Resisting Hitler's Rise 'In the Garden of Beasts'

Dec 29, 2011
Originally published on December 30, 2011 11:45 am

When University of Chicago professor William Dodd assumed the post of U.S. ambassador to Germany in 1933, he hoped for an undemanding position that would allow him spare time to write a book.

At the time, few in the United States or Europe considered then-Chancellor Adolf Hitler a serious threat, and few expected him to remain in power long. Dodd was no exception, says Erik Larson, author of In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin.

Having studied in Germany as a college student in the 1890s, Dodd began his term as ambassador with "a predisposition to like the Germans and to like Germany," Larson tells NPR's Jennifer Ludden.

He arrived in Berlin, Larson says, with "almost a deliberate desire — deliberate objectivity, let's say — to view things as objectively as possible, without prejudging."

But over the subsequent four years, the Dodd family grew uneasy as they watched Hitler consolidate his power and impose increasingly severe restrictions on Germany's Jewish population.

Matters came to head as Dodd clashed with the Nazi Party and the State Department and eventually resigned over the failure of officials back home to recognize the threat the Nazis posed.

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Jennifer Ludden, in Washington. Neal Conan is away. In 1933, University of Chicago Professor William Dodd somewhat reluctantly took up the post of U.S. ambassador to Germany. He moved to Berlin with his wife, son and daughter. He hoped for an easy post so he could spend his spare time writing a book.

Dodd assumed then-Chancellor Adolf Hitler wouldn't actually be in office very long, but over the next few years, the Dodd family witnessed Hitler consolidate his power and impose increasing restrictions on the country's Jewish population.

In one of the year's most notable books, author Erik Larson chronicles Dodd's time in Germany, the adventures of his flamboyant daughter Martha and clashes with both Nazi Party officials and the State Department.

If you've read the book and have questions for Erik Larson, give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is And you can also join the conversation at our website. Go to, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the secret about those year-end top 10 lists. But first Erik Larson joins us from member station KUOW in Seattle. His latest book is "In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin," one of the books we almost missed in 2011. Nice to have you with us.

ERIK LARSON: Hi, how are you?

LUDDEN: Good. So let's take our listeners straight to William Dodd's first year as an ambassador, and tell us about something his daughter actually saw. His daughter went down to Nuremberg with some friends, and tell us what she witnessed.

LARSON: Yeah, I'll tell you, this was in August of 1933. The Dodds at this point had been in Berlin only about, you know, a couple of months. And they had just gotten their home established, a house they were renting from a Jewish banker near the - opposite the Tiergarten, the Central Park of Berlin. And they figured it was time to see a little bit of Germany.

So all the Dodds actually set out on this journey and then split off into two groups, one of which consisted of Martha, her brother Bill Junior, and a reporter named Quentin Reynolds.

And they stopped one night in the city of Nuremberg, typically a fairly placid city known for toy manufacture, and they found something very different the night they arrived. And it was really kind of a horrendous story, a story about watching a parade of stormtroopers march through town, carrying with them a Jewish woman, tormenting a Jewish woman, much to the delight of the crowd.

LUDDEN: All right, would you like to read a little bit there for us?

LARSON: Gladly, yeah. Again, this is August, 1933: Immediately behind the first squad there followed two very large troopers and between them a much smaller human captive, though Reynolds could not at first tell whether it was a man or a woman. The troopers were, quote, "half-supporting, half-dragging," end-quote, the figure along the street.

Quote, "its head had been clipped bald," Reynolds wrote, and face and head had been coated with white powder. Martha described the face as having, quote, "the color of diluted absinthe," end-quote. They edged closer, as did the crowd around them, and now Reynolds and Martha saw that the figure was a young woman, though Reynolds still was not completely certain.

Quote, "even though the figure wore a skirt, it might have been a man dressed as a clown," Reynolds wrote. "Quote, the crowd around me roared at the spectacle of this figure being dragged along." The genial Nurembergers around him became transformed and taunted and insulted the woman. The troopers at her sides abruptly lifted her to full height, revealing a placard hung around her neck.

