Book review: Diplomatic dilemma in Nazi Germany

THE beasts in Erik Larson’s In The Garden of Beasts are the thugs, sadists and psychopaths of the Nazi Party that was remorselessly tightening its grip on power in Germany in 1933.

That year saw the appointment of a new US ambassador to Berlin, the garden of the title, which by July was under the illusion that Hitler was committed to peace.

When William Dodd arrived with his wife, Martha, son Bill Jnr and 24-year-old daughter, also Martha, the city was deceptively gay. Young Martha was seduced by "the warmth and friendliness of the people, the serenity of the streets".

An academic historian, Dodd was "anything but the typical candidate for a diplomatic post", writes Larson. "He wasn’t rich. He wasn’t politically influential." But he did speak German and knew the country well from his time as a student in Leipzig.

For the next year he and his family existed in a mostly uncomfortable middle ground, caught between the pro-German good old "club" of the diplomatic service in the US and the increasingly sinister and violent activities of the Nazis.

The book details their lives in that year, focusing mainly on father and daughter, simply because they recorded their thoughts and experiences, Dodd in a diary, Martha much later in an autobiography.

They entered a Germany that was already in acquiescence to the crimes of the National Socialists – most overtly in the form of the SA, the brownshirts, who bashed anyone who didn’t bend the knee.

Like many Americans, Dodd was willing to give the Nazis the benefit of the doubt. His daughter was even more of an apologist, and was carried away by the romantic thrill of danger.

She was wooed by the first head of the Gestapo, as well as a Soviet diplomat/spy and behaved in a manner that was fairly disreputable in the circumstances.

Dodd became ever more critical and outspoken. But he was a voice crying in the wilderness of an isolationist America.

 Using the Dodds as a lens through which to view the events of that year provides a unique insight into Berlin life, with a cast that includes Goebbels, Goring and Hitler himself. The diplomat and his family played a minor – and sad – part, but their story is a fascinating one.

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