Hitler’s Bestiary from the Inside

Against the Current, No. 156, January/February 2012

Kathlene McDonald

In the Garden of Beasts:
Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin
By Erik Larson
Crown Publishing Group, Random House, 460 pages, $26 hardcover, $16 paperback.

OVER A DECADE ago, I spent several months poring through the Martha Eccles Dodd papers at the Library of Congress. I was driven to research her life while working on a book about Left feminist culture and antifascist resistance in the McCarthy era. I had just read two of Dodd’s novels (Sowing the Wind and The Searching Light) and was driven to find out more about the sources of Dodd’s attraction to antifascist causes.

At the time, nothing had been written on Dodd as a literary figure, and very little biographical information existed. I spent the better part of one autumn in the Library of Congress manuscript room, sorting through boxes, reading her letters, her unpublished essays and short stories, various novel drafts, correspondence with publishers, and file after file of press clippings. As I began to put together the pieces of her life, a fascinating story emerged.

As a young woman, Dodd had been fairly apolitical until she spent several years living in Germany while Hitler was in power. Her father, William E. Dodd, served as the U.S. ambassador to Germany from 1933-1937. Witnessing the horror and brutality of the Nazi regime radicalized her, and she joined the antifascist resistance movement.

When she returned to the United States, she became involved with the American Communist Party because of its strong stand against fascism. The letters and notes in her files describe her horror at witnessing the McCarthy era unfold, as she saw similarities between the increasing political repression in the United States and the erosion of individual freedoms in Nazi Germany.

As my emphasis in researching my book was on Martha Dodd’s postwar literature, I focused more on the material after she returned from Germany. Thus, I read Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin with great interest, as it paints a rich and full portrait of Martha and her father’s time in Berlin, years before the United States’ entry into World War II.

In addition to consulting Martha and William E. Dodd’s papers, Larson draws on a wide array of sources, ranging from State Department files, memoirs and personal accounts, to archives from other key diplomatic, journalistic and cultural figures during the Dodds’ time in Germany, including George Messersmith (America’s Consul General to Germany), Cordell Hull (U.S. Secretary of State), William Phillips (U.S. Undersecretary of State), playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder, Sigrid Schultz (the intrepid and infamous Chicago Tribune correspondent), Louis Lochner (Berlin bureau chief for the Associated Press), and Mildred Fish Harnack (a central figure in the German underground antifascist resistance movement and the only American to be executed by Hitler).

The book’s strength lies in its careful tracing of both William and Martha Dodd’s trajectory from sympathy toward the “New Germany” to outspoken critics of fascism.

As Larson says in his introduction, he does not try “to write another grand history of the age.” (xiv) Instead, he tells the story of the year leading up to the “Night of the Long Knives,” Hitler’s 1934 purge of those he considered to be a threat to his control, through the eyes of Martha and William Dodd.

Larson does an admirable job of showing how the Dodd family evolved from near-admiration for the new regime in Germany to outright disgust. Larson carefully traces this progression, describing the increasing violence and repression of the Nazi regime in haunting detail and allowing Martha and William Dodd to speak in their own words when appropriate.

In the process, he allows readers to understand why it took so many in the United States so long to take a position against the violence that was taking place in Hitler’s Germany.

What the Dodds Saw

Larson describes William Dodd, a University of Chicago history professor who had written a biography of his hero, Woodrow Wilson, and had spent time in Germany as a young man, as “a Jeffersonian democrat of the first stripe.” (10)

From the beginning, William Dodd opposed the beatings and imprisonment of American citizens and other foreign nationals. But he sincerely believed that Hitler wanted peace (or at least to avoid war) and that the Nazis were men who could be reasoned with. He took seriously President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s charge to be a “standing example” of American liberalism in Germany. (20) As Larson explains, “He wanted to have an effect: to awaken Germany to the dangers of its current path and to nudge Hitler’s government onto a more humane and rational course. He was fast realizing, however, that he possessed little power to do so.” (163)

Like her father, Martha Dodd initially believed “that Germany was in the midst of a historic rebirth” and that any violent “incidents that did occur surely were only inadvertent expressions of the wild enthusiasm that had gripped the country.” (53)  In fact, when the Dodds arrived in Germany in 1933, violence against the Jews was on the wane.

Martha Dodd was initially seduced by what she saw as a national sense of purpose by the Nazi party. She was also seduced by some of its top officials.

As revolting as it is to read about her flirtations (and alleged affairs) with men who we now know perpetrated outrageous acts of violence, Larson claims that it was through her relationship with some of these men, particularly with Gestapo chief Rudolf Diels, that she began to question her infatuation with the Nazi regime.

