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

Erik Lar­son

By – October 31, 2011

Erik Lar­son, the best­selling author of The Dev­il in the White City, focus­es his metic­u­lous­ly researched new book on the first few years of Hitler’s ascen­dan­cy to pow­er as expe­ri­enced by the new­ly appoint­ed Amer­i­can ambas­sador to Berlin and his fam­i­ly. William E. Dodd was a pro­fes­sor of Amer­i­can his­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go when Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt appoint­ed him to that impor­tant post. Dodd took his fam­i­ly to Berlin, includ­ing his twen­ty-four-year-old beau­ti­ful, charm­ing, and sex­u­al­ly adven­tur­ous daugh­ter Martha. Martha Dodd was ulti­mate­ly entranced by the Nazi rev­o­lu­tion — the pomp and ener­gy of the new Ger­many, the hand­some young men of the Third Reich, the lush par­ties and the intrigue of Berlin. Many men court­ed her and found her eager­ly respon­sive. Her lovers includ­ed Rudolph Diels, the young first chief of the Gestapo; the writer Thomas Wolfe, when he came to Berlin; a Ger­man fly­ing ace; a French diplo­mat; and most impor­tant, Boris Wino­gradrov, who was con­nect­ed to the Sovi­et Embassy. I tried in a self-con­scious way to jus­ti­fy the actions of the Nazis, to insist that we should not con­demn with­out know­ing the whole sto­ry,” she wrote in her mem­oir. To a friend she said, We sort of don’t like the Jews anyway.”

In this opin­ion she echoed the gen­er­al sen­ti­ment that pre­vailed at home. Pub­lic opin­ion was iso­la­tion­ist and there was a ris­ing tide of anti-Semi­tism that man­i­fest­ed in the emer­gence of fas­cist move­ments, vio­lence, intim­i­da­tion, and oppo­si­tion to open­ing the doors to Ger­man-Jew­ish refugees. The State Depart­ment was filled with anti-Semi­tes like William Phillips, Under­sec­re­tary of State, and Wilbur J. Carr, an Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of State, in charge of the con­sular ser­vices, who were inclined to let the Nazis have their way with the Jews. Her father, increas­ing­ly skep­ti­cal and out­raged by what he was wit­ness­ing, voiced his con­cern to a large­ly indif­fer­ent State Depart­ment and watched with alarm as Jews were arrest­ed, the press cen­sored, and drafts of new laws that dis­crim­i­nat­ed and ulti­mate­ly dis­en­fran­chised Jews were pro­posed and imple­ment­ed. William Dodd, who at first thought that Hitler could be con­trolled, soon real­ized that they were liv­ing in a gar­den of beasts” intent on war, dom­i­na­tion, and destruction.

Even­tu­al­ly, Martha also became dis­il­lu­sioned with the Nazis and was recruit­ed by Sovi­et intel­li­gence, a rela­tion­ship that con­tin­ued when she returned to the Unit­ed States in 1938. She became promi­nent in Com­mu­nist caus­es and fled to Mex­i­co in 1953 when sub­poe­naed by the House Com­mit­tee on Un-Amer­i­can Activities.

Lar­son, a mas­ter of his­tor­i­cal non­fic­tion, has writ­ten a fas­ci­nat­ing book that flesh­es out many of the key play­ers in Hitler’s ascen­dan­cy to pow­er through the lens­es of these inno­cents abroad” as they come to real­ize the dan­gers of the gath­er­ing storm. He pro­vides new insight into the ques­tion of how ordi­nary Ger­mans will­ing­ly allowed them­selves to be brought in line with Nazi ide­ol­o­gy and pol­i­cy. The book, although care­ful­ly researched and doc­u­ment­ed, reads like a polit­i­cal thriller. It is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed to any­one inter­est­ed in the rise of the Third Reich and America’s role in that process.

Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Ran­dom House. Guide com­piled by Amy Clement. Click here to view the com­plete read­ing group guide.

