April 25, 2013

Good Thurs. Bright here and +20 after a snowy day yesterday. The new stuff will melt off quickly once the sun takes over.

I read a good book, In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson, about the American ambassador to Germany in 1933-34, the years Hitler became Chancellor and later President. The story follows Ambassador William Dodd, a history professor whose specialty was the American South, as he and his family of four settle into life in Berlin near the Tiergarten, the “garden of beasts,” a park in the center of the city. The name of the park comes to stand for the excesses of the Nazi party and the avid response it drew from many Germans.

Dodd was accompanied by his wife and grown son and daughter. The daughter and the ambassador are the focus of the story, he for his efforts to convey diplomatic disapproval of the Nazis while carrying out his mission to get Germany to pay its debts to American lenders. The State Department was very focused on the debt and not so much on the political turmoil in Germany. Many State Department officials were frankly anti-Semitic and had little sympathy for Germany’s Jews.

The ambassador’s daughter Martha, who later wrote about her experiences, was 24 and recently divorced. During the time she lived in Berlin she dated the first head of the Gestapo, a KGB agent, a French diplomat, and apparently several others as well. One of the mysteries of the story is how the ambassador tolerated this. Of course, there was no TV or Internet. His own experience there is documented in voluminous dispatches, official pronouncements, and a personal diary. Anyway, the focus is on this family’s slow realization of the awful things going on around them, culminating in the Night of the Long Knives, when Hitler’s people assassinated 700+ insufficiently loyal leaders and SA troopers. Shortly afterward, President von Hindenburg died, and Hitler became Der Fuhrer.

Dodd tried to alert President Roosevelt and the State Department to the danger of these developments, but the US was in the throes of the Great Depression and was in one of its isolationist modes. State Department heads distrusted Dodd’s assessment of the situation because they were opposed to his appointment. At the time, the department was headed by independently wealthy men, while Dodd had to live on his salary. Ambassadors put on parties and receptions, and Dodd found it difficult to do this on his US government allowance. His subordinates at the embassy drove fancy cars, while he drove a used Buick, causing negative feedback to Washington. Dodd’s warnings nonetheless proved prophetic. Interesting book and a compelling read. It’s a page-turner.

Larson garden of beasts

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