Friday, October 28, 2011

An American family in 1930s Berlin

In the Garden of Beasts, Erik Larson

For his latest book, Erik Larson wanted to explore
"what it would have been like for an outsider to have witnessed firsthand the gathering dark of Hitler's rule. How did the city look, what did one hear, see, and smell, and how did diplomats and other visitors interpret the events occurring around them?  Hindsight tells us that during that fragile time the course of history could so easily have been changed.  Why, then, did no one change it?  Why did it take so long to recognize the real danger posed by Hitler and his regime?"
He attempts to answer these questions by looking at the lives of an American family, the Dodds, who arrived in Germany in July 1933 for a stay of several years.  This wasn't just any American family.  William Dodd was the new American ambassador in Germany.  The chair of the history department at the University of Chicago, he had been offered the job after President Franklin Roosevelt's first choices all declined.  Dodd had only an academic understanding of diplomacy, which made him an odd choice for such an important post, and his lack of experience almost immediately put him at odds with the State Department and its career diplomats.  It would also create problems with the embassy staff in Berlin.

The new ambassador arrived in Germany with his wife Mattie, his son Bill, and his daughter Martha.  In 1939 Martha published an account of her years in Berlin, which Larson relies on heavily in this book, along with her father's diaries, which were published after his death.  Larson also uses other primary sources, including State Department records and the papers of other diplomats such as George Messersmith, the American Consul General in Germany.  But the story he tells focuses on the senior Dodd and Martha.

As Larson shows, the Dodds were initially very impressed with Germany. They thought Berlin a charming and cosmopolitan city, and they were mesmerized by the energy of the people, the enthusiasm for Hitler and his party.  They saw a country in the midst of rebirth, moving beyond the Great War and its aftermath.  In their initial infatuation, they found it easy to dismiss the darker side of life in Germany: the campaign of "Coordination" designed to bring everyone into line with National Socialist ideas, the concentration camps and prisons holding those insufficiently "coordinated," the omnipresent anti-semitism made concrete in the growing restrictions on Jews.  Storm Troopers and Gestapo officers were everywhere, unrestrained in their violent attacks on anyone suspected of resistance.  American citizens were among those arrested, beaten, and tortured.  Despite official complaints from the Embassy and the American government, the attacks continued.

The Dodds gradually came to see the reality of the Nazi regime, especially after the violent purge known as "The Night of the Long Knives" in June 1934. After hundreds of Hitler's perceived enemies were executed without trial, Ambassador Dodd could not disguise his hostility to the Nazis, and he began to speak about the clear evidence of German rearmament and military training, and the mistreatment particularly of Jews.  His views made him increasingly unpopular in the State Department, as did his attempts to reform the diplomatic service.  Dodd deliberately lived a frugal and homespun life as Ambassador, even shipping his used family Chevrolet to Germany rather than using the expected limousine, and he wanted Embassy staff to follow his example.  His unpopularity with Hitler's government, and with his own, led to his removal as Ambassador in December 1937.  After his recall, he worked hard to open America's eyes to the Nazi menace, giving frequent lectures and founding the American Council Against Nazi Propaganda.

This is not just William Dodd's story, though.  At least half of the book focuses on Martha, and unfortunately I think this undermines the dramatic story that Larson has to tell.  When she arrived in Germany in 1933, Martha was in the process of divorcing her husband.  The marriage was troubled from the start, in part because of her frequent affairs, a pattern she would repeat in Germany.  She seems to have slept with anyone who caught her eye, including prominent Nazi officials like Rudolf Diels, the chief of the Gestapo.  She formed a serious connection with a diplomat from the Russian embassy, an intelligence officer, who would help recruit her to spy on the Nazis.  Larson spends a lot of time on Martha's affairs, with very detailed descriptions of dates and other romantic encounters drawn from her 1939 memoir.  After a while, those scenes started to seem voyeuristic and rather like reading a bad romance novel.  Perhaps in an attempt to create addition suspense, Larson frequently uses foreshadowing ("In light of what was to happen a few years hence, Dodd's crowing about his own driving prowess can only raise a chill"), but he takes so long to get to the denouement that the effect is lost.

I think in the end Erik Larson succeeds in giving the reader a sense of what it was like to be a foreign resident in Berlin in the early 1930s.  It was interesting to compare his book with Patrick Leigh Fermor's perception of Germany in 1933, in A Time of Gifts, and with the Mitford family's experiences of Germany, from the letters in Charlotte Mosely's Letters Between Six Sisters.


  1. I was so excited to read this when it came out but then couldn't make it past the first couple of chapters! I really didn't like Larson's writing style, which is a shame because I'm always interested in foreign perspectives on Germany during the 1930s.

  2. The only other book of his I've read is Isaac's Storm, about the devastating hurricane that struck Galveston in 1900, partly because I don't like his writing style. But with that book, and now this one, the story kept me reading even though I was tempted to quit.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!