America’s Foresight of Hitler’s Germany

Erik Larson, who wrote 'The Devil in the White City' is the author of a chilling non-fiction account of an American ambassador's 'education' in Hitler's Berlin, 'In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin'.

Within a week of its publication in May, Erik Larson's "In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin" (Crown, 464 pages, $26 ) had already rocketed to the top of the New York Times' non-fiction best-seller list, where it has hovered ever since. That's no surprise: The book is a riveting and masterfully written account of the time William E. Dodd spent as American ambassador to Nazi Germany. Dodd arrived in Berlin with his family in July 1933, less than a half-year after Adolf Hitler's appointment as chancellor. It is the diaries of Dodd, a straitlaced university historian, and of Martha, his daughter, that serve as the cornerstone for Larson's research. Martha, in her mid-20s, and excited by the "revolutionary" atmosphere in the capital, was an attractive, intelligent and liberated woman who seemed to cast a spell on most men who crossed her path. These included an early head of the Gestapo, a Soviet diplomat (and spy ), Carl Sandburg, and, back in the U.S., her estranged banker husband. One friend even arranged for her to have something of a date with Hitler, though the lack of interest was mutual.

Larson, 57, the author of the mega-best-selling "The Devil in the White City," focuses on the first, critical year the Dodds were in Germany, through the chilling last weekend in June 1934, when Hitler personally oversaw the arrest and murder of the leadership of the Storm Trooper paramilitary militia led by his former ally and friend Ernst Roehm, which threatened his total control of Germany. A month later, President Paul von Hindenburg was dead, and Hitler consolidated his grip on power by having himself declared Fuehrer. Both William and Martha Dodd were obsessive and gifted keepers of diaries, which illustrate how, gradually, they came to understand how Hitler's brutality and lawlessness posed a threat to world peace. This was not a popular message back home, particularly in the State Department, where Dodd's superiors castigated him for not ingratiating himself with the Nazi regime. Their principal concern was Germany's repayment of some $1 billion in loans owed to U.S. banks.

Erik Larson
Benjamin Benschneider

Both father and daughter held mildly anti-Semitic opinions, something, Larson tells us, that was characteristic and even socially acceptable among many well-bred Americans. Nonetheless, the virulence of what they encountered in Germany shocked them both, and by the time he returned to the United States, in late 1937, Dodd was committed to spreading the alarm about Hitler. Haaretz spoke with Erik Larson by phone from his home in Seattle, Washington.

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 Both William Dodd and Martha, his daughter, referred to what was happening in Germany when they arrived as a "revolution." Why did they see it this way?

 That term was new to me too. From the Dodds' perspective, it was an upwelling. Martha was relating it to the youth of Germany, with their adoration of Hitler, and this kind of strange superheated nationalist pride. Of course, she underwent a very significant transformation in that first year. But when she first got there, whether it was perversity or whatever, she was enthralled by what she called the "Nazi Revolution," and she was willing to overlook such things as that poor young woman [who had had a relationship with a Jewish man] she saw being dragged through the streets of Nuremberg. But she opens her eyes eventually.

 You found an amazing character in Martha. How do you feel about her?

 She is amazing. She's what pulled the trigger for me in terms of doing the book. I liked Dodd's story - this homespun mild-mannered college professor, who suddenly gets propelled into this world. But that alone was not enough to hang a whole book on. When I came across his daughter's memoir, and I saw she did have this initial enthusiasm about the Nazi revolution, I thought to myself, wow, this is what I need. I thought there was something very Grimmsian about it: Two naive people entering the dark forest, and things get darker and darker and darker. And they eventually wake up to what's really going on. Now, if you're asking me, Do I like Martha? Not really. I would never want to have a daughter like her, but as a person to write about, she's just ideal. She's kind of flighty, kind of flirty, kind of manipulative with men. The contemporary reaction to Martha is totally across the spectrum. From women who see her as a prototype of a modern liberated female, to old farts who see her as just kind of a cheap slut.

 Do you not think the U.S. could have done something to stop Hitler? After all, when Dodd arrived, the war was still more than six years off.

 It's very easy, from the perspective of today, with the power of hindsight, to say, Roosevelt should have been more courageous. What would it have cost him, in 1933, to get out there in public and attack Hitler openly in a powerful speech? But, back in '33-'34, the nation was locked in the Depression, and the political opposition to Roosevelt was really pretty intense. The isolationists were really gaining steam - no one wanted another war. Hindsight says, yeah, he could have done something. And who knows, it could have had a powerful effect, because Hitler was very sensitive to public opinion in this period, as was the entire Reich hierarchy. And the best evidence of this is how persistently they sought to end that mock trial [of Hitler organized by the American Jewish Congress in 1934] in New York, and how furious that made them. But we can't really appreciate the depths of fear and personal distress that existed at that time. Roosevelt's priority was to get this country back on track fiscally and economically. Anything that would put that off was to be completely avoided. What do you think?

