Cover image of "In the Garden of Beasts," a book about American anti-semitism during the rise of Hitler's Germany

In the years 1933-41, a passion for isolationism gripped the American psyche, keeping President Roosevelt from speaking out against the growth of Nazism and the ever-tightening vise of oppression and violence directed at Germany’s tiny Jewish minority (less than one percent of the population). This finely-crafted and exhaustively researched little book casts a considerable amount of light on the reasons underlying this shameful episode in American history, exposing the role of American anti-semitism in the rise of Hitler’s Germany.

One of the most prominent anti-Nazi lecturers in the U.S.

In the Garden of Beasts is the story of Professor William Dodd and his family, beginning in the year 1933 when Roosevelt appointed him Ambassador to Germany. There, President Hindenburg had recently named Adolf Hitler as Chancellor. The aged general acted on the advice of friends in the army and among the country’s wealthy industrialists, who thought the comical little man could be controlled and, after a time, forced out of office. Dodd and his 23-year-old daughter, Martha, are the focus of this story (because both kept detailed diaries). In an admirably restrained manner, Erik Larson portrays their initial sympathy and support for the Nazi regime, turning gradually to revulsion and leading eventually to Dodd’s becoming one of the most prominent anti-Nazi lecturers in the U.S. His daughter took a different course, taking refuge in Communism and sympathy for the Soviet Union.

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson (2011) 466 pages ★★★★★

Kristallnacht took its name from the shards of broken glass that littered the sidewalks and streets of German cities following an orgy of destruction of Jewish shops like these by Nazi thugs. Image: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Growing awareness of American anti-semitism

From today’s vantage-point, the Dodds’ turnaround is eminently understandable, as they witnessed from front-row seats the evolution of Nazi terror. Not long after arriving, they experienced the “Night of the Long Knives (June 30, 1934),” in which as many as 1,000 opponents of the party were murdered without warning or trial. Nearly at the end of their tenure in Berlin, they observed Kristallnacht (November 9-10, 1938), when Hitler’s ferocity against the Jews was fully unleashed in an orgy of violence and destruction. Both Dodd and his daughter were horror-stricken by both events. What is much more difficult to understand are the attitudes of Dodd’s superiors in the State Department.

A dim view of the State Department’s “pretty good club”

Dodd faced two major obstacles from the outset: he had a personal relationship with FDR and was appointed over the wishes of the bureaucrats at State. He was an authentic Jeffersonian democrat, who found his true happiness on a farm in Virginia despite the accolades he won as a Professor of History at the University of Chicago and a leading historian of the Old South. Dodd, who lived on his middle-class salary, was cut from entirely different cloth from his monied counterparts in other major embassies and in the Department.

Virtually all were men of hereditary wealth, accustomed to legions of servants, lavish parties, and friendship with the U.S. power elite on Wall Street and in industry. And Dodd was a true activist, who campaigned almost from the beginning of his term in Berlin against the extravagance of the diplomatic corps. He had a dim view of the “pretty good club”—mediocrities with Harvard degrees and generations of wealth behind them—whom he increasingly came to view as his opponents.

Dodd’s successor carried on a one-man campaign of appeasement

There is no better way to illuminate the character of Dodd’s five-year tenure as U.S. Ambassador than to describe his successor’s contrary approach to the job:

“As ambassador, Wilson sought to emphasize the positive aspects of Nazi Germany and carried on a one-man campaign of appeasement. He promised Germany’s new foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, that if war began in Europe he would do all he could to keep America out. Wilson accused the American press of being ‘Jewish controlled’ and of signing a ‘hymn of hate while efforts are made over here to build a better future.’ He praised Hitler as ‘the man who has pulled his people from moral and economic despair into the state of pride and evident prosperity they now enjoyed.'”

Ambassador Wilson was strongly supported by Secretary of State Cordell Hill, Undersecretary Sumner Welles, and other luminaries of the “pretty good club,” wealthy reactionaries one and all. Both men have been widely documented as sharing the distinctly American anti-semitism rampant in their department. The New Deal was decisively progressive when it came to domestic policy. Foreign affairs were quite another matter. To any careful observer, the role of American anti-semitism in the rise of Hitler’s Germany would not have been a surprise.

The daughter’s lovers included some of the most famous men of the age

A great deal of In the Garden of Beasts is devoted to the sordid story of Dodd’s daughter Martha and her many love affairs and loveless liaisons. She was a bright, articulate, and engaging conversationalist as well as physically beautiful, and her many long-term lovers included poet Carl Sandburg, novelist Thomas Wolfe, playwright Thornton Wilder, Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl (one of Hitler’s intimates), and a passionate NKVD agent named Boris Winogradov, who helped her on her way to Communism. It seems Martha was an entirely amoral and self-centered person, but her journey through the “garden of beasts” helps reveal as much about the times as did her father’s.

About the author

Photo of Erik Larson, author of this book about American anti-semitism
Erik Larson. Image: Wikipedia

Erik Larson (1954-) is one of America’s finest nonfiction writers. He has written eight books, of which the most popular to date was The Devil in the White City. In that award-winning book, he stitched together brilliantly the story of the then-sensational 1893 Columbian Exposition and that of a notorious serial killer at a time when serial murder was rare. Larson was born in 1954 in New York. He holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Although he has since lived in several cities across the United States, he and his wife reside in New York City and maintain a home in Seattle. They have three daughters.

I’ve reviewed three other books by the author:

You’ll find this book listed on my post, 10 top nonfiction books about World War II. This is also one of Good recent books about American foreign policy and of Great books about Jewish topics.

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