IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS: LOVE, TERROR AND AN AMERICAN FAMILY IN HITLER’S BERLIN
By Erik Larson
Crown, $26, 464 pages
It is easy to see why Erik Larson’s chilling book “In the Garden of Beasts” has zoomed to the top of best-seller lists. It is a compelling read. The ominous title refers to Berlin’s Central Park, the Tiergarten, which means “animal garden,” and hearkens back to the days when it served as a royal hunting preserve.
In this nonfiction saga, the verdant terrain plays a significant yet totally different role. It serves as a focal point for the horrifying rise of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich and is the site of a dazzling social life, furtive trysts, plots, meetings and machinations that took place within its secluded and leafy confines and in the lavish homes and embassies scattered along its perimeter.
The story deals with a naive American family, William Dodd, a low-key history professor who becomes the first U.S. ambassador to Nazi Germany in 1933 and his flamboyant and sexually charged daughter, Martha, who are thrust into the dangerous and strangely glamorous world of the “New Germany” and succumb to its eerie charm.
Martha, a would-be journalist, is fleeing an unhappy marriage and becomes totally smitten by the provocative allure of the volatile atmosphere, flagrantly indulging in numerous affairs with members of the diplomatic corps, the SS and the Gestapo and several high-profile American reporters and authors - Thornton Wilder and Carl Sandburg among them. She, like many others, wore blinkers as to what Hermann Goering, Heinrich Himmler, Hitler and their ilk were really up to, and though they realized it was a scary time, they either downplayed, ignored or simply accepted the brutality and dictates of the increasingly repressive regime and partied on.
Dodd’s assignment from President Roosevelt was to maintain the status quo in U.S. relations with Germany in order to placate a growing group of isolationists at home and an elite cadre in the U.S. State Department who were in denial over Jewish persecution and the threat of a looming war.
A band of wealthy, upper-class WASPs established and belonged to the snobby Pretty Good Club (hard to believe this name). They ridiculed Dodd’s cables, and when he tried to raise a warning flag, they complained that he was churlish, was not up to their lofty standards and should be recalled. Many of these men were anti-Semitic and pro-German. Despite the mounting terror and attacks on American tourists, they remained convinced that they could control the situation and do business with the Fuhrer. They were completely wrong.
Culling through Russian and German archives, letters, diaries, memoirs, cables, newspapers, biographies and interviews, Mr. Larson re-creates the decadence andperil of the period and details the diplomatic minefield facing the inexperienced, exasperated ambassador. With 95 percent of the population supporting “America first,” he was forced to walk a thin line,making nice with the hierarchy of the Third Reich, whom he came to loathe. He was sabotaged and belittled by somein his own embassy along with snarky diplomats in Washington. When he was relieved of his post in 1937, he felt free to sound the alarm and crisscrossed America warning of the German atrocities and the certainty of war. It took four more years for the country to listen.
Even the gobsmacked Martha eventually saw behind the shiny black uniforms, the swastikas and the slinky Mercedes. She succumbed to the charms of a handsome young Russian, a member of the of the NKVD, the precursor to the KGB, turned against many of her admirers and lovers and took off to tour the Soviet Union. She became a communist and a spy. Her life took a wildly different turn, and she ended up living alone in Prague for several years until her death in 1990 at 82.
What astonishes this reader is how passive and clueless everyone seemed to be, assuming that Hitler and his entourage were childish puppets. On his arrival, Dodd called them “16 year olds” and thought they would quickly fade into history. Except for a few astute reporters who wrote about the immorality and malevolence of the Nazis, most individuals watched silently as they relentlessly tightened their grip on power.
Visiting Berlin in 1935, Thomas Wolfe quickly bedded Martha, and in a letter to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, described the atmosphere at the Dodds’ house on Tiergartenstrasse as “a free and fearless harbor for people of all opinions. … [P]eople who live and walk in terror have been able to draw their breath there without fear, and to speak their mind. And further, the dry, plain, homely unconcern with which the Ambassador observes all the pomp and the glitter and the decorations and the tramp of marching men would do your heart good to see.”
This is a cautionary tale not to be missed.
Sandra McElwaine is a Washington correspondent for the Daily Beast.