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In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin - Erik Larson This is a compelling book covering a brief period of time from the early 1930’s to 1937-38. It highlights the ascent to power of one of the most diabolical minds of modern time and explains how and why he was able to assume the “throne” in Germany and attempt to annihilate the population of the world that was not purely, perfect Aryan.
It was during this time, over a period of just over four years, that William Dodd served the government of FDR and moved to Berlin as the United States Ambassador to Germany. He was 64 years old and really wanted to remain in America, retire and complete his memoir, “Old South”, but he felt he owed it to his family and his country to accept. Living in Germany, with his wife, Martha, and two children, an adult son and daughter, both namesakes of their parents, William and Martha Dodd, he tried to warn FDR and the diplomatic staff about what he believed was coming down the pike, but was thwarted at every turn. He lived a humble life, not born with a silver spoon as most diplomats were and was the object of their scorn and ridicule; his attempts to warn the government about the horrors in Germany, were often undermined by the others in the diplomatic corps. His brief sojourn pretty much sucked the life from this well-meaning, but ill-equipped, sincere representative of the government. His prescient remarks, often laughed at, proved to have been correct, and if heeded, might have altered the turn of events and prevented the genocide that occurred as Hitler attempted to rule the world.
From the prologue, the author had me. I had assumed the history of Hitler’s Nazi Germany might be a bit dry, but not so, this book is liquid, fluid, hot lava…igniting my thoughts and my interest. I think the writing style and organization will be less important, in the end, than the information and message delivered, however, both are superb. The book takes place predominantly through the period of 1933-1934, although it does extend in the last few dozen pages into 1937-8 very briefly.
Wiliam Dodd was a mild mannered academic and gentleman who was asked by FDR, to be Ambassador to Germany in 1933, almost as a last resort, because no one else would accept the position in a country many believed was undergoing a radical change, with increasing violence, under the leadership of the new Chancellor, Adolf Hitler. Already, in that early part of the decade of the thirties, the evil and brutality of Hitler and his thugs was well known but kept hidden for political and diplomatic purposes. The leaders of the free world would soon rue their decisions not to challenge him when they had the opportunity.
Dodd was naïve and largely unaware of the daunting task before him, as he set sail on July 5, 1933. He did know, however, that anti-Semitism was commonplace and acceptable in many places in our country, as well as abroad; his instructions were basically to do what he could to alleviate the brutality against them but not to interfere in the overall German policies toward Jews.
William Dodd remained in character: bookish, professorial and also naïve. He was improperly briefed as to what to expect. The evidence of Hitler’s atrocities and madness, were only beginning to show themselves and they were not obvious in the center of major cities but rather in outlying areas. Jews were in small numbers in major cities, but already there were laws governing their activities and employment. The ambassador, in typical liberal academician fashion, sought to allay the fears these demonstrations aroused and to spin the stories so that they were not so unfavorable, but were rather aberrations. He even tried to quell them entirely to keep them from the public eye. He believed that the horror stories he was told about how Jews were treated were grossly exaggerated and also believed that it was not the job of the United States to be involved. He believed diplomacy was the only way to deal with problems. At first, he did not believe in making waves. Eventually, Dodd realized that his misgivings about Germany were growing, and he could no longer dismiss the brutality of Hitler and his henchmen, but it was already, too late; the train had left the station and the Holocaust was inevitable.
As Hitler rose in power, anyone daring to speak out against his regime, risked being arrested, tortured, imprisoned or murdered. They might simply disappear. Programs were enacted to create and enhance an atmosphere of fear, tension, terror. Everyone knew they could be in mortal danger for no apparent reason other than the caprice of a government flunky or a jealous neighbor who might take notice of them. Timing could be everything and the timing of the world in its response to Germany’s Hitler was abysmal. This is a wonderful book and a lesson to humanity that “he, who hesitates, may indeed be lost.”