03. January 2014 · Comments Off on Book Review: In the Garden of Beasts · Categories: European Disunion, History, War

This is not so much a compendium of the experiences of those Americans present in Germany when the Third Reich began it’s ascent to power, but a character study of a particular family. There were a fair number Americans resident in Germany at that time, or just passing through; diplomatic personnel and their families, scholars, newspaper and radio reporters, travelers, businessmen, expatriates of all sorts, or even German-Americans paying extended visits to kin. The family of Ambassador William Dodd falls into the first category and Dodd himself into the second as well. He was an academic, a historian who earned his PhD at the University of Leipzig at the turn of the turn of the century, where he picked up fluency in the language and a deep affection for the country. He was a friend of Woodrow Wilson and when FDR’s administration was stuck to name an ambassador (when their first two choices declined) Dodd was tasked with the honor, which he took up from 1933-1937. Dodd was not a professional diplomat, and it soon emerged that those whom he had to work with at State Department didn’t think all that much of him. For one – he was not particularly wealthy and vowed to live in modest fashion while carrying out his assignment, which lasted from 1933 to 1937. This was rather a strike against him in the circles that he was expected to move; if the professionals had to put up with a patronage appointment, a rich one who would spend lavishly from his or her own purse while in pursuit of diplomatic objectives would make up in some fashion for the bother of conducting business with the host nation through an amateur.

Dodd emerges in this exhaustive account as an honorable, well-intentioned everyman, who didn’t quite grasp – at first – how totally he was out of his depth – or how German society disintegrated as the Nazis gradually tightened their grip. He did become painfully aware, even as his tour of duty continued, which is part of his tragedy. The senior Nazi party press attaché, the American-educated Ernst Hanfstaengl described Dodd as, “a modest little Southern history professor who ran his embassy on a shoestring and was probably trying to save money out of his pay … he teetered self-effacingly as if he were still on his college campus.” In any case, there may very well have been American diplomats, either amateur or professional, who would have done a more vigorous job when it came to protecting American citizens abroad, informing the US State Department and FDR regarding what was going on in Germany and in providing a means of escape for German Jews and other anti-Nazi dissidents. Likely such an ambassador would not have lasted any longer than Dodd, and the odds are at least as likely that another diplomat in that position would not have done any better. Dodd came to detest the Nazi régime, and upon resigning from office for reasons of ill-health – spoke publicly about the dangers posed by it. He felt himself to have been a failure at effecting any change in German policy during his tenure, but the consul general who worked most closely with him, George Messersmith, felt that very few Americans realized so thoroughly what was happening in Germany – and that Dodd’s own horror at it essentially paralyzed him.

William Dodd’s wife and their two adult children, William Junior and Martha accompanied the Ambassador to Germany. Martha was married but separated from her first husband. Ernst Hanfstaengl wrote of her, “The best thing about Dodd was his attractive blond daughter … whom I got to know very well.” She may have had an affair with him – she certainly did with a long series of other top Nazis, including WWI flying ace Ernst Udet and Rudolf Diels, the first chief of the Gestapo, among others. She was then in her mid-twenties, with literary pretentions and a series of lovers already. Larson’s extensive sources combine to paint an unsparing portrait of a woman almost the exact opposite of her father. She was impulsive, promiscuous and with very little sense of consequences, especially if such consequences might interfere with indulging herself. One of her American lovers described her with a particularly telling phrase – she was like “a butterfly hovering around my p***s”. Her parents might have managed to keep themselves unaware of her amorous propensities, but the secret agencies of Germany and Russia were fully aware of the possibilities. Martha eventually fell heavily for a Soviet press attaché who was actually the NKVD agent in Berlin. She spied for the Soviets for years, even after her NKVD lover was executed during the Stalinist purges in 1938, eventually fleeing the US in the mid-1950s with her current husband after being subpoenaed several times to testify in several Soviet espionage cases. George Messersmith noted Martha’s affairs with distaste, eventually concluding that her conduct reflected very badly on her father, considering his position.

In the Garden of Beasts reads rather more like a novel than a straight history; always a boon to an ordinary reader interested in the history of a certain time and place. A novelist could not have made up characters like the conscientious, dutiful William Dodd and his self-indulging, self-centered daughter.

(Cross-posted at www.chicagoboyz.net)

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