Book offers insight into rise of Nazi power before WWII

In the Garden of Beasts

By Repps Hudson Special to the Jewish Light

When touting the virtues of democracy, it’s always worth remembering that the Adolf Hitler came to power when Germany was a democracy during the Weimar Republic.

Erik Larson’s account of the years immediately following that monumental election, which brought the rise of the National Socialist German Workers Party (Nazi) in Europe’s most problematic country and ignited World War II, is spelled out here in riveting detail, thanks to his deft use of letters, diaries, diplomatic cables and the like.

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The central figures are U.S. Ambassador William E. Dodd and his family, primarily his daughter, Martha, who consorted with several senior Nazis, Bolsheviks and others she met through connections her diplomatic immunity provided.

Dodd was not a career diplomat, which was to his advantage, because he did not have the preconceived ideas about Germany of some of his State Department handlers.

In the early 1930s, the central issue was Germany’s reliability in making payments on the reparations allocated to it by the peace treaty that ended World War I.

Senior officials at State were much more concerned about whether Hitler’s government would honor its debt to U.S. creditors than any violence it might inflict on its own citizens.

Dodd also was somewhat naïve at first, as Hitler and the Nazis began to consolidate power. Later his views changed markedly as he witnessed violence on the streets of Berlin and other cities that Hitler’s Storm Troopers (the notorious SA) inflicted on ordinary Germans.

A University of Chicago history professor, Dodd wasn’t President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first choice for Berlin in the formative years of Hitler’s 12-year Reich.

For his day, Dodd had novel ideas about how diplomats should live and work. He was not wealthy, and he believed he should maintain the embassy on his modest salary.

Most diplomats at key capitals like Berlin were Ivy League-educated and from well-connected families. They were at their posts as much for the social life as to represent the president and provide accurate reports on politics, economics and so on. 

For four years, Dodd and his family kept the American embassy open as a place where all could gather.

The novelist Thomas Wolfe, who had a brief affair with Martha Dodd in 1935, sent his editor a complimentary observation about Dodd.

The Dodds’ house at Tiergartenstrasse 27a, Wolfe wrote, “has been a free and fearless harbor for people of all opinions, and people who live and walk in terror have been able to draw their breath there without fear, and to speak their minds…[T]he dry, plain, homely unconcern with which the Ambassador observes all the pomp and glitter and decorations and the tramp of marching men would do your heart good to see.”

Like many American officials, Dodd was slow to grasp the emerging enormity of Nazi Germany in the mid-1930s. Isolationism was a growing trend in the United States, and virtually no one wanted to return to the meat-grinder battlefields that characterized the Great War 20 years earlier. 

What changed his mind, and that of many senior Americans, was “The Night of the Long Knives,” June 30, 1934, when Hitler led the attack on the SA storm troopers that had helped bring him to power. When the murderous rampage was over, no one knew whether fewer than 100 or more than 1,000 Hitler loyalists were dead. 

Afterwards, Dodd wrote to a friend: “I could not have imagined the outbreak against the Jews when everybody was suffering, one way or another, from declining commerce. Nor could one have imagined that such a terroristic performance as that of June 30 would have been permitted in modern times.”

Equally puzzling, Larson writes, was “the strange indifference to atrocity that had settled over the nation, the willingness of the populace and of moderate elements of the government to accept each new oppressive decree, each new act of violence, without protest.”

Even today, one can wonder how leaders and countries allowed Hitler and the Nazis become so powerful and evil that war was inevitable. Larson provides telltale insights of how this happened.  


Repps Hudson is a freelance journalist living in St. Louis and adjunct instructor of journalism and international affairs.