Coarse laughter rose from all around. Martha, Bill and Reynolds deployed their halting German to ask other bystanders what was happening and learned in fragments that the girl had been associating with a Jewish man. As best Martha could garner, the placard said, quote, "I have offered myself to a Jew," end-quote.

LUDDEN: And that was because she was engaged to marry a Jew.

LARSON: Yeah, she was associating romantically with a Jew, apparently...

LUDDEN: And this is 1933.

LARSON: 1933.

LUDDEN: And I guess the most remarkable thing, you read this horrid description and, you know, the crowd taunting and all, and the most remarkable thing is how little it impacts Martha and her father.

LARSON: Well, that's the thing that I found particularly surprising and striking is that for Martha, it's important to know that when Martha arrived in Berlin, she arrived with a real naivete about what was truly going on, whether it was part of the juxtaposition to what people wanted her to feel, that she was being just simply perverse or not, I have no idea, but she arrived with this very clear, obvious sort of naivete about what was going on around her.

And she - even after this particular event in Nuremberg, she found herself not defending what happened but arguing that, well, maybe there was another explanation. Her father arrived with a very different kind of naivete, almost a sort of a - almost a deliberate desire, deliberate objectivity, let's say, to view things as objectively as possible without prejudging, which in itself I suppose was a kind of naivete.

LUDDEN: Yeah, he's very determined to do that. He decides before he even leaves the U.S. for Germany that he's going to...


LUDDEN: But he also had really good memories as a student, when he had spent some time in Germany.

LARSON: Yeah, yeah, see, and that's the other thing. Another part of the story is that he brought with him to Germany a predisposition to like the Germans and to like Germany. He had, in the 1890s, as had many, many young American men, had gone to Germany to complete his studies at a German university, in his case the University of Leipzig, where he had done his Ph.D. on Thomas Jefferson, strangely enough.

LUDDEN: A little hard to research from Germany, but he managed.

LARSON: I would think especially in the age before Google. But, you know, he had a wonderful time then. He experienced a very different Germany, a Germany - or at least what turns out to be a very different Germany. In the 1890s, he had a marvelous time. He loved the food. He loved the people. Every day, a young woman mysteriously put violets on his pillow in his rooms.

Then he arrives in 1933, and he finds a very different place.

LUDDEN: We have a call on the line. Let's go right to it. Steven(ph) in Portland, Oregon, hi there.

STEVEN: Hello, how are you?

LUDDEN: Good. Go right ahead.

STEVEN: I'm calling, so much of the book was fascinating to me because he was really being undercut all the time by other career State Department people, even to the extent of being edited by people who were lower than he was on the staff of the German Embassy. Could anything have been changed? Could his realism about what was going on in Germany in the later years of his tenure there have really made a difference in the United States?

And then also, is there anything, any kind of similar situation in the current State Department?

LARSON: Well, you've asked two very big questions. Let me address the first part by giving you my appraisal of Dodd as an ambassador. I happened to - unlike a lot of historians who tend to just to simply make Dodd disappear from the record, I look at him, and if I had to give him a grade average, a letter grade, I would give him a B-plus. Because frankly, I don't think anybody in that job could have done better than he did because there was nothing much that anybody else could do.

What he did do, what I think really stands out, no matter how hard the State Department tried to undercut him, is that he stood as a model of American values, and he did not shake from representing those values no matter what the flak he got from home and also from the Nazis.

So I think anybody - and, you know, in the end, anybody who earns the hatred of the Nazis, as he did, I think must have been doing something right.

LUDDEN: But let's explain a little bit more about - go ahead, Steven.

STEVEN: He took them on, too. I mean, he gave an address to the - some German organization, I'm sorry I don't remember the details well enough from the book, but he took them on, and he called them to task. And, you know, that scandalized Washington, certainly, but he was telling them you're not fooling anybody, and that was very admirable.

LARSON: Yeah, that was - it was very admirable. That particular talk, you're referring to his Columbus Day talk to, believe it or not, the American Chamber of Commerce in Berlin. A beautiful thing about – well, what was so interesting about that particular talk was because he knew he couldn't attack Hitler directly, or at least he felt he couldn't. That would be very, quote-unquote, "undiplomatic."

