Book Review: “In the Garden of Beasts” by Erik Larson 5/20/12
Among the questions I have about the Nazi era are the questions: how and why the German people let the Nazis come to power. Also the question why the international community, including America, failed to see the danger. Erik Larson’s book “In the Garden of Beasts” suggests some answers. It tells the story of the early Nazi Germany years.
The subtitle of the book is “Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin”. Larson centers the narrative around the experience of the first American ambassador to Germany during the Nazi years, William E. Dodd. FDR appointed Dodd to his post in 1933. Dodd brought his wife, son, and daughter along with him to Germany. The book reads more like a memoir than history.
Larson focuses particularly on Dodd’s daughter, Martha. A free spirit, Martha was 21 when she arrived in Germany. She had a wide social circle that included a number of lovers of very different political persuasions. Initially Martha was smitten with the Nazis. She saw Germany as in the midst of a historic rebirth.
It would appear that cheery view was widely shared inside and outside Germany. In the early 1930’s, many visitors to Germany succumbed to that view. Larson shows how the Nazis were sensitive to public relations and tried to hide their violence. They arrested tens of thousands of people on no specific charges. These people, mostly Social Democrats, Communists, and Jews were held in so-called “protective custody”. According to Larson, in the very early Nazi period, an estimated 500-700 prisoners died in custody after enduring mock drownings and hangings. There was no German ACLU-equivalent nor was there a free press to publicize any of it. Nobody wrote about it on Twitter.
While there was international concern by 1933 about Nazi violence, many political observers did not think the Nazis would survive politically. That perception led to inaction. People like Dodd’s daughter, Martha, thought Nazi opponents were hysterical. They saw a Berlin that looked relatively normal.
I was struck by the acceptance of anti-semitism on all sides. Jews only comprised a tiny percentage of the German population, about 1%, which made them an easier group to scapegoat. As of 1933, Hitler and the Nazis did not lay all their anti-semitic cards out on the table. It got more vicious over time. In the United States, there was disbelief about the reports of Nazi brutality. The Nazis benefited from the mistaken perception that no civilized country would act as the Nazis were accused of acting. Many thought Nazi opponents exaggerated.
Early on the Nazis were organizing boycotts of all Jewish businesses in Germany; they did book burnings, suppressed a free press and caused Jews to be fired from their occupations. Ambassador Dodd was not taken in. He had a visceral dislike of the Nazis. Unlike much of the U.S. diplomatic elite which was like a preppie club, Dodd was a not wealthy academic. Still he too shared in the anti-semitism. Larson quotes Dodd. While Dodd did not approve of the Nazi ruthlessness, he wrote:
“When I have occasion to speak unofficially to eminent Germans I have said very frankly that they had a very serious problem but that they did not seem to know how to solve it. The Jews had held a great many more of the key positions in Germany than their numbers or their talents entitled them to.” (p.39 “In the Garden of Beasts”)
From the perspective of 2012, Dodd’s views are reprehensible but his views were not out of the mainstream then. Larson cites American public opinion polls from the 1930’s. In one poll, 41% of Americans polled believed Jews had too much power in the U.S.. Another found 20% wanted to drive Jews out of the U.S. The Jewish community in the U.S. was divided about how to respond to the Nazis. Rabbi Stephen Wise, among other Jewish leaders, pushed FDR to speak out. Other leaders aligned with the American Jewish Committee counselled a quieter response. Both factions were afraid to push for an increase in Jewish immigration to America. FDR was afraid of the political cost of condemning the Nazis. He worried how allowing an influx of Jewish refugees would play. America remained in economic depression.
Larson shows the deep division within the Roosevelt Administration. While the Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins (by the way, the first woman in American history to hold a cabinet position), favored helping the Jews so more could emigrate, the State Department decidedly did not favor that position.Larson quotes two State Department officials to give a flavor of the the anti-semitic attitudes common in that department. William Phillips, undersecretary of state, loved visiting Atlantic City. He wrote in his diary:
“The place is infested with Jews. In fact, the whole beach scene on Saturday afternoon and Sunday was an extraordinary sight – very little sand to be seen, the whole beach covered by slightly clothed Jews and Jewesses.” (p. 30 “In the Garden of Beasts”)
He also quotes Wilbur Carr, an assistant secretary of state who had overall charge of the consular service. Carr called Jews “kikes”. In a memorandum, he wrote about Jews as follows:
“They are filthy, unAmerican and often dangerous in their habits. After a trip to Detroit, he described the city as being full of “dust, smoke, dirt, Jews” ” (p. 30 “In the Garden of Beasts”)
Early on Dodd wanted to believe the Nazis would evolve toward moderation. He recognized there was internal struggle inside the Nazi Party. Dodd met with Germany’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Konstantin Freiherr von Neurath, whom he perceived as a moderate. Neurath believed he could train the Nazis and turn them into moderate nationalists. Larson quoted Dodd as finding Neurath “most agreeable”. Dodd continued to hold false hopes the Nazis would moderate, another unfortunate delusion. Rather than people like Neurath moderating the beasts, the beasts outfoxed him and people like him.
