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in the garden of beasts

20 july 2011

Early in 1933, William E. Dodd was the mild-mannered chair of the history department at the University of Chicago. He hadn't published much lately, and he was looking for some way to support himself while writing – some kind of sabbatical, basically. As an outspoken liberal Democrat with connections to the incoming Roosevelt Administration, Dodd was curious about how you got posted to an embassy: maybe Brussels or Amsterdam, some sleepy capital where a historian could finally finish his big book on the Old South. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, a type-A logrolling politician, advised Dodd that being an ambassador, even to Belgium or Holland, was rather a lot of work. I guess I'll keep on being chair of the history department, said Dodd.

A few weeks later, FDR was on the phone offering Dodd the embassy in Berlin, chance to work with the new Chancellor, chap named Hitler, what do you think, old man? As Erik Larson recounts the story in In the Garden of Beasts, Dodd thought of his wife, long attached to his tepid academic career, and figured he should do something to make her proud before he died. He accepted. Later on, Roosevelt admitted that he'd asked about a dozen other people first before tossing the hot potato of the Berlin mission in Dodd's direction.

As Larson tells the story, William Dodd began his appointment in Berlin as the archetypal innocent abroad. He was unafraid to speak truth to power; but he had the naïve idea that power might actually listen. He lived and entertained on his modest salary, drove his own Chevrolet, and shared with many WASPy Americans of the time a casual anti-Semitism that made it possible for him to sit down with Adolf Hitler and allow as how there was a Jewish problem in Illinois too, but in Illinois we dealt with things without all this public violence and summary arrest.

It soon became clear to Dodd that Hitler was not only not listening but not in the slightest bit deterred by remonstrance. And when it came to remonstrance, Dodd himself was on a tight leash, answerable to isolationist and frankly pro-fascist elements of Congress and even the Roosevelt Administration that couldn't see why Dodd wouldn't just shut up and chum along with the Nazis so that they wouldn't default on payments owed American banks. Dodd spent four years in Berlin trying to distance himself from the government he was credentialed to – and deploring the anti-Semitism he had once unthinkingly evinced. It was a weird situation, as Dodd grew immeasurably in stature among international humanitarians by practicing a studied disdain for the Nazi Party and losing the confidence of his own State Department.

As in several of his other books (Devil in the White City, Thunderstruck), Larson keeps a dual narrative going. The counterpart to William Dodd's diplomatic purgatory is his daughter Martha's Spring Awakening. Slightly attached to the American embassy and slightly married to someone named Bassett back in New York, Martha apparently slept with just about every unattached man in Nazi-era Berlin. She slept with the first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels; she slept with the impossible-to-invent Harvard-educated Nazi and double-dealer Putzi Hanfstaengl. But she fell in love with a Soviet spy named Boris Winogradov, who wooed her from her early enthusiasm for Hitler into a lifelong leftwing dissent that sent her into exile in Prague during the postwar HUAC days.

In the Garden of Beasts is compelling and terrifying, but also oddly a feel-good book. It speaks to mild-mannered late-career professors who are suddenly thrust onto the world stage. If I'm named ambassador to Libya next week, I hope I acquit myself as well as William Dodd.

Larson, Erik. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, terror, and an American family in Hitler's Berlin. New York: Crown, 2011.