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  • History Friday Book Review: In the Garden of Beasts

    Posted by Sgt. Mom on January 3rd, 2014 (All posts by )

    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.ncobrief.com)

     

    16 Responses to “History Friday Book Review: In the Garden of Beasts”

    1. Michael Kennedy Says:

      It’s an excellent book. My review on Amazon is here.

    2. Bill Brandt Says:

      I really enjoyed it – although the author’s portrayal of Martha as a free spirit was a bit kinder than me – is there anyone in Berlin she didn’t sleep with?

      I thought it was excellent in that it showed how the Nazis consolidated power – through fear. I learned all about the Hitlergruss

    3. Gringo Says:

      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.

      What I remember from reading the book last year was that the muck a mucks in the State Department wanted Dodd to make a bigger attempt to “get along” with the Hitler regime. Dodd may have been an amateur diplomat, but it didn’t take Dodd long to figure out that Hitler was destroying the Germany he had come to love during his grad student years in Germany. The State Department, by comparison, was behind the curve.

      I concur with you that Dodd did about as well as a more experienced diplomat would have done in a very difficult situation. Washington wanted to believe that things were going to turn out OK in Germany. Dodd ruffled some feathers back home in informing his superiors that optimism was not the correct read on Germany.

      Dodd took the Ambassador job instead of finishing his life’s project of writing on the South. I did find a book he had written before he went to Germany: The Cotton Kingdom: A Chronicle of the Old South.

    4. Bill Brandt Says:

      Gringo – that reminded me that yes he was probably more spot-on about Hitler than the “professional” diplomats (who later forced him out) – and the description of Berlin in 1933 – with 100 centers for torture the S.A. used against non-complying citizens. The passage about the trip to the Nuremberg Rally was something I remembered, too.

    5. Bill Brandt Says:

      And before I call it a night I have wondered if the title is a play on the Tiergarten – literally the animal garden, Berlin’s Central Park. The Dodd’s home was near here IIRC.

      1933 Germany – a place I’d have liked to have been….NOT ;-)

    6. Sgt. Mom Says:

      Yes, Bill – the title was a reference to the Tiergarten. Dodd actually wanted to work on a four-volume history of the South, but only lived long enough to complete the first volume.

    7. Joe Wooten Says:

      Gringo, that would describe the State Dept “professionals” even today. Look how many are arabists, completely blind to idiocies of Islamists, or those who counseled giving in to the Soviets during the cold war, the older “China Hands” who denied support to the Nationalists, ad naseum.

    8. Gringo Says:

      It is a shame that Dodd didn’t have the time to finish his history of the South. A quick perusal of The Cotton Kingdom indicates that Dodd did a pretty good job of “setting the table.” Some quick points: 1) The slave owning elite freely intermarried with northern elite- Theodore Roosevelt’s mother was from South Carolina- which helped diminish northern opposition to slavery.[Though in reading TR’s autobiography, he indicates that his parents had an “agree to disagree” position during the Civil War.Not much give there. Young TR, of course, was a staunch Unionist.] 2)The slave owning elite wanted to expand slavery to Mexico and Cuba, in addition to the western US. 3)Southern intellectuals in tandem developed ideologies supporting slavery and denigrating the equalitarian precepts of Thomas Jefferson. Although Dodd was a Virginian, he doesn’t come across as a partisan of the South, but as an objective academic. His book indicates to me that he had pretty good judgment, which was perhaps the best attribute one would want for an ambassador in Hitler’s Germany.

    9. Gringo Says:

      Why is my comment awaiting moderation?

    10. Sgt. Mom Says:

      I have no idea, Gringo. First time this has ever happened with one of my posts.

    11. Michael Kennedy Says:

      “that would describe the State Dept “professionals” even today. Look how many are arabists, completely blind to idiocies of Islamists, or those who counseled giving in to the Soviets during the cold war, the older “China Hands” who denied support to the Nationalists, ad naseum.”

      This is often called “clientism” where the FSO thinks he/she is representing the country he/she is accredited to instead of the US. Hillary is probably a case through her connection (?) to Huma Abedin.

    12. ErisGuy Says:

      I can’t say I’m familiar with ambassadorial history of the period. How does Dodd compare to his contemporaries. To pick one: Joseph P. Kennedy. Perhaps if Kennedy had been ambassador to Germany and Dodd, to Great Britain, things would have been different.

    13. Sgt. Mom Says:

      Not really familiar with the ambassadorial history either, ErisGuy – but you do raise an interesting what-if! Dodd, though – seems to have been rather low-key, earnest and well-intended, but Joe Kennedy was (if memory serves me and I think it does) was more a seething, vicious pile of ambitions and resentment who saw only that which he wanted to see.

    14. Bill Brandt Says:

      Kennedy, IIRC was an anti Semite and Hitler sympathiser

    15. David Foster Says:

      Certainly an appeaser…some Brit was reported to have made the comment “I thought DAFFODILS were yellow until I met Joe Kennedy”

    16. Michael Kennedy Says:

      The Brits had their own Hitler appeaser and near-supporter in Berlin with Neville Henderson.

      The Wikipedia bio is more generous than many would be about his career.

      Henderson was on friendly terms with the members of the Astors’ Cliveden set, which also supported the appeasement of Hitler, and whose member was Prince Paul of Yugoslavia.

      It is also too generous to Prince Paul.

      He aided Greece when it was invaded by the Axis, fostered military collaboration between the Yugoslav Army and the French and spent almost three years parrying the Axis thrust toward Yugoslavia.[6]
      Nonetheless, the signing of the pact did not sit well with several elements of the Yugoslav army. Two days later, with British support, they forcibly removed Paul from power and declared Peter II of age.[7]