Larson, Erik. In the Garden of Beasts. New York: Crown Publishers, 2011. ISBN 978-0-307-40884-6.
Ambassadors to high-profile postings are usually chosen from political patrons and contributors to the president who appoints them, depending upon career Foreign Service officers to provide the in-country expertise needed to carry out their mandate. Newly-elected Franklin Roosevelt intended to follow this tradition in choosing his ambassador to Germany, where Hitler had just taken power, but discovered that none of the candidates he approached were interested in being sent to represent the U.S. in Nazi Germany. William E. Dodd, a professor of history and chairman of the department of history at the University of Chicago, growing increasingly frustrated with his administrative duties preventing him from completing his life's work: a comprehensive history of the ante-bellum American South, mentioned to a friend in Roosevelt's inner circle that he'd be interested in an appointment as ambassador to a country like Belgium or the Netherlands, where he thought his ceremonial obligations would be sufficiently undemanding that he could concentrate on his scholarly work.

Dodd was astonished when Roosevelt contacted him directly and offered him the ambassadorship to Germany. Roosevelt appealed to Dodd's fervent New Deal sympathies, and argued that in such a position he could be an exemplar of American liberal values in a regime hostile to them. Dodd realised from the outset that a mission to Berlin would doom his history project, but accepted because he agreed with Roosevelt's goal and also because FDR was a very persuasive person. His nomination was sent to the Senate and confirmed the very same day.

Dodd brought his whole family along on the adventure: wife Mattie and adult son and daughter Bill and Martha. Dodd arrived in Berlin with an open mind toward the recently-installed Nazi regime. He was inclined to dismiss the dark view of the career embassy staff and instead adopt what might be called today “smart diplomacy”, deceiving himself into believing that by setting an example and scolding the Nazi slavers he could shame them into civilised behaviour. He immediately found himself at odds not only with the Nazis but also his own embassy staff: he railed against the excesses of diplomatic expense, personally edited the verbose dispatches composed by his staff to save telegraph charges, and drove his own aged Chevrolet, shipped from the U.S., to diplomatic functions where all of the other ambassadors arrived in stately black limousines.

Meanwhile, daughter Martha embarked upon her own version of Girl Gone Wild—Third Reich Edition. Initially exhilarated by the New Germany and swept into its social whirl, before long she was carrying on simultaneous affairs with the head of the Gestapo and a Soviet NKVD agent operating under diplomatic cover in Berlin, among others. Those others included Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, who tried to set her up with Hitler (nothing came of it; they met at lunch and that was it). Martha's trajectory through life was extraordinary. After affairs with the head of the Gestapo and one of Hitler's inner circle, she was recruited by the NKVD and spied on behalf of the Soviet Union in Berlin and after her return to the U.S. It is not clear that she provided anything of value to the Soviets, as she had no access to state secrets during this period. With investigations of her Soviet affiliations intensifying in the early 1950s, in 1956 she fled with her American husband and son to Prague, Czechoslovakia where they lived until her death in 1990 (they may have spent some time in Cuba, and apparently applied for Soviet citizenship and were denied it).

Dodd père was much quicker to figure out the true nature of the Nazi regime. Following Roosevelt's charge to represent American values, he spoke out against the ever-increasing Nazi domination of every aspect of German society, and found himself at odds with the patrician “Pretty Good Club” at the State Department who wished to avoid making waves, regardless of how malevolent and brutal the adversary might be. Today, we'd call them the “reset button crowd”. Even Dodd found the daily influence of immersion in gleichschaltung difficult to resist. On several occasions he complained of the influence of Jewish members of his staff and the difficulties they posed in dealing with the Nazi regime.

This book focuses upon the first two years of Dodd's tenure as ambassador in Berlin, as that was the time in which the true nature of the regime became apparent to him and he decided upon his policy of distancing himself from it: for example, refusing to attend any Nazi party-related events such as the Nuremberg rallies. It provides an insightful view of how seductive a totalitarian regime can be to outsiders who see only its bright-eyed marching supporters, while ignoring the violence which sustains it, and how utterly futile “constructive engagement” is with barbarians that share no common values with civilisation.

Thanks to James Lileks for suggesting this book.

December 2011 Permalink