As the title indicates, this is a creepy work of nonfiction. Erik Larson, popular author of (among other things) The Devil in the White City, here tackles the subject of one American family living in Berlin in the years leading up to World War II. William E. Dodd was an unassuming professor of history in Chicago in the early 1930′s, wishing for a little more free time to finish his life’s work, a 4-volume history of “the Old South.” He lobbied Roosevelt, through his modest political connections, for a quiet diplomat’s post to somewhere like Belgium or the Netherlands. There he hoped to settle down to finish his books and not have to do too much real diplomatic work, to which he readily confessed he was not well suited. Instead, owing to a strange combination of forces – mostly, no one else being willing to take the post – he was appointed to be the United States’ diplomat to Berlin in 1933. He traveled to Hitler’s Germany with his wife and grown son, Bill Jr., both of whom play almost no role in the story, and with his grown daughter, Martha, who stars next to the elder Dodd himself.
William E. Dodd is a conscientious man, rather to the point of annoyance. His sense of humor is wry and not well appreciated in diplomatic circles. He comes from a modest background and lives on a professor’s salary, and now a diplomat’s, which is quite moderate; in Berlin he plans to live within the bounds of that salary, which is the first time he offends protocol, but not the last. As Larson explains, diplomats are traditionally wealthy men of great style – valets, fancy chauffeured cars, fine wines, grand balls and the like – and make up what Larson quotes one diplomat as calling a “pretty good club.” Dodd will fail to fit into this club, and will, to the aggravation of all, criticize it throughout his tenure.
Martha is a sultry young woman very comfortable with her charms and her ability to wield her sexuality as a weapon against the men in her world; she enjoys men, and sex, and is in the process of ending a secret marriage even when she sets sail for Germany. When she gets there, she is charmed by the Nazis, handsome and blonde and polite and uniformed, and is not unhappy to be characterized as a “little Nazi” herself. Among the lovers we assume she took in Germany (Larson points out what we don’t know for sure, but makes a strong case) are a Gestapo leader, a French diplomat, a close assistant to Hitler, and eventually a Russian diplomatic assistant who turns out to be a Soviet spy. She is even at one point asked to be “Hitler’s woman,” and introduced to him, but nothing comes of it (not for lack of her attraction to the man of power, however). By the end of the Dodds’ years in Berlin, however, she has noted the evils of the Third Reich and flirts with becoming a spy for Stalin, herself.
Larson’s fine work here is in bringing a time and a place to life, and it raises goosebumps. Hitler’s Berlin is chilling, in large part because we, the modern readers, have the benefit of hindsight, and it is deeply disturbing to watch humanly flawed men and women walk around that time and place without realizing just how bad things are going to get. There is willful ignorance, naturally, as well as antisemitism in varying degrees: the Dodds share this prejudice with many of their contemporaries, and it helps them to excuse Hitler’s regime longer than they should… but again, this is all with the 20/20 vision we possess today. It’s difficult to imagine the tolerance shown by the United States, and Dodd, and the world, for Hitler; but this is history.
The decision to showcase Martha alongside Dodd was a fine one. They are two very different characters, both tending to minimize Germany’s faults at the start of the story but both (very differently) eventually coming to understand and fear the changes to come. When the Dodds left Berlin in 1937, the United States were yet years from a war with Germany, but Dodd had begun to prophecy some of the terrors to come.
Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts (poetically named for the literal translation of Tiergarten, a garden & neighborhood in Berlin where the Dodds lived) is to my tastes a great way to read history. The story electrifies, brings the past to life, and promises to faithfully follow the sources available. An enjoyable and worthwhile, if unnerving, read (or listen).