To an outsider, Berlin in 1933 appears to function like any other cosmopolitan European city. You can stay at The Hotel Adlon, stroll the famous Tiergarten, and enjoy a coffee at the Romanisches Café. The incessant saluting among German citizens is odd, but it is unlikely that it interrupts your enjoyment of the city.
What the casual visitor to Berlin doesn’t see is the systematic dismantling of personal freedoms, especially against Jews. That you notice only if you reside in Berlin, for example, as the U.S. Ambassador.
In his latest non-fiction book, In the Garden of Beasts, author Erik Larson (Devil in the White City) tells the story of William E. Dodd who served as U.S. Ambassador to Germany from 1933 to 1937.
As a University of Chicago history professor with an expertise in the American South, Dodd is an unlikely choice for Ambassador. Lacking an independent income or social connections, he certainly doesn’t fit in with the other members of the pretty good club, the insider nickname for the Foreign Service. However, he speaks German, is a loyal Democrat, and no one else wants the job.
Despite his lack of experience, Dodd catches on quickly to Germany’s expansionist agenda, but in part due to his outsider status, his concerns are either ignored or ridiculed by the Roosevelt administration.
On the other hand, his twenty-four-year-old daughter Martha who accompanies her parents to Berlin embraces the “New Germany” whole heartedly. She socializes extensively with Nazi officials such as Rudolf Diels and is even suggested as an appropriate girlfriend for Hitler. (Of her meeting with Hitler, she writes, the mustache “didn’t seem as ridiculous as it appeared in pictures.”) Somewhat belatedly Martha shuns the German leadership as well.
After witnessing incidents ranging from the merely annoying to shockingly atrocious, the Dodd family is not unhappy to depart Germany in December of 1937.
In the Garden of Beasts is a fascinating portrait of the critical early years of Hitler’s government and offers some insight into why the rest of the world didn’t notice (or chose not to notice) until too late the threat posed by Nazi Germany.