Larson quotes Martha in her own words, from her memoir Through Embassy Eyes, “There began to appear before my romantic eyes . . . a vast and complicated network of espionage, terror, sadism and hate, from which no one, official or private, could escape.” (119)

For both Martha and William Dodd, the increasing violence was too much to allow them to maintain their belief that these incidents were isolated, and Larson captures this trajectory well, revealing their growing discomfort with the Nazi regime. The increasing surveillance only furthers their discomfort. Larson describes the gradually emerging repression as follows:

“The change came about slowly, arriving like a pale mist that slipped into every crevice. It was something everyone who lived in Berlin seemed to experience. You began to think differently about who you met for lunch and for that matter what café or restaurant you chose, because rumors circulated about which establishments were favorite targets of Gestapo agents . . . You lingered at street corners a beat or two longer to see if the faces you saw at the last corner had now turned up at this one. In the most casual of circumstances you spoke carefully and paid attention to those around you in a way you never had before. Berliners came to practice what became known as “the German glance” — der deutsche Blick — a quick look in all directions when encountering a friend or acquaintance on the street.” (225)

For Martha Dodd, this sense of always being watched led to a sense of anxiety so great that she would often wake up her mother in the middle of the night and ask her to sleep in her room. Her anxiety soon turns to what Larson terms “a deepening repulsion.” (274)

The final turning point for both of them comes after the Night of the Long Knives, a three-day period between June 30 and July 2, 1934, when Hitler moved to eliminate anyone he considered to be a threat to his efforts to consolidate power. A few days later, Martha left for a tour of the Soviet Union. Although her interest in that country was piqued by her relationship with the Soviet diplomat (and secret police agent) Boris Winogradov, the trip symbolized that her disillusionment was complete. Again, Larson quotes Martha from her memoir: “I had had enough of blood and terror to last me for the rest of my life.”

Her father was similarly horrified at the political murders and stunned that the German people did not respond in an outpouring of anger.

Larson writes, “For Dodd, diplomat by accident, not demeanor, the whole thing was utterly appalling. He was a scholar and a Jeffersonian democrat, a farmer who loved history and the old Germany in which he had studied as a young man. Now there was official murder on a terrifying scale. Dodd’s friends and acquaintances, people who had been to his house for dinner and tea, had been shot dead. Nothing in Dodd’s past had prepared him for this. It brought to the fore with more accuracy than ever before his doubts about whether he could achieve anything as ambassador.” (329)

William Dodd tried repeatedly to warn the U.S. government of Hitler’s ambitions and the dangers of U.S. isolationism, but his calls for intervention went unheeded, and by 1937 he returned to the States, where he engaged in an unflinching crusade to call attention to the dangers that Hitler and Nazism posed to the rest of the world. In addition to his many lectures throughout the country, he joined the antifascist American Friends of Spanish Democracy and, along with Helen Keller, Thomas Mann and others, he helped start the American Council Against Nazi Propaganda.

Larson describes William Dodd as a hero to those in Berlin who witnessed the brutality of the Nazi regime firsthand, including Sigrid Schultz and Thomas Wolfe. Larson concludes, “In the end, Dodd proved to be exactly what Roosevelt had wanted, a lone beacon of American freedom and hope in a land of gathering darkness.” (356)

Recovering Martha Dodd

Larson compellingly charts William Dodd’s evolution from believing that the United States could work with the Nazi regime to becoming an antifascist activist.

What is missing from the story is Martha Dodd’s antifascist work. Indeed, other than some stylistic quibbles, such as Larson’s frequent and ineffective use of foreshadowing, my one critique of the book is that Larson does not address Martha’s transformation from a flighty and over-sexed supporter of the Nazi regime to a committed antifascist fighter.

Much of what had been written previously about Dodd focuses on her numerous affairs and her alleged espionage involvement with the Soviet Union. Larson’s book does little to dispel this image. While I don’t deny her promiscuity (particularly during her time in Germany), viewing Martha solely through this lens obscures the importance of her antifascist activism and literature.

Like her father, Martha Dodd became a committed antifascist after she returned from Germany. The similarities she saw between the repression of the McCarthy era and the fascism she witnessed in Nazi Germany haunted her. She wrote two novels to call attention to the dangers of fascist control: Sowing the Wind (1945) about the rise of fascism in Germany, and The Searching Light (1955) about the rise of McCarthyism in the United States.

In both these novels, she showed how fascism oppressed women and offered images of activist women to counter what she saw as the fascist domestic ideology of both Germany and the United States. Her work is distinctive among novels from this period, as she uses female activists to challenge some of the conventions about femininity in the immediate postwar era.

While Larson’s epilogue does mention Sowing the Wind, he does not address it as an antifascist work, focusing instead on its basis in Martha’s affair with Ernst Udet, the famous German World War I pilot, and thus reinforcing the idea that Martha was defined by her affairs. Larson closes his book by acknowledging that Martha was “not precisely a hero but certainly a woman of principle.” (364) Yet in presenting her as flighty and over-sexed throughout the book, he perpetuates the prevalent view of her as promiscuous and nothing more.

Even slight attention to her antifascist work could have contributed to a fuller — and more accurate — portrait of Martha Dodd. Overall, though, Larson’s book is a valuable contribution to the larger project of understanding the complicated and complex reasons why the United States remained isolationist for as long as it did. It is also a compelling argument for the importance of William Dodd’s antifascist activity in raising awareness of the atrocities being perpetrated in Nazi Germany and spurring the United States to become involved.

January/February 2012, ATC 156

1 comment

  1. Thanks for the review. However I’d like to ask exactly what is wrong with Martha Dodd being “promiscuous’? Why is her being sexually very active described as “over-sexed”? Please let’s leave that crap to conservative forces (and challenge them over it.)

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