  1. In his pro­logue (“Das Vor­spiel”), Erik Lar­son writes, There are no heroes here, at least not of the Schindler’s List vari­ety, but there are glim­mers of hero­ism.” What hero­ism did you find in this his­to­ry? Who were the great­est cowards?
  2. Dis­cuss the sig­nif­i­cance of the title, derived from a lit­er­al trans­la­tion of the word Tier­garten. What is cap­tured in the decep­tive beau­ty of the gar­den, a refuge for many of the men and women described in the book? What does it take to trans­form a beau­ti­ful crea­ture into a beast”?
  3. How was Martha able to appear youth­ful, even vir­ginal, yet also sophis­ti­cat­ed? What made her attrac­tive to such a broad vari­ety of men, from lit­er­ary fig­ures to mil­i­tary lead­ers? What type of man was she most attract­ed to? How did these men com­pare to her father? 
  4. Study­ing for his doc­tor­ate the­sis in Leipzig, Dodd researched Amer­i­can his­to­ry while he was a stu­dent far from his home­land. Return­ing to Ger­many decades lat­er, what did he dis­cov­er about his home­land by look­ing at it as an outsider? 
  5. Lar­son describes Roosevelt’s strug­gle when no one would take the job as U.S. ambas­sador to Ger­many. Would you have accept­ed the job if you had been in Dodd’s situation? 
  6. Was Dodd’s lack of wealth a help or a hin­drance as an ambas­sador, espe­cial­ly in a time of eco­nom­ic depres­sion? Would Hitler have been more intim­i­dat­ed by an Amer­i­can ambas­sador who lived lavishly? 
  7. Dodd was repeat­ed­ly remind­ed that his biggest con­cern should be whether Ger­many would default on its mas­sive debt to the Unit­ed States. Why didn’t Wash­ing­ton link Messersmith’s warn­ings to America’s eco­nom­ic inter­ests? Do eco­nom­ic con­cerns still over­shad­ow human rights in for­eign pol­i­cy today? Are eco­nom­ics and human rights depen­dent on each other?
  8. William Dodd longed to have time to write a com­plete his­to­ry of the rise and fall of America’s Old South, the land of his ances­tors. He also became embroiled in con­tro­ver­sy when he taught at Ran­dolph-Macon Col­lege and tried to expose unsa­vory aspects of the Con­fed­er­a­cy. How did his spe­cial­iza­tion in South­ern his­to­ry iron­i­cal­ly help him nav­i­gate Hitler’s Germany?
  9. . In the Gar­den of Beasts cap­tures the years when out­siders refused to believe Hitler was any­thing more than a pass­ing sideshow. Dodd even sym­pa­thized with Hitler’s belief that the Ver­sailles Treaty gave Ger­many a raw deal, and that Amer­i­can banks were charg­ing Ger­many unfair inter­est rates. With­out the ben­e­fit of hind­sight, what would you have believed about the polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in Ger­many in the ear­ly 1930s?
  10. How was it pos­si­ble for Dodd and Messer­smith to have such dif­fer­ent per­cep­tions of the same circumstances?
  11. Dis­cuss Martha’s rela­tion­ship with Boris. What allure did the Sovi­et Union have for her? Why was she drawn to trav­el there?
  12. Dis­cuss the Dodds’ evolv­ing atti­tudes toward Jews. Would you have hes­i­tat­ed to pro­tect the Panof­sky fam­i­ly (the Dodds’ landlords)?
  13. What was the effect of the pow­er strug­gles with­in Hitler’s regime? How did para­noia both help and hin­der Hitler’s cause?
  14. Larson’s research sources com­prise more than forty pages. Look through this sec­tion and make obser­va­tions about the process he under­took to recon­struct this his­to­ry. How does it ben­e­fit a soci­ety to have free access to his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments? Is there such a thing as his­tor­i­cal truth”?
  15. Which aspects of life in Berlin sur­prised you the most as you read the Dodds’ sto­ry? How does this ver­sion com­pare to oth­ers you’ve read?
  16. What was Hitler’s for­mu­la for estab­lish­ing con­trol, despite lim­it­ed mil­i­tary and eco­nom­ic means? How did the slow buildup of pop­u­lar sup­port occur? What was the role of ran­dom arrests, pro­pa­gan­da, and a minor­i­ty scapegoat?
  17. The book’s sub­ti­tle is Love, Ter­ror, and an Amer­i­can Fam­i­ly in Hitler’s Berlin.” What fam­i­ly dynam­ic was at play in the Dodd house­hold over­seas? Against this back­drop, what forms of love thrived?
  18. Dis­cuss the book’s epi­logue, The Queer Bird in Exile.” What does Martha’s lega­cy as a fight­er for equal­i­ty say about her spir­it, and her tem­pera­ment? How did she final­ly over­come her naïveté? How would you have been affect­ed by an expe­ri­ence like hers in Berlin?