Evil Garden: An American family’s foray into Nazi Germany

Dateline: BERLIN, Germany, 1933 – a simmer of dire portents.

Extremists prosper as calls for a defense of the Aryan race echo throughout the county, and Jews are blamed for the nation’s ills. In January, as Adolf Hitler is sworn in as chancellor, whispers of the country’s escalating racist ideology ricochet throughout Europe and across the pond.

Seven months later, during a blistering hot summer, a new U.S. Ambassador arrives, thrust into the fermenting milieu. His name is William E. Dodd, a mild-mannered University of Chicago professor, and his ambassadorship brims with fascinating personalities, among them his sexually coquettish daughter Martha.

Seventy-five years later, Dodd’s tenure (1933-37) makes for a captivating read in Erik Larson’s “In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin.”

Larson’s one of the few contemporary American writers exceptionally deft at crafting an imaginary work of novelistic history. “Beasts” certifies another well-conceived work of nonfiction that breathes life into a previously obscure tale. It’s familiar literary territory for him, as best-selling author (and winner of a National Book Award) for “The Devil in the White City.”

“White City” brilliantly animated the mind-boggling events surrounding the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (White City refers to the Fair’s white stucco buildings, which, in comparison to the brick and mortar Chicago, seemed illuminated.)

It unfolded the bizarre tale of two men: Daniel H. Burnham, the great American architect responsible for the fair’s construction, and a serial killer masquerading as a charming doctor. The effect: an engrossing account of the delightful charm and shockingly sinister side of 19th-century Chicago.

“Beasts” brilliantly illuminates not just the dark side of Nazi Germany but also the delicate scale of human relationships in international politics. Larson’s nimble writing humanizes the whirlwind of escalating cruelty and panic against a backdrop of U.S-German relations leading up to World War II.

Dodd, who prefers to go to bed early each night with a bowl of peaches and warm milk, bumbles his way through dicey diplomacy as a supporting yet key player in the early 20th century nightmare now stamped Nazi Germany.

He met Hitler several times before becoming strongly anti-Hitler and eventually refusing to meet with him. He spoke out vehemently against the regime, warning of war ahead. His remarks angered his State Department bosses, who wondered how an ambassador not on speaking terms with his host government could be effective.

Dodd’s time in Berlin serves as focal point for the horrifying rise of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich, as the city becomes the site of a glittering social life, secret affairs and political meetings that take place within lavish homes and embassies scattered throughout the city.

Martha, a journalist wannabe, becomes totally smitten by the allure of Berlin’s capricious setting, flagrantly sleeping with members of the diplomatic corps, the SS, the Gestapo and several high-profile American reporters and authors, Thornton Wilder and Carl Sandburg among them.

Though not a comparative study of 1930s antisemitism in Germany verse America, where antisemitism has always been less prevalent, “Beasts” also excels in revealing – through Dodd and his daughter’s prolific journal and letter writing, as well as official State Department dispatches – America’s own struggles with racial and religious intolerance.

“I accepted the attitude that Jews were less socially desirable,” writes Martha from Berlin. In Washington, President Franklin Roosevelt grapples with how to respond to a letter from Hitler calling out America’s hypocrisy in shaming Germany for bigotry when African-Americans – who made up approximately 12 percent of U.S. population vs. a 3 percent Jewish population in Germany in the 1930s – lack voting and other civil liberties.

The narrative of “Beasts” climaxes with “The Night of the Long Knives,” a weekend in June 1934 when Hitler rounded up most of his political opponents and had them executed. It is then that Martha finally sees the cautionary light and accepts the evil of the Nazis.

Dodd survived his ambassadorship in Berlin, an assignment he loathed, retiring to his Virginia farm only to die three years later in 1940. Until Larson’s research, history painted Dodd a weak and ineffective ambassador.

“Beasts,” which takes its name from Tiergarten (Animal Garden), the park across the street from Dodd’s Berlin residence, recasts Dodd an everyday man under unimaginable pressure to maintain personal moral compass serving a thankless job in an immoral environment.


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