I recently read Erik Larson’s “In the Garden of Beasts” (named after Berlin’s Tiergarten), his best selling book about Berlin in 1933 and 1934. This very readable book tells the story of Hitler’s first two years in power primarily through the eyes of American ambassador William Dodd and his adventurous 20-something daughter Martha.
There have, of course, been many books written about Hitler’s rise to power. The most highly touted have been, perhaps, those written by professional historians (such as Ian Kershaw or Allan Bullock) or journalists who were there apt the time (William Shirer or Howard K. Smith). There have been book after book concentrating on Hitler’s treatment of the Jews, or Hitler’s plans for world domination.
But there are other books essential for giving a reader a broader sense of what was going on. I have read several memoirs of people who were growing up in Germany, young people who gradually developed a sense of the terrible things that were occurring beneath the surface of an otherwise revitalizing country. I read the memoirs of the non-Jewish wife of the director of a major museum who could tell what was happening from the very beginning. Ihave read books about how the Nazi government functioned – its legal institutions, it’s governmental ministries, its systems for public health and education. I have read Viktor Klemperer’s extraordinary diary of life in Dresden, and Bella Fromm’s reports of Berlin society.
Larson’s book comes from a totally different angle. Larson is a writer, not an historian. He had no background in German or Nazi history. But he had come upon an intriguing story.
The book is publicized as the story of Martha Dodd in Berlin, and it is in part that. But it is equally the story of her father, an academic at the University of Chicago, an historian who’s field of interest and study was the American South, and who (although he spent a year in Leipzig as a student and good memories of the German people) was by no means expert or particularly interested in what was going on there now.
But he had some political connections, and he needed a break. He wanted an ambassadorship, but one to a country where demands on his time would not be so great, so that he could finish his academic writings. With Germany, he got much more thane bargained for.
He started out not taking Hitler too seriously, and thinking that he, as American ambassador, could help moderate stated Nazi policy. After all, these were by and large sophisticated people. It was only little by little that he realized he had entered hell, and that there was no way to alter what was going on there. His realization of the seriousness of what he was seeing, his attempt to maintain some relations with German officials without doing anythi g that would show American support yet would keep him in good stead with the host country, the rest of the diplomatic community and with his fellow Americans (both in the embassy staff and back in the Department of State in Washington) required much dexterity, more than it turned out Dodd had.
His daughter was something. Married and separated from her husband at an early age, coming to Berlin for her was to be a grand adventure. She was going to experience Germany for all it was worth, and she did, most often as an accompanist to her boyfriend of the day, who included not only Nazi officials (would you believe both one of Hitler’s earliest close advisors and the first chief of the Gestapo?), but a loyal Communist, a high ranking member of the Soviet embassy. And to top it all off, she seemed to have had ongoing sexual relationships with Carl Sandburg, much her elder, Thornton Wilder (this one may have been platonic) and Thomas Wolfe.
At first Martha thought Nazi Berlin a most delightful place, but her mind gradually changed as she became more enamored of the Russian system (at least until she traveled to Russia). Whether she ever ealized that her Russuan boyfriend, later killed in a Stalinist purge, was most likely simply using her as a way to get into American intelligence is unclear, but Martha, after returning to the United States, married an American who shared her interest in the USSR, and they became active, if not particularly productive Soviet agents, for the rest of their long lives. Her father, upon returning, was a worn down man. He soon was fatally I’ll, his work on his book on the American South unfinished.