In the Garden of Beasts


Hitler was a magician, a master manipulator of his own image – a criminal who organised the murder of millions and set off a world war that nearly caused the demise of mankind. Erik Larson’s 2011 NY Times non-fiction bestseller In the Garden of Beasts adds a welcome new perspective on the horrific Nazi phenomenon – a study of William E. Dodd, America’s first Ambassador to Nazi Germany in the build up to WW2. The US government knew they were sending this man, a humble Jeffersonian and his wife and family, into a seething cauldron of unrest, paranoia and violence. Dodd himself was not told this, even transporting his own beat-up car to a Berlin where the SS drove buses.

Larson researched widely and recreates a Berlin of beauty and horror carefully, piecing conversations from real letters between the principals. He was guided by Sir Ian Kershaw’s definitive Hitler: 1889-1936 Hubris which he kept face down on his desk as he worked, so repulsed was he by the photo of Hitler on the front cover.

Much of the book is taken with Dodd’s secretly promiscuous daughter Martha as she sleeps her way around dangerous men as the Nazi purges begin. A Russian lover, Boris, carries on a torrid affair with her before being executed by the KGB, forced to write a letter telling her he was happy and well at the dawn of WW2.

It is a disturbing world that Larson recreates, the humble, dowdy and eventually horrified Dodd, wishing he could finish his great work, The Rise and Fall of the Old South on his farm back in America, is faced with a government run by psychopaths and desperately tries to convince the American President to intervene.

Before they were made aware of the savagery of a totalitarian state, Martha recalls her impression of Hitler at a random soiree. “He seemed modest, middle class, rather dull and self-conscious – yet with this strange tenderness and appealing helplessness.”

This prompted Ambassador Dodd to become amused and say: “that Hitler was not an unattractive man personally.”

After the Night of the Long Knives, Dodd became disgusted with the regime and refused to entertain Nazis in his Berlin home. The US government was flooded with requests asking if it was safe to travel to Germany. Dodd and his wife were eventually forced by the US government and Nazi Reich to leave his position in 1937, two years before the outbreak of war.

In 1941 Hitler was recorded talking about Martha Dodd. “In the old days when we wanted to lay siege to an industrialist, we attacked him through his children. Old Dodd, who was an imbecile, we’d have got him through his daughter.”

Back in America in 1938, a mentally ill Dodd hit a four year old black girl with his car, causing internal injury and a concussion, and didn’t stop. Citing exceptional circumstances, he was acquitted and died in 1940, never finishing his volume of the Old South. Goebbels’s newspaper Der Angriff wrote that Dodd was dying in a “Jewish clinic” and called him on his deathbed a “small, dry, nervous, pedantic man.”

The book gives a gripping account of being caught in an ever growing nightmare, as Nazism militarised and began to organise for war. Dodd is not exactly heroic – Larson paints him as a sympathetic character, innocent in a city of monsters, but incapable of warning the world or preventing the horror. Ultimately he was yet another victim of the Nazi machine, which drove him insane, and mocked him as he died.

What’s most striking about this book is how normal Berlin, the Nazis and Hitler seemed to Dodd and Martha upon first arrival, and how quickly the lines of normality blurred. In hindsight it would seem easy to predict, but the Dodds were not privy to that privilege. Theirs is a haunting story that deserves to be re-evaluated, and Erik Larson should be commended for the care and tact with which he wrote this powerful book.

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