At the same time, Dodd was dealing with cases of Americans being attacked on German streets by storm troopers who were always marching around. The continuing flow of these cases which typically featured gratuitous violence by the Nazis, weighed on Dodd. The Nazis would stomp people who they perceived as looking Jewish or for failing to give Nazi salutes. Dodd also had to deal with the press case of Edgar Mowrer, the Berlin correspondent for the Chicago Daily News. The Nazis wanted Mowrer gone because of his critical reporting. The last thing they wanted was a free press. The Nazis threatened Mowrer. Dodd played a secondary role in persuading Mowrer to leave Germany.
Larson emphasizes the role of a government campaign called Gleichschaltung in bringing more Germans into line with the Nazis. Gleichschaltung means “coordination”. It is very reminiscent of the Eugene Ionesco play “Rhinoceros” and also the movie “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”. To quote Larson:
” “Coordination” occurred with astonishing speed, even in sectors of life not directly targeted by specific laws, as Germans willingly placed themselves under the sway of Nazi rule, a phenomenon that became known as Selbsgleichschaltung or “self-coordination”. Change came to Germany so quickly and across such a wide front that German citizens who left the country for business or travel returned to find everything around them altered, as if they were characters in a horror movie who come back to find that people who once were their friends, clients, patients and customers have become different in ways hard to discern.” (p. 56-57 “In the Garden of Beasts”)
By the spring of 1934, Martha Dodd’s sympathy toward the regime had turned into revulsion. She saw Hitler leading what she perceived as docile and kindly masses into another war. Ambassador Dodd also became increasingly horrified. Later in 1934 both the Ambassador and Martha lived through Hitler’s purge known as “The Night of the Long Knives”. The book presents an up close and personal view of how Hitler orchestrated a purge of Rohm and other storm troopers. Larson says 284 Nazis and others were executed by Hitler.
There was little public reaction to the Night of the Long Knives. Hitler claimed, without evidence, that he had suppressed an imminent rebellion. The controlled German press praised Hitler for this mass murder. Instead of protest, there was silence. Hitler’s popularity skyrocketed. It was a prelude of what was to come.
Dodd noted the irony that the German people remained fanatically committed to love of animals, especially horses and dogs. German law forbade cruelty to animals. Violators could get jail time. Dodd wrote:
“At a time when hundreds of men have been put to death without trial or any sort of evidence of guilt, and when the population literally trembles with fear, animals have rights guaranteed them which men and women cannot think of expecting. He added, “One might easily wish he were a horse.” ” (p. 336 “In the Garden of Beasts”)
“In the Garden of Beasts” is a good read. It conveys the feel of life in Berlin in the early 30’s, first-rate sketches of prominent Nazis, and a fascinating story that is hard to put down. I do think the book offers up some lessons for all who do not want to be a part of any Gleichschaltung. Here is what I gleaned:
1. The road to fascism and authoritarianism is a road of multiple incremental steps. The worst did not arrive full-blown. Each incremental step prepared the way for the next.
2. The Nazis were concerned about public opinion and preferred to reinforce existing prejudice rather than change anyone’s mind. They wanted the masses to internalize their anti-semitism and they worked to build hate gradually.. It is what one historian called “cumulative radicalization”.
3. As sick as it sounds, the German people were led to see themselves as participating in a noble rebirth of their country. The Nazis sold the myth that they were restoring a sense of national pride and many people bought in.
4. Anti-semitism was rife on all sides. Both Germans and Americans shared the prejudice. While the Nazis were the perpetrators, too often many Americans held similar underlying views. They certainly failed to respond to the increase in anti-semitism and never offered any safe harbor for those being persecuted in Europe.
5. Americans were slow to recognize the evil of Nazism. Division about how to respond to fascism, delusions about the Nazis, pro-Nazi isolationists, and American anti-semitism led to inaction and a delayed response to a genuine threat.
i will end with a quote from Toivi Blatt, who survived the death camps. He had been forced by the Nazis to work in Sobibor. He risked his life to escape:
“People asked me, “What did you learn?” and I think I’m only sure of one thing – nobody knows themselves. The nice person on the street, you ask him, Where is North Street?” and he goes with you half a block and shows you, and is nice and kind. The same person in a different situation could be the worst sadist. Nobody knows themselves. All of us could be good people or bad people in these (different) situations. Sometimes when somebody is really nice to me I find myself thinking, “How will he be in Sobibor?” ” (from Auschwitz by Lawrence Rees p. xx )