I have read a great deal about World War II. The only areas of history that I personally know as much about are few in number: ancient Rome, Founding Father-era United States, Napoleonic-era Europe, and the Cold War. Why read about World War II again? Well, I've long believed that World War II, and the events leading up to it, are the reason why the United States has the goals that it has had for the following seventy years to today. From putting ourselves forth as the hero on an international scale to believing in our own exceptionalism as the moral standard for the world to follow, so many things derive from our experience in World War II that it's sometimes hard to find things that don't.
And, really, we can blame all of this on Winston Churchill.
But that's completely tangential to why I'm writing this review. I was attracted to this particular book because it featured a part of WWII history that I had next to no knowledge of. This history follows the lives of the United States Ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, and his family at the time that they lived in Nazi Germany from 1933-1938. I didn't judge the book by its cover, but I did judge it by its title, In the Garden of Beasts. This got me excited to read about the life of an ambassador under siege, in one of the nastiest governments that has ever existed. I wanted to read about how things gradually changed for the worse under Hitler's reign, and I also wanted to see how the ambassador got by, much less survived.
William Dodd – The Ambassador
For our story, there are two main points of view: William Dodd and his daughter, Martha Dodd.
William Dodd is not the most interesting person I've ever read of. Before becoming ambassador, he was a history professor, mild and well-mannered. We catch up with him in his golden years, his mid-sixties, with his life's goal to finish writing his history of the old American South. For a reason that only rings tragic and ironic at the beginning of our story, Dodd accepted becoming Ambassador to Germany because he thought it would give him enough spare time to finish writing his four-volume magnum opus. Little did he know that he would be far too busy trying to represent democratic values in a nation twisted by Hitler's influence.
Dodd perfectly embodied exactly what you would expect from an introverted history professor-made-American Ambassador. He watched Germany slowly make turn after turn for the worse, he hoped that the people would rise up to overthrow the Nazi regime, and, in his speeches and confrontations with Nazi leaders, he made subtle historical references that called attention to past dictatorships and abuses of power. Because Dodd had to represent the United States' position on Germany (they turned a blind eye to the Nazis for a long time because they were too busy with the Depression), his ability to tell off the Nazis was limited. But I was impressed with how he still was able to, through historical analogies, try again and again to point out that awful and evil regimes are always overthrown, and that the people have the ultimate will and capability to resist the Nazis, if only they would try.
Ultimately, because of the atmosphere of appeasement and the hope that the Nazis would just disappear, Dodd regarded himself as having failed in his position. As he leaves office, the Nazis are preparing to invade Poland. Yet we are still able to see that Dodd gave hope and a limited degree of protection to the people he befriended. And, surprising as it may sound in retrospect, Dodd was one of the only ambassadors and representatives of the U.S. government who saw the Nazis for what they were and, years before it actually happened, predicted that Hitler would cast the world into a second war. For this he was honored later, if not in life.
Martha Dodd – The Socialite
The oddest thing about Martha Dodd's major inclusion in the book was the fact that she was the only family member aside from William Dodd himself to get much attention. But it's obvious to see why: Martha was a firecracker, one of those women who would enter a high-brow party and turn every head in the room. Her first reaction upon moving to Nazi Germany with her family was to go gaga over all the smart-dressed men in their fine Nazi uniforms, and play her many suitors off against each other. She was incredibly prone to flattery and being the center of attention, a facet of her personality that had her eventually leaping all over the political spectrum as she became interested in one guy after another.
One thing that kept going through my head as I read about Martha was, “How in the hell does her dad let her get away with all this?” It isn't that William Dodd was a bad father in any way, it was more that, as the paramount representative of the United States, the people that Martha chose to involve herself with were just... I don't even know the word. At alternate points in the story, we have her closely involved with the chief of the Gestapo, nearly marrying a Soviet spy, and put forth before Hitler himself as a potential love interest. For a time, she even becomes involved in selling a limited amount of state secrets to the Soviet Union as a spy herself, after she loses faith in the Nazi regime. One of the spy chiefs said, “Martha considers herself a Communist and claims to accept the party program. In reality, she is a typical representative of American bohemia, a sexually decayed woman ready to sleep with any handsome man.” Alternatively, as another spy chief put it, “Martha is a gifted, clever and educated woman, she requires constant control over her behavior.”
