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In Larson’s Garden: Ten notes

Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, just out in paperback, is the best book I’ve read since Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption. In truth, I’m afraid it may be the first book I’ve read front to back since Unbroken, but still…

When I finished Unbroken I offered 10 notes on it in “The improbable lives of Louis Zamperini.” I want to do the same for Larson’s Garden. More than anything I want to urge you to read the book. Almost every page has something interesting on it. I found the book easy to read and hard to put down.

1. I was motivated to read Larson’s book by Janet Maslin’s New York Times review. She gives a good sense of the book’s merits without quite conveying its richness. Coincidentally, Maslin also has a good review of Unbroken.

2. The subject of Larson’s book is the American ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, and his daughter, Martha, from the time Dodd was offered the ambassador’s job by President Roosevelt in 1933 until the Night of the Long Knives in May 1934. Dodd was something like Roosevelt’s fourth choice for the job, it having been turned down by several others before Dodd’s name bubbled up. Dodd knew Germany and spoke German, but he was an academic historian with expertise on the old South, not Germany. He was chairman of the history department at the University of Chicago when he answered the call to serve. Dodd was torn about taking the job. He wanted to complete his magnum opus, The Old South. Like Edward Causaubon’s Key to All Mythologies in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, it was not to be. (What was Dodd’s attitude to the antebellum South? Larson never does give any sense of Dodd’s thinking about it.)

3. Larson tightens the focus of the book to Dodd and Martha over their first year in Berlin, taking liberties no novelist could. He almost completely ignores Dodd’s wife and Dodd’s son, who remain ciphers in the book, and he trusts that his readers have sufficient knowledge of Nazi Germany to fill in the background of Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 and the rest of the history after mid-1934.

4. Roosevelt had asked Dodd truly to represent the United States under difficult circumstances. Larson gives us Hitler and the Nazi regime in mid-1933 when the future was an open question. If you were Dodd, how long would it have taken you to size up Hitler in power? To give up the hope that the exercise of power might temper him or show his previously stated ambitions to be rhetorical? To give up the hope that competing forces might overthrow him? Larson lets the reader see the regime through Dodd’s eyes as he attempted to sort things out and discharge his duties on behalf of the United States.

5. Dodd is a decent man and a good character, but Martha Dodd is absolutely luminescent. A character beyond fiction, she lights up the book. As Maslin has it, she is “an indiscriminate flirt who looked at a stint in Germany as a glamorous lark, and whose own abundant writing fills [the book] with outré remarks.” Among her affairs in Berlin are one with Rudolf Diels, then the head of the Gestapo, and one with Boris Vinogradov, a KGB agent, whom she seems actually to have loved. Henry James, call your office!

Vinogradov inspired Martha to tour the Soviet Union. She found the charms of the country eminently resistible, though she also seems rather obviously to have been recruited to the service of the KGB. When the authorities came calling in the 1950′s, Martha fled with her husband to Mexico and then to Prague. Larson leaves a number of threads hanging on this score.

6. Dodd had a great moment on the occasion of Columbus Day in October 1933, when he gave a speech before the Berlin branch of the American Chamber of Commerce. Larson writes: “His plan was to use history to telegraph criticism of the Nazi regime, but obliquely so that only those in the audience with a good grasp of ancient and modern history would understand the underlying message. In America a speech of that nature would have seemed anything but heroic; amid the mounting oppression of Nazi rule, it was positively daring.” Dodd explained in a letter to Jane Addams: “It was because I had seen so much injustice and domineering little groups, as well as heard the complaints of so many best people in the country, that I ventured as far as my position would allow and by historical analogy warned men as solemnly as possible against half-educated leaders being permitted to lead nations into war.”

7. Dodd’s few meetings with Hitler in the period covered by the book are fascinating. In March 1934, for example, Dodd is instructed to meet with Hitler to take up the subject of Nazi propaganda unleashed in the United States. Hitler brushed off Dodd’s complaint as representing — shocker! — “Jewish lies.” Hitler became enraged and exclaimed: “Damn the Jews!” Dodd sought to moderate Hitler by advising him on the American approach to the Jewish problem: “You know a number of high positions in our country are occupied by Jews, both in New York and Illinois.” He named several “eminent fair-minded Hebrews” including Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau. Dodd explained to Hitler “that where the question of over-activity of Jews in university or official life made trouble, we had managed to redistribute the offices in such a way as not to give great offense…” In his memorandum on the meeting, Dodd explained: “My idea was to suggest a different procedure from what has been followed here — of course never giving pointed advice.” Larson does not pass judgment on Dodd’s approach, but it’s a low point.

8. Hitler did not respond favorably to Dodd’s advice to take the subtle approach. Hitler shot back that “59 percent of all offices in Russia were held by Jews; that they had ruined the country and that they intended to ruin Germany.” More furious now than ever, Hitler proclaimed: “If they continue their activity, we shall make a complete end to all of them in this country.” Larson comments: “It was a strange moment. Here was Dodd, the humble Jeffersonian schooled to view statesmen as rational creatures, seated before the leader of one of Europe’s great nations as that leader grew nearly hysterical and threatened to destroy a portion of his own population. It was extraordinary, utterly alien to his own experience.”

9. Hitler praised Roosevelt in a letter he wrote to him that month. Hitler commended Roosevelt’s efforts to restore America’s economy and stated that “duty, readiness for sacrifice, and discipline” were virtues that should be dominant in any culture. These moral demands which the President places before every individual citizen of the United States are also the quintessence of the German State philosophy which finds its expression in the slogan The Public Weal Transcends the Interests of the Individual.” The State Department puzzled over how best to respond. In his diary one high-ranking State Department official wrote: “We sought to sidestep the impression that the President was becoming a Fascist.”

10. If you had been an American in Berlin in 1933, what would you have seen? What would you have said? What would you have done? What conclusions would you have drawn? These are a few of the questions that are raised implicitly on every page of Larson’s utterly compelling book.

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