Michelle at Crazy Running Legs had a fabulous idea — an online book club! I love it. I’m in a real-life book club, too, but the more clubs, the merrier!
This month, our online book club read “In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin” by Erik Larson (by the way, the serial comma is Erik’s not mine — and it really bothers me, for what it’s worth).
But that’s about all that bothered me about his book. It was fascinating. I love history and tend to gravitate toward historical fiction, so it was really great to read a non-fiction book for a change. And I love Larson’s style. Before I read the book, I heard an interview with him on NPR and he said his style is that he’ll never put dialogue in quotes unless he has a direct source for it (journals, letters, interviews, etc). I wondered if that would make the book a little less personal and seem as if it was being told from a distance. But I was pleasantly surprised to get sucked right into the story and feel as if I was there with the Dodd family.
The book follows Ambassador William E. Dodd, America’s first ambassador to Nazi Germany. In 1933, the new ambassador Dodd arrived in Berlin with his wife and two adult children, Bill and the fascinating,
slutty minxy Martha. That girl got around! From KGB agents to Nazi soldiers to other members of the diplomatic corps, her passion saw no political boundaries.
As someone who’s studied and thought about history a fair amount, one question has always stumped me — how could the world allow Hitler to keep gaining power unchecked and unchallenged. His anti-Semitism was well documented. But like most dictators, I suspect no one took all his threats and rhetoric truly seriously. After all, isn’t it easier for all of us to just keep going with the tide rather than trying to stop a wave in its tracks?
Michelle has posted discussions questions for the book. I’m not going to answers all of them, but here are some of my thoughts:
1. Why do you think everyone was so in love with Hitler? Even Dodd seemed to have a little political crush on him when he first arrived in Germany.
This was one of the things that bothered me the most, too. A lot of the Germans, I can sort of forgive for their infatuation in the early days of Hitler’s rise to power. They had just come through two horrible, poor and oppressive decades following World War I. I think Hitler helped them feel like they were getting their mojo back with better economic times and allowing them to proudly express their Germanism again. But I think this was a short window and rather quickly, their enthusiasm was replaced with fear.
The book does a really good job of showcasing just how difficult it was for any average German citizen to stand up to the Nazis. With secret police forces, the Hitler Youth and spies everywhere, being anything less than enthusiastic about Hitler was grounds enough to never be heard from again. I was also surprised how often foreigners (including Americans) were beaten senseless for minor infractions like not raising their arms in the Heil Hitler salute when German soldiers marched by doing it.
The few journalists who dared to speak out and try to warn the world about this growing violence were ostracized from German society — or worse. And the American officials at the embassy were no help. They were too busy trying to appease the Nazis in charge.
When Dodd arrived, the State Department and diplomatic corps made it very clear to him that he was not to rock the boat. And he seemingly went along with this continued appeasement of Hitler. He had some concerns about the growing violence and he was uncomfortable with the growing hostilities toward the Jews (more on that in a moment), but for the most part, he did seem a little in awe of Hitler’s effect on the country.
Dodd was a historian. He didn’t come from the usual diplomatic circles. He was plucked out of his job as a history professor in Chicago because no one else in Washington wanted the Berlin gig. That’s why I find his lack of outrage toward Hitler unacceptable. Anyone who studies history for a living should have been able to recognize the writing on the wall.
And as DadJovi points out (once I started reading this book, he did too and in fact, finished it much quicker than me — he devoured it), by the time the Dodds arrived, Hitler had already published “Mein Kampf,” in which he stated his desire to eradicate the Jews and invade Russia. Now, in a vacuum, those could have seemed like the ramblings of a crazy man but Hitler was actually taking concrete steps to push Jews out of society. From barring them from holding government jobs to separate benches in the parks, the process was well underway.
I’m going to jump ahead to Michele’s fifth discussion question here:
5. Were you surprised at anti-semitism that not only came from Germany – but also the US? Where do you think that Dodds stood?
YES! And no. The world has always gone through periods of acceptable prejudice (by acceptable, I mean, it was a widely held belief). But I had sort of never made an obvious connection before this book. Through Dodd’s correspondence and meetings with high-ranking officials, including President Roosevelt, it becomes clear why the U.S. feels it can’t stop Hitler’s anti-semitic policies. During this period (and for another 30-some years, for that matter), the U.S. itself has many of the same laws and policies toward African-Americans. Jim Crow laws, segregation and lynchings were happening across the U.S. So how could we tell another sovereign nation would it could and couldn’t do when we were doing the same things to a different minority?
That may have explained the reluctance at first, but does not excuse or explain the U.S.’s steadfast isolationism and refusal to get involved before it was too late.
OK, this is already way longer than I intended it to be. I haven’t even touched on Martha and her antics yet. On that point, I’ll just say that there’s a part of me that admires her forwardness and sense of adventure. She was a girl ahead of her times. But on the other hand, she was too easily swayed by her lovers. When she was with a Nazi soldier, she had nothing but praise for the Nazis. When she was with her Russian lover, she considered becoming a Soviet spy. Scandalous! I knew that one would come back to bite her. I just wish for once she would come to an opinion based on her own ideas and observations — not what someone was whispering in her ear.
And I’m definitely tackling Michell’s bonus question:
Bonus question – What the hell was Bill (Dodd’s son) doing the whole time they were there?? Let’s get creative.
He was doing what any young man would have done in Germany — getting wasted! How could you not become infatuated with German beers and schnitzels? Tiki toki, tiki toki HOY HOY HOY! I’ve tried to keep a journal while drunk in Europe, and trust me, it doesn’t make any sense. So I’m guessing Dodd left him out for lack of valuable source materials!
So, in conclusion, I endorse this book! It’s a fascinating, first-hand look at one of the darkest periods of history told from the perspective of people who didn’t have the luxury of hindsight. My husband loved it so much that he moved on to a 1,000-page biography of Hitler that Larson recommends in the footnotes.
As for me, it’s yet another reminder how lucky I am to be born in America during our current period of history. It’s far from perfect but at least my family and I are free from persecution because of our religion or race.