So he couched that talk in very oblique terms, using analogies to dictators, tyrants from the past. And it was very effective and sufficiently oblique that nobody could really get publicly angry at him in Germany, although of course they did.

What was surprising about that was the fact that the State Department got very annoyed with him for being so provocative.

LUDDEN: And tell us more about that. Why - he was fighting not only his relations with the Nazi Germany, but back home the State Department and its kind of lack of support for him. What was going on?

LARSON: You know, in part it was because Dodd was not a member of the club. Dodd was a very unusual kind of diplomat. He was a mild-mannered professor from the University of Chicago who was appointed directly by Roosevelt, thrown into this job for which arguably he had no qualifications and no training.

Meanwhile, the folks who typically could be expected to occupy these jobs and who occupied the senior posts in the State Department, you know, they were all from - I refer to it, quoting one diplomat, as the pretty good club. They all went to the same schools: Harvard, Princeton and so forth. They all - most were independently wealthy. Dodd was very much unlike that. And that was a big part of it.

But also, Dodd was not - he was not kowtowing to the Nazis. He was not doing the diplomatic thing in the way they all felt he should.

LUDDEN: Well, and this not only offended some of his State Department colleagues, who liked the little club they - the pretty good club, but a German official wrote about him, quote, "At a time when the U.S. needed a robust millionaire to compete with the flamboyance of the Nazis, the ambassador teetered around all self-effacingly as if he were still on his college campus."

LARSON: See, that's another element, actually I think kind of a charming element is that one of the things that Dodd, in trying to represent American values, one of the things that he did - this is just like modern-day America where we have oilmen flying in to testify at hearings flying coach, you know.

Well, what Dodd did was, for example he brought his old, beat-up Chevrolet with him to Germany so that he could represent good, old-fashioned Jeffersonian frugality. This also annoyed his independently rich colleagues back in Washington. But they also had a point, as did the person who made that other remark, and that is that the concern was that he could not stand up to the wealth and arrogance of the Nazis.

LUDDEN: We're talking with Erik Larson about his book "In the Garden of Beasts." If you've read it and have questions, now's your chance to ask them. Call us, 800-989-8255. Or send us an email, We'll have more with Erik in a moment. I'm Jennifer Ludden. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


LUDDEN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden. When William Dodd moved his family to Berlin, it wasn't his first trip to Germany. As a student, he attended the University of Leipzig and studied for his doctorate, digging through the archives in London and Berlin to write his dissertation on Thomas Jefferson.

Even then, writes Erik Larson in "In the Garden of Beasts," Dodd was struck by the atmosphere of militarism that pervaded Germany. You can read more about Dodd's early years in Germany in an excerpt from "In the Garden of Beasts," one of the books we missed this year. It's at our website. Go to, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

If you've read "In the Garden of Beasts" and have questions for Erik Larson, call us at 800-989-8255. Our email address is, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And let's take another call. Bill(ph) in Centennial, Colorado, hi there.

BILL: Hi there. I was struck as I read the book that many of the middle of the German political scale seemed to look at Hitler and his extremism and partisanship and think that it could not possibly last and therefore did little to oppose.

And I was struck as I read the book: Could similarities be present in our current American partisanship? Obviously, it's not at the level of Nazi Germany, but whether the center has not stood up to the partisanship that is present, and I wonder if the author had any similar thoughts.

LUDDEN: Erik Larson?

LARSON: Yeah, let me - the other caller had a similar question about this. Let me tell you what I've observed as I've gone around the country with this book. And first of all, let me just be very clear about something. When I set out to write this book, I set out to try to – to really address my own curiosity about what it must have been like to live in that period, 1933, '34, in Berlin without knowing the ending, you know, meeting all these dark characters without knowing how this was all going to turn out.

But as it happens, it seems to have struck a peculiar chord at both ends of the political spectrum, and I want to emphasize that, as well, both ends. And this became apparent to me from the very first conversation, very first talk that I gave in public about this book.

And as people at both ends of the spectrum are concerned about today, about there being the opportunity, the possibility, that something like the Nazis, a group like the Nazis will again rise in this country - now personally I think it's ridiculous, I don't believe that at all.