Which was the more correct appraisal? Each had grains of truth in them. Martha did indeed get around. But we also connect with her the most, as an intelligent woman who moves to Nazi Germany, excited with the time of change, but gradually becomes disillusioned with the Nazi and then, much later, the Soviet atrocities. Though Martha is more extreme than most examples, she represents that part of us that is constantly seeking some new spark in life, a new mission, and the perfection that seems just around the corner, be it in a new love interest or a new thing to become passionate about. Martha just was not quite as fast as her father in realizing the truth about the Nazis and summarily condemning them. How else does one end up dating the head of the Nazi secret police?
The Darkening Shadow
Through the eyes of William and Martha Dodd, we watch Germany over the years. Viewing this slow change is the most powerful thing about this book. In order to try and explain, I'm going to start this out with a very nerdy analogy. Bear with me.
In Lord of the Rings, Tolkien describes Hobbiton and every place west of the Misty Mountains as being fairly happy. There are whispers of some nastiness coming but, to these folk, these are merely rumors created to pass the time and scare youngsters. When the fellowship takes us over the mountains, the feel of those towns were different. Where it was sunny in Rivendell, Lórien seems in a perpetual state of dusk. Fading. Talk of the enemy is more pronounced and believed. But there's still hope. In Rohan, we see that the people are harried. But they are still proud believers, and they trust that victory is a possibility.
Then we go closer to Mordor.
The people of Gondor are drained. Their leader is in despair. The soldiers are far quicker to distrust. Suspicion is everywhere. The rangers are more willing to kill, needing less evidence and provocation to do so. Everyone assumes that this is normal. As we get closer and closer to Mordor, we get this feeling of exhausted finality, that the darkness is something that must be suffered through and accepted.
In the Garden of Beasts shows us this same sort of slow progression to darkness and fear. The difference here is that it isn't geography and distance, it is the passing of time that gets us closer to the uncomfortable murk. When the Dodds arrive, they go for a walk and enjoy the sights of Germany. They see rolling hills, sunlight dappling on flowers. They get to their new home laughing and in genuine happiness that maybe moving to Germany wasn't so bad. Then things start to slowly change. Some laws come out against Jews but they're relatively minor, so people shift uncomfortably but try to ignore it. Soldiers start marching in the street every so often. You stop to watch, see some few people cheering fanatically. You find it odd and a little bit disturbing, but there's a first time for everything, right? You go home and tell yourself it'll pass.
Then you read news about some people getting assaulted. You start seeing the marches every day. Everyone starts saluting and cheering as they pass by and, if you don't, you get angry stares and veiled whispers. A month later, people who aren't saluting are getting attacked. Cops no longer help, even if they are standing five feet away. The number anti-Jewish laws is rising with astonishing frequency and with ever-increasing harshness. Suddenly, taking a walk around the countryside isn't a pleasant diversion. Instead, you're looking nervously at every shadow, viewing any passerby with fear, and saluting any uniformed soldier as fast as you can, anything to unnoticed. You hate what's happened to the country, but you have to think of yourself and your family. Surely other people can oppose the regime without your help. Right?
This was how change happened. One small step at a time. In the Garden of Beasts captures this perfectly and illustrates why people did not and could not easily oppose Hitler within Germany itself. Things occurred so gradually that Germany became a nightmare bubble within which things were awful, but still seemed normal. To the outside world, it seemed preposterous that the people within Nazi Germany accepted the regime so completely and meekly. But it was a veil that was slowly put on. It got the point where you didn't even truly realize how abnormal things were given the slow progression. Hitler's dominance over the media, preventing the German people from seeing what the outside world was like, only added to this effect.
This book was really good. I had never seen the inner workings of Nazi Germany and its people before, and learning of it was incredibly illuminating. Similarly, seeing the ambassador try to subtly oppose it was quite interesting. Martha's path from pro-Nazi to pro-Soviet to becoming disillusioned with both was a compelling journey. Lastly, watching Hitler's regime slowly hoodwink the world and its own people was both disturbing and eye-opening.
If you've ever been curious about this part of history, I highly recommend this book to you. Though the subject matter is, y'know, Nazis, it wasn't as depressing as I thought it would be. Instead, it was a combination of having really great pacing, keeping you interested, and being incredibly informative. I was disappointed that it ended when it did. I had hoped that it would go into the life of the ambassador when Nazi Germany actually went to war, but that didn't happen. That was a different ambassador. I suppose I'll have to read another book for that, but I'm not sad I read this one. An unexpectedly great find.