22 November 2013

Out of the garden and into the fire

Wrong man, wrong era, wrong predictions... wrong subjects?

I've been sitting on my paperback copy of Erik Larson's IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS for a while. I thought I would take it on a vacation but the timing was never right. I liked this book, but it also didn't sit well with me. I didn't feel satisfied that any kind of justice had been done. Maybe my expectations were too high?

The book follows the work life of one William Dodd, who served as the U.S. Ambassador to Germany from 1933-37. Far from a politico, Dodd was a history professor at the University of Chicago prior to his appointment who thought a government position would allow him more time than teaching to work on his history of the Old South. For a lot of reasons, he didn't know what he was getting into, but perhaps no one could have prepared him for conducting diplomatic relations with an ailing President Hindenberg and the nascent, ever more aggressive Nazi party. While most Americans felt that the threat of Germany regaining military power was grossly exaggerated -- some even admiring Hitler for getting the mighty machine going again -- Nazis were beating and jailing visiting tourists for not heiling correctly.

Just like Larson's breakout THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, the author runs Dodd's story in parallel with another's at the same time, this one his daughter Martha (who I will refer to by first name from here on out to avoid confusion). A 29-year-old divorcee who ran in literary circles in Chicago, Martha kept a very detailed diary of her impressions of Nazi Germany and the men she was seeing, some of them high-ranking Nazis.

Both of these characters are uniquely frustrating. Dodd may not have been the most powerful man in US-German relations, in part due to internal politics (particularly the "Pretty Good Club" culture of rich diplomats who spend all their time schmoozing, who hated him), but his timid protestations to the Nazi regime and even Hitler that his practices were extreme seem spineless. He displayed a fair amount of what we would now call anti-Semitism*, and seemingly could have done more to help Jews in Berlin get safe passage out (or to encourage the U.S. to change its immigration policies). I didn't realize how strongly I felt about Dodd until I read a section on how historians of his day regarded him -- not as a bystander, but as a Cassandra figure, a peacemaker. Out of a little rebellion and a little young lust, Martha finds the Nazis fascinating and for a time even defends them to her parents; at her best she just seems like a lovesick twit who had no idea how serious the situation in Germany was.

Hokey book-group reading guides at the backs of books often provide questions to readers like "What would you do in this situation?" (Also a question often asked of young readers.) That question would be absurd when it comes to IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS, whose context is so unique and specific it's impossible to know how any other person might act. Yet, here I am judging Mr. Dodd for his inaction at a time when history has mostly forgotten him. Maybe there's no happy ending possible when a book ends fundamentally at the start of World War II. Knowing what I know, I can't pretend not to know the terrible things that are about to happen, and it's just a short hop from there to asking: why didn't somebody do something? 

*My other major take-away from this book is how prevalent and toothy anti-Semitism was in this era, particularly in the U.S. I knew, I suppose, but the specifics are just shocking all over again. That this went on as recently as my grandparents' generation... well, it was definitely a wake-up call.

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