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Book review: 'In the Garden of Beasts'

Erik Larson gives a firsthand look at Hitler's Berlin in the 1930s through the eyes of U.S. Ambassador William E. Dodd and his adult daughter.

June 20, 2011|By Jeff Bailey | Special to the Los Angeles Times

As the events leading up to World War II go, Franklin Roosevelt's 1933 appointment of a naïve history professor as ambassador to Germany — and the professor's decision to take his adventurous adult daughter with him — rank pretty low in importance. But in these lives, Erik Larson, author of "The Devil in the White City," finds a terrific storytelling vehicle, as William E. Dodd and his daughter, Martha, are initially taken with Adolf Hitler and his reinvigoration of Germany, and then slowly come to realize that nothing would stop Hitler from waging war and seeking to wipe out Europe's Jews.

Martha Dodd, a young woman with literary ambitions, became a lover, we are told, to the head of the Gestapo as well as Hitler's foreign press chief, who described her as "clearly a woman of sexual appetite" and tried unsuccessfully to arrange for her to become the Führer's lover. Add to that a Soviet diplomat who recruited her to spy for the KGB, though it doesn't seem she provided useful information.

Some of the liaisons were particularly risky for a diplomat's daughter. But Martha Dodd's romances gave Larson and his readers — thanks to the considerable written record she leaves behind — a more intimate portrait of 1930s Berlin than her father apparently experienced.

William Dodd, a University of Chicago historian, got the ambassadorship because so many others turned Roosevelt down. He was thrifty and critical of a State Department run by old-money elites who threw lavish parties abroad. He was almost immediately disliked by this group. Dodd complained about the cost of transmitting lengthy cables written by wordy underlings back to State Department bosses, boasted about cheaply throwing diplomatic parties and drove around Berlin in the Chevrolet he'd brought from Chicago.

Dodd did fit into the diplomatic corps in one regard: He seems to have been anti-Semitic, confiding to an American industrialist that "Jews had held a great many more of the key positions in Germany than their numbers or their talents entitled them to." Later, he complained that the Embassy staff had too many Jews. Martha was clearer on his views, in a letter to her friend Thornton Wilder, confessing: "We sort of don't like the Jews anyway."

The Dodds initially thought that Hitler would either be deposed as Germany came to its senses or that he would moderate his behavior. They refused to believe more experienced diplomats and journalists in Berlin who warned of the regime's brutality. In a letter to Roosevelt, Dodd said he disapproved of Hitler's treatment of Jews, but added, "I believe a people has a right to govern itself and that other peoples must exercise patience even when cruelties and injustices are done. Give men a chance to try their schemes."

Little by little, the Dodds' view changed. Brutal attacks on visiting Americans by Hitler's storm troopers, the growing persecution of Jews, and finally the frightening June 1934 purge, known as the Night of the Long Knives, in which Hitler had hundreds of government officials murdered, awakened them. Just a few months earlier, Dodd had met with Hitler, who became enraged on the topic of Jews. "Damn the Jews," he'd told Dodd, blaming them for any troubles between the U.S. and Germany. "If they continue their activity, we shall make a complete end to all of them in this country."

Dodd became strongly anti-Hitler, speaking out against the regime and warning of war ahead. His remarks angered his State Department bosses, who legitimately wondered how an ambassador not on speaking terms with his host government could be effective.

Recognizing his loss of influence, Dodd mulled quitting but didn't want to give his enemies the satisfaction. Instead, he was sacked, Roosevelt finally bowing to State Department demands to make a change. In failing health, Dobb returned to the U.S. and in 1938 managed a speaking tour to warn of Germany's war aims and of Hitler's plan "to kill" all the Jews. Months later, Kristallnacht, the open attack on Jews in Germany, occurred and the U.S. finally condemned Hitler's actions. Dodd died in 1940.

Martha Dodd and an American husband, labeled communists during the 1950s Red Scare in the United States, moved to Prague, where she lived until her death at age 82 in 1990.

Bailey, a former New York Times and Wall Street Journal reporter, is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

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