Although I want to visit Germany with a near desperation, I can’t say that I’m jealous of those Americans who visited or even lived there during Hitler’s rise to power, especially after reading In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson. Americans were generally awarded with a measure of protection in Germany during the 1930s—Hitler did not want to antagonize the United States—but they couldn’t have felt completely comfortable in a country with the miasma of bigotry and despair hanging in the air.
William Dodd, a history professor in Chicago reaches that point in his life (early 70s) where he wants to finish a series of historical books he’s writing on the Old South before he dies. Unfortunately, teaching doesn’t give him the time or flexibility to do this, so he hits on an idea: diplomacy. Although this might seem something of a stretch, he was friends with President Woodrow Wilson and does have some friends in high places. So through them, be puts a bug in the ear of president Roosevelt.
He expects a nice ambassadorship of a small, inconspicuous country that’s undemanding, leaving him time to finish his book while providing the funds for he and his family to live.
Easy peasy, right?
Because it’s 1933, and suddenly President Roosevelt can’t seem to find anybody who’s willing to be the American ambassador to Germany. After all, there are tales of misdeeds and mistreatment, especially of Jews.
So, with a healthy dose uneasiness, Dodd, his wife, and his two adult children go to Germany. While Bill carries on his degree and goes to university, Martha’s free to get to know people, flirt with a (shocking) variety of men, and go to parties.
However, as Hitler’s power coalesces and violence and unrest in the country grows, Ambassador Dodd and his family have to face the fact that Germany is running full-steam towards war.
First of all, this book reads like a novel although it’s 100 percent a history with all dialogue (all!) taken from historical sources such as biographies, letters, journals, and memoirs. What would normally be an onerous dive into a dry history was interesting, entertaining, and scarcely a chore. So far, it might be one of my favorite books of my WWII reading project.
In fact, Erik Larson was such a good writer that I couldn’t help but dislike Martha, Ambassador Dodd’s daughter. She admittedly slept around (while married) and gave the embassy a bad reputation, but what really bugged me was her refusal to listen to anybody but herself. Several journalists and foreign correspondents tried to tell her that there was “something rotten in Denmark”—so to speak—but she refused to listen. I also couldn’t help but like Dodd with this frugal habits and stern temperament.
Honestly, what shocked me the most was the casual anti-Semitism that was so common among all people. Not just Germans. Americans, even those high in the State Department were anti-Semitic. Why? I can’t figure it out. Why didn’t people like Jews? It boggles the mind. They’re just people. Anyway, that dangerous attitude paired with a willingness to pander to Germany and a refusal to take the German threat seriously drives me mad. Of course, hindsight is 20/20.
If you want a unique look into Germany right before the war and those events that led up to it, if you want to read about some of the everyday people who lived and loved and suffered in that country during that time, read this book. It was fascinating and entertaining and a little haunting.