Nazi Germany from a young girl's perspective
A tidal wave never looks like a tidal wave the night before
With the benefit of retrospect it is comically easy to see that Hitler's rise to power and his ensuing policies could only lead to a cataclysmic set of atrocities throughout the continent. But perhaps if you were on the street in Berlin in those early years, it would not be so easy to see the inevitable as inevitable. This book follows the course of events in the early Nazi days not only through the eyes of the US Ambassador, but also his promiscuous social butterfly daughter. From their perspective it was anything but obvious what might occur.
Image Credit: Baxters Book Nook
A slow torture is so much harder to see than a fast one
History books have quite an easy time jumping from one event to another to show the logical picture of the Nazi party's ascent and enactment of a culture of terror and fear. Yet looking through the eyes of an ambassador in the middle of the situation, it is far less clear. Dodd took his post while America was more interested in ensuring that Germany paid its war debts from WWI, than in ensuring civil behavior of its government toward its citizens.
Dodd came face-to-face with attacks by storm troopers toward US citizens whose only crime were perhaps not raising their hands in salute when a parade marched by. Storm troopers (SA) would then take it upon themselves to physically assault, to the point of requiring hospitalization, even though they identified themselves as US citizens, all of this while police calmly watched and did nothing. In retrospect this breakdown in law and order seems unconscionable. Yet when an official comes to Dodd's office apologizing and saying that it was merely an overzealous adolescent who was caught in the moment and will be disciplined, can one blame a diplomat from taking the cautious route of not jumping to the conclusion that this was a systemic problem, rather a local one? These offenses continued for several years, increasing to a couple cases a month, but when you think of the overall size of the country and the scope of upheaval going on, it must have been hard for someone on the ground to declare an entire country unsafe for US visitors.
Perhaps another example is the one that was faced from the very beginning and was innocuous called "the Jewish question." Germany did not change its policies towards Jews overnight, rather it was a set of small laws that slowly made life gradually more difficult for this population. With the benefit of hindsight it is far too easy to condemn foreign diplomats from not taking a more aggressive stand against what we would now consider hate crimes, but at that same time in the US we were witnessing lynchings and our own hate crimes against blacks. Thus Dodd danced a fine line of expressing muted criticism not for the express policies toward jews, but an overall set of policies of individual rights. As distasteful as it is to read, again going back to the large number of lynchings and beatings we had in the south at the same time, perhaps the laws requiring Jews to not sit on certain public benches is not as crazy as it sounds now. Still deplorable and horrible, but having some context.
Do you think you could have predicted what was coming if you were the US Ambassador?
Dodd's family was anything but boring
One of the fascinating aspects of this story, which is so rare with foreign diplomats, is that the ambassadors family played quite a strong role in the events. Martha, Ambassador Dodd's daughter, is romantically linked with many key players including the head of the Gestapo, a senior lead from the diplomatic corp from the Soviet Union, and almost became romantically involved with Hitler himself. This was certainly not the normal or expected behavior from the daughter of a US ambassador (or any ambassador for that matter). Behind the sordid details of Martha's love affairs is the evolution in her attitude toward the Nazi regime. Upon her arrival to Germany she could not fathom the animosity that the regime had built up from international entities. She had great respect for the Nazi party who was able to bring hope and more importantly mission and jobs to the great number of unemployed Germans. She loved the environment of order, and could easily excuse some of the overreaching examples of brutality she occasionally witnessed.
Yet over her tenure in Berlin she became increasingly disheartened by what she witnessed of Germans toward Germans. The outright brutality toward Jews, the draconian censorship of literature that she was so enamored with, and finally the ultimate environment of fear that pervaded society. It became increasingly more difficult for her to defend the regime and the actions it was taking, until she ultimately became an outright vocal opponent of the Nazi party and its ideals. Unfortunately many of the outlandish behaviors she had, including taking up with multiple suitors simultaneously hurt her reputation with those who could have potentially helped her. A complex woman who had a breathtaking insiders view into so many different private parlors due to relationships that opened those very doors to her.
"That you have found me...among so many millions is the miracle of our time! And that I have found you, that is Germany's fortune!"
I highly recommend this book
This was one of the most readable, interesting historical pieces of the time period. There was quite a bit more than what I could include, so you might want to get your own copy (or borrow from the library). Hope you enjoy as much as I did.
What we can learn from this story
There are countless morals and lessons to be taken from the diplomatic actions or non-actions prior to WWII, but I would instead rather focus on the actions of Ambassador Dodd. Here was an individual attempting to work inside the system to bring about change in a manner that was acceptable and appropriate in a foreign land. Too often I read in news reports how citizens in many countries believe it is impossible to enact change from inside a system. Perhaps there are times this is the case, but I like to hope (and perhaps naively at times) that there is always a place for good people to voice and institute change from inside. The famous quote that "The only thing needed for evil to succeed is for good people to sit by and say nothing". If you feel strongly that your company, your city, even your country is going in the wrong direction, perhaps the first thing to do is try to enact change from inside. Can you run for city council, appeal to voters or petition elected officials? History is filled with examples of citizens who have achieved monumental changes inside a country or companies while working inside. One hopes it is never a hopeless exercise to trust in a system to work for the people from the people.
Overall review of this book
"In the Garden of Beasts" is quite an approachable book that helps lead the reader through a difficult maze of characters and events. A story broken up into easily digestible sections, it is quite difficult to put down at times. Fascinatingly mixing both history and personal narratives he weaves a story rarely found in non-fiction historical works. I would strongly recommend this book to all who have a passing interest in history, especially the time period leading up to WWII. I would make a particular push to all those who have strong leanings toward the power of a single voice in the darkness standing up for what they feel is right. It is never a clear path, and here was a story of one such individual who attempted to do just that.
A few of my favorite quotes
"It seems quite preposterous to have to go to your enemy and ask for a character reference" Jewish memoirist after US changed its immigration policy requiring all applicants to get a police affidavit attesting to their good character.
"This was not a house, but a house of ill repute" Dodds Butler Fritz speaking of Martha's multiple suitors at the house at all hours
"One may safely say that it would be no sin if statesmen learned enough of history to realize that no system which implies control of society by privilege seekers has ever ended in any other way than collapse" -Ambassador Dodd with a muted criticism of the Nazi regime
"At a time when hundreds of men have been put to death without trial or any sort of evidence of guilt, and when the population literally trembles with fear, animals have rights guaranteed them which men and women cannot think of expecting. One might easily wish he were a horse!" - Ambassador Dodd
"That you have found me...among so many millions is the miracle of our time! And that I have found you, that is Germany's fortune!" -Adolf Hitler