But what I find very important is the fact that there are people on both ends who believe it. You have people at the far right who quite literally think - make analogies between Hitler and Obama - I don't really understand it, but that's what they do. And then there are many others at the other side who make the same kind of remarks about groups like the Tea Party.

I find that very interesting, and I think actually, you know, it's not necessarily a bad thing. I think one always has to be vigilant about the surge of groups that satisfy a temporary yearning for who knows what.

LUDDEN: What about that other issue that Bill brings up? I believe that, you know, people kept expecting Hitler to fall. But William Dodd, the ambassador, kept thinking oh, surely any day now he's going to be overthrown.

LARSON: Right, right, even people in the - senior people in the Nazi hierarchy didn't really - didn't think that Hitler would possibly prevail. I mean, Hitler was so crazy, so off-the-charts that there was a persistent sense that, you know, how could he possibly go on.

That was especially the case among State Department officials who thought that he simply could not last. Dodd thought he couldn't last. And, you know, step by step, he proved that he could last.

LUDDEN: Bill, thanks for the call. Erik Larson, can you remind us, you know, one of the ongoing issues that Ambassador Dodd had there in early 1930s Germany was these attacks on Americans. I mean, you know, the State Department would get involved if it was an American citizen. They weren't - it wasn't really they saw it as their job to protect Germany's Jews.

But then there were Americans that kept getting wrapped up in this. What was happening?

LARSON: Yeah, that was a surprise to me. Interestingly, in this period, the primary period that I write about, which is from the summer of '33 through the summer of '34, which is really a crucible time for Hitler and his consolidation of power, but during this time, attacks against Jews had actually fallen off pretty significantly from a pretty serious rate earlier in the spring of that year.

What was happening now that really struck me as very interesting were attacks against American travelers, visitors, businessmen, American expats in Berlin. I mean, it's not to say that there were dozens and dozens of them, but they occurred on a regular basis, and they were almost invariably of the same pattern.

You'd have an American who'd be walking along. A stormtrooper parade would come by, and the American being American didn't feel like he had to issue the Hitler salute or otherwise pay obeisance to the troopers. The troopers would get annoyed, they would break formation, come after him, beat him up, and that was the essential nature of most of those attacks.

I found that fascinating. It's something that I had completely missed from my sense of that era prior to the book.

LUDDEN: And they keep thinking, well, should we issue a travel warning to Americans, and they keep deciding not to.

LARSON: Yeah, yeah, that's kind of an interesting element. I don't understand what they would have had to lose by doing so, but there was so much effort to sort of tiptoe around, you know, around that kind of warning to travelers. And in part, a lot of what they did, frankly, was motivated by the fact that they did not want Germany to renege on a billion-plus dollars of debt owed to the American creditors.

LUDDEN: They wanted the money, right. Let's take a phone call here. We've got Will(ph) in Carmel, California. Hi there, Will.

WILL: Hi, good morning. I have a question about the scenes in the book that describe the emerging affair between Martha Dodd and Boris. They are very affecting, I mean very real-feeling, and they're very intimate, as though the author were actually in the room with them. Is this material that he's just written fictionally, or does he get a lot of it out of Martha Dodd's journals? I'm just curious.

LUDDEN: All right. Let's say that Boris was a diplomat in the Soviet - is that correct, Soviet Embassy, one of her many scandalous affairs during her time there. Thank you, Will.

LARSON: Yeah, yeah. Well, you know, nothing about that is fictionalized. The lovely thing is that in Martha's 70 – 70, 7-0 - 70 linear feet of papers at the Library of Congress...


LARSON: know, there were not only a complete collection of Boris's love letters, which he wrote in fairly crude German, which I had translated, but she left a wonderfully detailed account of her relationship with Boris. You know, one of the things that writers often unfortunately do is they try to take liberties. Like, they have somebody, you know, some historical character, you know, smiling or thinking or doing something, you know, and you can't do that unless you know for sure.

Well, the beauty of what she left in this file, this very detailed account of her relationship with Boris, is she recounts some of those scenes, complete with, if you will, facial stage direction.

