At midday on Thursday, 8 June 1933 — Erik Larson is very keen on his times — the newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt had a call put through to the history department at the University of Chicago.
At midday on Thursday, 8 June 1933 — Erik Larson is very keen on his times — the newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt had a call put through to the history department at the University of Chicago. Since taking office in early March Roosevelt had been trying to fill the post of ambassador to Berlin, and with none of the usual suspects prepared to take on the job and Congress on the point of adjourning for the summer recess, time was fast running out.
If nothing will quite explain why Roosevelt thought the ‘almost uniquely ill-qualified’ William E. Dodd was the answer to Berlin — smart money had it that he had simply phoned the wrong Dodd — it is a still greater mystery as to why Dodd should imagine Berlin was the answer for him. In the summer of 1933 Dodd was a genial and cautious family man in his mid-sixties, a university professor with two grown-up children and no more thoughts of a career outside academia than a vague idea that some nice, quiet embassy might be just the place to get to grips with his great unwritten masterpiece on the Rise and Fall of the Old South.
Even his bitterest enemies allowed Dodd his virtues — modesty, integrity, parsimony, a faith in reason and the Jeffersonian ideals — but what nobody reckoned on was that it was precisely Dodd’s virtues that would be the problem. In his early days in the job his own unswerving decency left him curiously blind to the real nature of the Nazi beast, but from the moment he recognised the brutality for what it was, the cautious academic disappeared and Washington found that it had got itself an ambassador who would not so much as shake hands with the crooks and murderers to whom he was officially accredited.
This might not have mattered so much if he had not estranged himself from his own people, but in an age when the men who filled America’s great embassies took their cue from Leo X — if God had seen fit to give them Rome or Paris it was their duty to enjoy them — his unbending ‘small-town’ integrity alienated precisely the people he needed on his side. Before he left Washington he had told Roosevelt that he intended to live within his meagre ambassador’s income, and when he set about doing just that, renting from a Jewish family the lower floors of their mansion at a knock-down rate, it became a toss-up whether the State Department or Hitler’s government were keenest to find themselves a new ambassador.
It was a tragedy that no one would listen to Dodd at a time when isolationist, anti-Semitic America most needed to, but when his glamorous, wayward, clever, ‘sexually decayed’ and over-indulged daughter was an ardent and maverick supporter of the new Germany that was perhaps not surprising. ‘The youth are bright faced and hopeful,’ Martha Dodd wrote to Thornton Wilder of Rohm’s rampaging Brown Shirts — and wrote despite all the evidence of the beatings and systematic barbarism she had witnessed at first hand:
They sing to the noble ghost of Horst Wessel with shining eyes and unerring tongues. Wholesome and beautiful lads these Germans, good, sincere, healthy, mystic, brutal, fine, hopeful, capable of death and love, deep, rich, wondrous and strange beings — these youths of modern Hakenkreuz Germany.
In the Garden of Beasts — the title evokes Berlin’s Tiergarten — is the story of Martha’s gradual disillusionment with this brave new Germany and of William Dodd’s growing sense of frustration and failure. With the benefit of hindsight the only surprise is that it took either of them so long to see the truth, but hindsight is the one thing that Erik Larson does not allow them or himself. He tells their story chronologically, without judgment, without comment almost, letting events unfold with their own hidden logic.
What was it like at the time, is what he constantly wants to know. What was it like before words like Dachau took on their grim significance? When Germans and Americans both thought Hitler was a merely temporary phenomenon? When the first thing you noticed about Goebbels was his charm? When even the Night of the Long Knives might just seem a step in the right direction? When the daughter of America’s ambassador could bed both the head of the Gestapo and the First Secretary at the Soviet embassy? When people could say — and believe — that the Jews had brought ‘it’ on themselves? When even American Jewry was divided on the wisest response to the tales of mounting horror coming out of Germany? When the last thing Depression America wanted was Cassandra for an ambassador?
Larson’s is a compelling tale, and — appropriately enough to the greatest gangster story of the century — it is told in a sparse reporter’s prose that is oddly suggestive of Thirties films. It can, sometimes, descend into a specious kind of detail that substitutes trivia for any real sense of immediacy. It can, too, be curiously flat in the face of the Berlin of the Thirties — the heaving, chaotic, exuberant, overwhelming Berlin of Walter Ruttmann’s extraordinary film, Symphony of a Great City — but these are minor complaints against a narrative that makes such a brave effort to see history as it evolves and not as it becomes.