 My parents told me that at the time, they saw Roosevelt as a demigod. But we can see even today that the president can't just do whatever he wants. And as you describe it, Roosevelt was up against a snakepit of pettiness and passivity in the State Department.

 The most telling thing to me was the fact that, at the end of the first year, you have the "Night of the Long Knives," you know, this convulsive spasm of evil that overtakes Germany for 48 to 72 hours [as Hitler purges the Storm Troopers], and longer. Here's this thing that Dodd is going through, and everyone else is going through - and back at the State Department, all they care about is the debt. The blood has not yet stopped flowing and they're on Dodd's case to get back on the case.

Nonetheless, in this early phase, nobody, I daresay, could have forecast what was going to come down the pike. I don't even think anybody in the State Department perceived Hitler to be a viable military threat to the world. Let's remember that the regular army in Germany in 1933-34 numbered only 100,000 people. Also, one very strong view at the time was that Hitler could not possibly last. Germany had too much sense. How could somebody as crazy as Hitler survive? How could he survive Germany's own economic problems. How could he survive even this drought that came in that summer of 1934? As far as Dodd was concerned, the drought should have been the last nail in Hitler's coffin.

 How did you go about researching "Garden of the Beasts"?

 I relied mostly on primary sources. After reading Dodd's diary and Martha's memoir, I knew that the two narrative engines in the book were going to be their respective journeys. But then you need the additional material to flesh it out, to see what they were hearing and seeing and experiencing. And in Martha's case, she has 70 linear feet of documents she deposited in Library of Congress. That was incredibly valuable, especially the collection of all the love letters - especially her love letters from her Russian lover, Boris, who worked for the Soviet Embassy.

 Anti-Semitism seems to have been endemic not just to Germany, but also to American society at that time. Do you have a sense of where this came from?

 I was really startled: This ambient anti-Semitism was just taken for granted. There's this really quite shocking, from the current perspective, acceptance of Jews as lesser or distasteful. Martha herself confesses, that when she arrived in Berlin, and in her college and high school career, she embraced all the stereotypes that everyone else had. And Dodd too.

Two astonishing things about Dodd. One is when he writes back to the State Department complaining that he has too many Jews on his staff, and that it's impairing his ability to deal with the Nazi hierarchy. But even more shocking is in his second formal meeting with Hitler, when he tries to find common ground with him. Dodd says, we have our own troubles with Jews in America, but we have chosen to resolve them in a humane fashion. Hitler doesn't buy it at all. He loses it and tells Dodd that, if the Jews keep this up, he will "put an end" to all of them. And there we have another whiff of the coming Holocaust.

 But if you can't conceive of where the ambient anti-Semitism in the U.S came from then, what about the virulent and overwhelming Jew-hatred in Germany?

 But even there it's complicated. You have members of the Nazi party, sort of a self-selected group, who really did embody this virulent hatred of Jews. But then you have the rest of Germany - and here I'm quoting the work of Sir Ian Kershaw, who has written that for most Germans, anti-Semitism was not that big an issue, it was an abstract thing, as most people didn't even have contact with Jews. Because so few Jews lived in Germany, relative to the overall German population, and most lived in the big cities. So what you had was this core within the Nazi hierarchy, and this core of Nazi Party members, and of course the Storm Troopers, who really were virulent anti-Semites. But then you had a vast sea of ordinary Germans who really didn't think much about it at all. So what do you make of that?

 Maybe, that things didn't have to turn out as they did. If Hitler had been assassinated, or somebody had stood up to him - if history had taken a different turn, the Holocaust didn't have to happen.

 I don't think you can say that. Let's say someone stepped up and shot Hitler in 1934. Who's going to take his place? Well, you have either Goering or Goebbels. Or Ernst Roehm. These were not happy people, in terms of their views about Jews. I think it's likely there would still have been a world war. But if you ask, would there be a Holocaust, that gets into different territory. Because you have to ask: Who were the architects of the Holocaust? Who was the driving force behind it? And I think you have to come back to Hitler on that. It's fundamental and early with him - you have to come back to Mein Kampf, his fundamental hatred of Jews. Even to say to Dodd in 1933, as he did, that "I will put an end to them," suggests that this idea was on his mind even back then. But how can we even engage in this kind of speculation? Who knows?

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