn’t last long, and those who just didn’t know what the right response was, it becomes easier to see why warnings (some of them issued by Dodd himself later, as he got to know the Nazi regime better) fell on deaf ears until it was too late. 

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