For example, the scene in the Soviet embassy, which is one of my favorite scenes in the book...

LUDDEN: You say embassy, but let's - he woos her in his bedroom there, right?

LARSON: Well, yeah, yeah, he takes her to his room, and there's a very - I just found it - you know, it's the kind of thing - the beauty - I hate to use the word beauty so much, but the beauty of nonfiction is that you can't make it up because it's just so strange.

And that scene in his bedroom at the Soviet Embassy is just wonderful. But let me just reassure the caller that no, none of that is made up. None of that is - there are no liberties taken whatsoever.

LUDDEN: All right, let's get to another caller. Rich(ph) is in Denver, Colorado.

RICH: Good afternoon, a pleasure to talk to you, Mr. Larson. On the gentleman's point, the first call you took from Portland, as to when the ambassador went to the - basically the Chamber of Commerce and was like you guys aren't fooling anyone, I kind of wondered, and in light of that last caller's question, it sounds like with his marriage kind of crumbling around him, at some point did he get and basically say - communicate back to America I'm done with this, this guy's crazy?

As you said, the attacks on the Jews started to wane in '33, '34, but I'm sure there was still - you know, obviously this stuff going on with Americans. Was he just not knowing of anything that was - any of the atrocities, or were they just not happening at this point where he was basically saying back to Washington I'm done with it, this guy's crazy, you know, I don't know why we're, you know, why we're still dealing with this country.

And maybe it's to the point where you said that they didn't want to renege on the billion dollars that Germany had - that they had promised to Germany. Was that not - I guess there's kind of a multitude of questions in there.


LARSON: Let me address it this way: When Dodd arrived, he was very naive but also very objective. He wanted to see, as he says in one remark, he says he believes in letting men try their schemes. But very quickly, in the course of that year, he came to see the Hitler regime quite differently, and he wrote back directly, in fact, to Roosevelt, saying that, you know, these - that something very troubling was happening and something that would really be a danger to the world in coming years.

And his sense of this became even more profound to the point where once he was forced out of his job essentially by resistance back home and also by Nazi resistance, when he was forced out of his job, he became really one of the few Americans if - of any prominence who had been in government to sound the warning against the Nazi threat.

So he learned quite quickly. He never had a sense, look, this is pointless. We've got to go home. The more he learned, the more he saw Hitler consolidate his power, the more evidence there was of armament, re-arming in the countryside and so forth, the more he became convinced that Germany was going to become a serious world problem.

LUDDEN: But he did have this pervasive sense of futility, like what am I doing here?


LUDDEN: I can't do anything. And Betsy Berger(ph) writes us from Seattle. She sends an email pointing out that Dodd, you know, as time went on, basically refused to engage with Hitler. His biggest...


LUDDEN: ...statement was, I'm not going to your party convention. I'm not showing up here. And she asked: Do you think if Dodd had gotten closer to Hitler, he would have had more influence, both in Germany and with his own state department?

LARSON: Yeah. I can only - which is the question. The question, would he have had more influence had he gotten closer? No. Absolutely not. Nobody could possibly have had any influence over Hitler. What could have happened is that somebody who was less resistant to Nazi charms, if you will, somebody of a more conventional diplomatic stripe might have gotten much closer to Hitler and might have been more manipulated by Hitler. Hitler was notorious for telling people exactly what they wanted to hear, and an awful lot of people bought that at face value. Dodd did not.

LUDDEN: Hmm. All right. Let's get another call on the line here. Let's see. Michael is in Detroit, Michigan. Hi there.

MICHAEL: Hi. How are you?

LUDDEN: Hi. Good.

MICHAEL: Thanks for taking my call. My mother was born in '32 in Germany, as a Jewish woman, and my grandmother, who spoke several languages, got her Ph.D. there in 1927, and they left in '39. I thought the book did a really great job of filling in some of the blanks that my grandmother filled in for me, describing the life there, being, you know, aristocratic Jews. They had a lot of money to get - send my mother - my grandmother to college. But they were also pretty buffered because they just didn't believe that, you know, these isolated events could actually explode into a world event, and they left - escaped in 1939, went to Turkey, to Italy, to here, and we're still appalled to this day.


