In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Eric Larson
- The eerie normalcy of early-1930s Germany, as presented to foreigners in Berlin, makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
- 466 pages
Nazis were the history topic I’d been avoiding, the elephant in the room since I’d begun this project two and a half years ago. I already don’t like graphically violent details of battles and torture, and it’s pretty hard to discuss Nazis without them. High-ranking Nazis are impossible targets for empathy, aren’t they?
Well, Aren’t They?
Personally, I still think so, but Larson’s book devotes much of its content to Ambassador Dodd’s attractive daughter, Martha, her politics, and her taste in friends while living in Berlin. During the early 1930s of her father’s term, Martha’s personal politics contained a certain admiration for Hitler’s ability to rouse Germany from economic destitution into a unified, goal-directed nation. All those golden-haired German youths singing their nationalistic pride in the obligatory Saturday meetings made an idealistic picture that appealed to her.
If Martha’s attitude sounds terribly naïve, then consider how normal Berlin seemed when the Dodd family disembarked from their steamer and took up residence in the capital city. The Dodds arrived in fine spring weather for touring, and they made their obligatory social rounds in what seemed a bustling, thriving city. From her point of view, restaurants and theaters filled with eminent, fashionable citizens of the world could be seen making intellectual chitchat or sharing upper-class gossip. No one was obviously suffering here, and it did not immediately register to a foreigner at that time that this seemingly happy condition existed because any Berliners the Nazis found undesirable were made to suffer elsewhere.
Martha wasn’t the only American who didn’t worry about the Nazis during the 1930s. Ambassador Dodd, plucked from his comfortable job as a history professor, didn’t like the look of Hitler and his cronies but couldn’t get anyone in Washington to take his concerns seriously. Larson explains that Ambassador Dodd had an image problem, both with his direct reports and his superiors. He was well-educated, but he didn’t come from wealth, as did many members of the State Department in those days. Men who reported to him drove fancier cars or dressed better because they were spending the family fortune for their living expenses, not a salary. Consequently, Dodd’s old American car and determination to live on his salary made him a bit of a joke among his diplomatic peers. Few could see past his relatively low-rent appearance to entertain his opinion that Hitler and company were trouble.
While the Nazis weren’t necessarily beloved in the 1930s, President Roosevelt had other fish to fry in the form of the Great Depression. Besides, the conventional wisdom went, the Nazis were too extreme to last – these sort of political figures always self-destruct. While the Jewish community in America was sounding the alarm in the larger population centers like New York City and Chicago, most of America retained its deeply isolationist sentiments.
The Ambassador’s Daughter
Martha had love affairs with a high-ranking Nazi and a Soviet spy, and she partied with a range of people from politically dangerous authors to the guy who played piano for Hitler. Even if you go on to question Martha’s taste in men, you can’t deny that she kept an open mind. The Nazi police chief basically used her diplomatic status as shield from violence, something she didn’t seem to fully realize while riding around in his car. He understood before any of the Dodds did that he was a target of internal Nazi politics, and keeping the attractive American Ambassador’s daughter, well-known from Berlin’s society pages, in his immediate company very often lent him a degree of safety.
The book’s title refers to the high-class neighborhood of Berlin where political figures resided alongside government offices and military training grounds. All of these facilities and private homes abutted an enormous internal green space bigger than Central Park, full of statuary and walking paths. Ambassador Dodd used strolls in this park as his best opportunities to have truly private conversations with his British or French counterparts. This quiet place, surrounded by wealth and power, seemed insulated from the evil to be perpetrated throughout the countryside. In fact, however, much of the evil had been hatched nearby.
What made Larson’s book a worthy read is the chilling air of normalcy he carefully impresses upon his readers. He deliberately avoids immediately shocking his readers with Nazi treatment of Jews and homosexuals. If he had led with those horrors, then his readers would have nothing new in considering the classic question of how the world’s citizens could have done nothing about them for so long. Is he making excuses for anyone? No, but his description of the setting and circumstances experienced by the Dodd family has less of the foreshadowing even textbooks commonly apply to this time and place. For the reader who knows what lies ahead in the years to follow, the simple descriptions of spring weather and cheery outings to woods and lakesides are creepy because Larson has taken a more subdued approach to the drama.
Instead, when he takes you into 1930s Berlin, he makes sure you understand that yes, something’s not right here, but you, he and Dodd are the only people who know it. The silver-spoon crowd at the State Department is playing internal politics rather than showing any real alarm over the Nazis. The effect is to make one want to grab theatergoers and cocktail party guests by the shoulders and shake sense into them. Even the other diplomats in Berlin, people close enough to Germany’s leadership to know there’s something ugly brewing, seem intent on waiting for Germany’s political landscape to sort itself out. When Operation Hummingbird (also known as The Night of Long Knives) finally goes down, you’re shocked, even though you knew it was coming.
Image: Hitler at the window of the Chancellery on Wilhelmstrasse in Berlin while receiving the ovations of the people on the evening of the day. January 30, 1933. Photographer: Sennecke, Robert. Source: Wikimedia.org