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January 21, 2012

“In The Garden of Beasts”

by Anne Paddock

Berlin has always captivated me because it was the first European city where I could see and feel the remnants from World War II and the Cold War.  The capital city isn’t known for its climate, especially in the winter when the weather can be harsh, the sky grey, and the days short but the weather is all but forgotten when walking through the streets because Berlin is really a dichotomy thanks to a series of events: World War II and the 28-year existence of the Berlin Wall which was torn down to the cheers of crowds in 1989.

Twenty three years later and Berlin can feel like old Europe or Chicago, depending in large part on which side of the city you happen to be standing.  A church bombed by the Allies in 1944 is just a few blocks from brand new skyscrapers which border vast acres of land once known as “no mans land.”  Berlin is a city that allows a visitor to feel like a time machine can take him or her to the edge of World War II and through the decades to the 21st century, and that is extraordinary.

By most accounts, Berlin was a bustling, sophisticated city back in the early 1930’s with a beautiful park – the Tiergarten – straddling the bustling neighborhoods and offering a respite to walkers, horseback riders, and those who appreciate nature. Germany was still paying back vast sums of money to the US and European countries for World War I when 84-year old Paul Von Hindenburg beat Adolf Hitler in a run-off presidential election in 1932. Recognizing that support for the government was diminishing for a variety of reasons, Von Hindenburg appointed Hitler Chancellor of Germany in 1933, setting the stage for the rise of the Nazi Party.

The German President had the power to appoint and remove a Chancellor and his cabinet at will and equally as important, the President controlled the German Army called the Reichswehr. In establishing a power base to further it’s agenda, the Nazi Party organized and recruited party members for three types of “military” positions: the brown uniform suited SA (Sturmabteilung or Storm Troopers), the black suited elite SS (Schutzstaffel), and the blue suited local police force. In 1933, these forces, guided by Hitler and endorsed by the President of Germany (until his death in 1934) began a reign of terror that would eventually lead to WWII.

A few weeks ago, I was listening to NPR when a commentator introduced “Erik Larson” who recently published a book called “In The Garden Of Beasts.” He spoke at length about his book which is primarily devoted to the years 1933-1934 when Hitler became Chancellor and a new American Ambassador to Germany – William Dodd, a history professor from the University of Chicago – came to Berlin with his wife and two adult children to serve under Roosevelt.

The 375-page non-fiction book provides a detailed historical account of how a somewhat normal American family – for Dodd was not independently wealthy or a large donor to the Democratic party that received an ambassadorship as a token of gratitude – found themselves in Berlin during Hitler’s rise to power. At first naive, the entire Dodd family is caught up in their new life and responsibilities but as time progresses, the author methodically shows how Dodd comes to realize that Hitler was on a dark road to conquer Europe and the world. At the same time, Larson explains why the US was reluctant to step into “European squabbles” and it all came down to the vast amounts of money Germany was repaying to bondholders in the US, which Roosevelt was afraid would stop if Germany was taken to task. As the author so cleverly notes, putting a history professor in a garden of beasts has its advantages.

1932-1933 was a turning point in the Nazi regime and the years’ events are well chronicled in the first 340 pages of the book.  Although the sentence structure is simple and can be melodramatic, the details of life in Berlin for Dodd, his family, those in power, citizens, and tourists are covered extensively to give the reader an understanding of what was really going on.  Unfortunately, the book seems to jump from 1934 to 1936 in a page and the years from 1936-1938 are light given that Dodd retained his ambassadorship until December of 1938.

Duly noted is that the world knew what was going on in Germany because Dodd saw, knew and wrote extensively about:
  • the beatings of American tourists who didn’t know better and failed to “Heil Hitler” when passing an SS officer on the streets;
  • employment bans for Jews that were first enacted in 1934;
  • bans on journalistic freedom and threats to journalists;
  • laws to permit the euthanization of incurables, “imbeciles,” and those afflicted with physical handicaps; and
  • the terrorizing of anyone that spoke a word against the Nazi regime.
Sadly, the American public knew with the author citing the staging of a mock trial of Hitler organized by The American Jewish Congress along with other Jewish and anti-Nazi organizations at Madison Square Garden in March, 1934.  For anyone interested in understanding how the Nazi regime rose to power and why the US stood by (and Larson doesn’t go into the reasons why the rest of the world didn’t act), read “In The Garden Of Beasts.

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