LARSON: Yeah, yeah. You know, they left pretty late.

MICHAEL: Yeah. They were blessed...

LARSON: Yeah, yeah.

MICHAEL: get out. My mother - I'm a first-generation American, as I tell people.

LARSON: Well, one of the things that I discovered as I - things - a lot of this that - I mean, I had no idea that this period was so interesting, so compelling and so rich and nuanced. I mean, you know, the things that scholars have unearthed about why Jews stayed in Berlin, what they were thinking, you know, among Jews, just as with the State Department, there was a pervasive sense that Hitler could not last, just couldn't happen. And...

MICHAEL: Yeah, yeah. And they didn't have the communication infrastructure that we have now. So, you know, in 19, you know, '33, '34, '35 in Bonn, Germany, they didn't - you know, Berlin is, you know, miles, hundreds of miles away, you know, Stalingrad is, I mean, another place. And they didn't have that knowledge base (unintelligible). All that is just a (unintelligible). That didn't happen the way - blah, blah, blah. That's what my grandmother said. She goes we just couldn't believe that these things could be happening.

LUDDEN: All right. Michael, thanks for the call.

LARSON: There's a lot of denial. Absolutely.

MICHAEL: Thanks so much for having me.

LUDDEN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Erik Larson, you say a lot of denial. As you read this book and you just - you know, things keep changing, and the atmosphere becomes rife with tension, and you talk about this aura of surveillance. What do you think was the turning point for Ambassador Dodd?

LARSON: Oh, the turning point for Ambassador Dodd was very clear, I think, was very clear. That was the Night of the Long Knives. That was the climactic purge that Hitler caused in June of 1934, and that was to remove the last potential opposition, which, interestingly, was his old friend and ally Ernst Rohm and the stormtroopers. And that was a very, very bloody, catastrophic weekend that really took - removed the last doubts from Dodd's mind about the true nature of this regime.

LUDDEN: Do you - you know, you write also that, you know, leading up to the Night of the Long Knives, and even afterwards, that if things weren't so serious that they would have been comical. I mean, at one point the Nazi regime says people spelling words over the phone can no longer say D as in David because David is a Jewish name. I mean, you read it and you're like, really?

LARSON: Yeah. And, you know, as Dodd's - one of the other compelling things to me was the fact that everything was so new, if you will, to American perception. We all know today what the tropes of the Nazi era are - you know, were, the, you know, the Hitler salute and so forth.

And Dodd's consul general in Berlin, George Messersmith, who was a fairly clear-eyed thinker at the time, tended to treat the Nazi regime as - the way an anthropologist might treat an aboriginal tribe. And so he was very interested in things like the Hitler salute and these changes from, you know, no longer being able to say David and so forth, so much so that he spent one 18-page dispatch. They nicknamed him 40-page George because he couldn't do anything shortly, in short prose. But he devoted an entire 18-page dispatch just to the Hitler salute because it was so novel. He commented on how exhausting it was to walk through a public building - it must have been for a German to walk through a public building because of all the saluting that they had to do. So it's just fascinating.

LUDDEN: We have an email from Sarah Park(ph), who says she kept having to put the book down since she knew the ending, of course, that when there seemed to be crucial moments, when pressure from other countries could have stemmed the Nazi tide, the passage describing Roosevelt's reluctance to speak officially because of the questions about ways of America's treatment of African-Americans was heartbreaking and infuriating. Do you think the world could have done more to intervene?

LARSON: You know, it is - one of the things that I really tried to do when I was working on this book was to remove as much of my sense of hindsight as possible. Could there have been more done, I have - I'm unable to say because it wasn't done.

LUDDEN: All right. Erik Larson. His latest book "In the Garden of Beasts Love: Terror and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin." You can find an excerpt at our website. Erik Larson, thank you so much.

LARSON: Thank you.

LUDDEN: After a short break, Chris Vognar joins us. His review - he reviews movies or the Dallas Morning News and ranks his favorites. Plus, he'll tell us why compiling the list is more interesting in the name itself. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.