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November 2011

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In the Garden of Beasts
Reviewed by Michael Butler

Erik Larson. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. New York: Crown, 2011. 448 pp., $13.50

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ambassadorial appointments included the highly successful (Laurence Steinhardt), the able but duplicitous (William C. Bullitt) and the self-important dilettante (Joseph E. Davies). Roosevelt’s decision in 1933 to send William E. Dodd as his representative to Berlin was one among a series of foreign-policy missteps during his first weeks in office. Overwhelmed by his duties as chairman of the History Department at the University of Chicago, Dodd lobbied for appointment as Minister to Brussels or The Hague, under the quaint assumption that those offices required little effort and offered time to write. Unable to convince a man of stature to become Ambassador to Hitler’s Germany, Roosevelt finally settled on Dodd. Suspecting the position would be too much for him, Dodd accepted nonetheless, compounding his error by inviting his two adult children to accompany him to Berlin. The appointment was one of several that reduced the quality and influence of American representatives in key European capitals. Roosevelt’s first ambassadors in Paris and London qualified principally because of their early and generous support of his candidacy. Hoover’s representatives in Germany, France and Great Britain included two former US Senators, a former US Vice-President and a former Secretary of Treasury.

Erik Larson draws from Dodd’s papers and published diary and the papers and published memoir of his daughter Martha1 to draw a vibrant picture of a man (and family) under psychological siege in Berlin from the Nazi regime and, in Dodd’s mistaken view, from his embassy staff and counterparts in Washington. Larson vividly depicts the chaos that accompanied Hitler’s consolidation of power, and justifiably portrays the decline of the democratic German polity and society as tragic for the many decent people who inhabit his narrative. The story benefits from Martha Dodd’s appalling judgment: escaping a dying marriage in Chicago, her lovers included an NKVD officer under Soviet diplomatic cover, the chief of the Gestapo, Göring’s second-in-command at the Luftwaffe, Kaiser Wilhelm’s grandson and a French diplomat. “This was not a house,” Dodd’s German butler lamented, “but a house of ill repute.” Martha Dodd’s papers provide Larson material that a novelist would be ashamed to invent.

Larson judges Dodd successful at satisfying Roosevelt’s desire to have a living example of American liberalism in the Nazi capital. Yet it is clear – less from Larson’s account than other sources – that Dodd did not fulfill the diplomatic and representational responsibilities of the office. A successful American ambassador in Hitler’s Berlin would have combined diplomatic nuance and personal forcefulness and would have sought every opportunity to press American policy upon everyday Germans and Nazi officials. Dodd was none of this. In fact, among Berlin’s political and diplomatic community he was something of an oddball. Dodd took Roosevelt’s direction literally, disdained what he considered diplomatic pretension, and treated all other instructions as secondary or irrelevant. He also allowed his progressive personal politics to trump his professional duties. Dodd resisted Washington’s instructions to represent faithfully American holders of German debt, earning a sharp and justified reprimand from the Secretary of State. American money had kept Germany afloat for more than a decade and the failure to honor the debt ensured a transfer of wealth from American bondholders to Hitler’s rearmament program. Dodd ignored American commercial interests, even as Cordell Hull sought to break monopolistic German trade practices.

Dodd shared the Roosevelts’ contempt for America’s professional diplomatic service,2 and judging from Larson’s frequent snide references to “a Pretty Good Club,” he agrees. Dodd’s frustration grew as he realized that his duties left little time for writing and that his salary – from which he had to pay household and representational expenses – paled next to the wealth of his staff. He raged at their tendency to arrive late at the office after an evening of social events that he made a point to avoid. Yet American diplomats of that era were an able group, highly respected by their peers in more established diplomatic services. In Berlin’s repressive milieu, off-line exchanges in social settings could prove more effective than formal conversations in ministries. And while Dodd eventually came to comprehend the evil of Hitler’s regime, others in the embassy were warning of its dangers while the Dodds were still enraptured by romantic notions of the Nazi revolution.3 Consul General George S. Messersmith, while hoping “moderate” leadership would control the radical Nazi masses, described the brutal system that he confronted in his daily duties in long reports to the State Department.4 Dodd’s steadily growing resentment of Messersmith, well outlined in Larson’s account, reveals the Ambassador’s paranoia and pettiness as well as his steady deterioration under pressure. For his part, Messersmith believed Dodd “had really very little conception of what the duties of an Ambassador were,” and concluded that “[i]t was seldom that I had worked with a chief of mission who was more futile and ineffective.” As for Dodd’s adult children, Messersmith dryly suggested that “they were never any help to the father.”5

Larson dwells on Dodd’s tragedy while downplaying his children’s treachery. Martha Dodd’s Soviet lover was recruiting rather than courting her, and she became an active and enthusiastic NKVD agent, probably by early 1934. She reported on her father’s correspondence with Roosevelt and the State Department, pressed a weary Dodd to remain as Ambassador, applauded his reluctance to support American commercial and financial interests, and offered her influence (and, indirectly, Dodd’s) to have a man of the Soviets’ choosing succeed her father. As his paranoia grew, Dodd wrote reports to Roosevelt by hand, fearing his clerical staff was spying for his enemies in Washington; ironically, Dodd’s daughter relayed to the Soviets what he sought to hide from his own government. The Soviets also recruited Dodd’s son Bill and financed his unsuccessful 1938 congressional campaign and subsequent career in journalism.6 Martha and Bill Dodd’s loyalties raise intriguing questions, not addressed by Larson, about their influence on both American policy towards Germany and their father’s relationship with his own government.

The political slaughter of mid-1934 completed Dodd’s disillusionment with the Nazi regime. In 1937, Roosevelt appointed a senior professional diplomat as Ambassador in Berlin. Dodd, embittered and in failing health, spent the final years of his life touring the United States warning of the Nazi menace and establishing his reputation as a statesman who opposed the Nazis rather than a failed Ambassador. Dodd’s beloved wife passed away within six months of their return from Berlin; he was later convicted of hit-and-run driving following an accident that severely injured a four-year-old child. Dodd died in February of 1940. Martha Dodd’s Russian lover perished in Stalin’s execution chambers, a fact that her handlers were careful to hide from her. She married a wealthy left-wing activist whom she recruited for the Soviets. They fled the US during the 1950s as Russian spy rings began to unravel. Exiled in Mexico, her US passport cancelled, Martha Dodd and her husband purchased Paraguayan nationality and fled to the Soviet bloc. She died a lonely woman in Prague, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

1. William E. Dodd, Ambassador Dodd’s Diary, 1933-1938. ed. by William E. Dodd, Jr., and Martha Dodd (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1941); Martha Dodd, Through Embassy Eyes (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1939).

2. See, for example, the entries of 30 October 1934, 22 November 1934, 6 February 1934, and 2 and 10 May 1935, Dodd, Ambassador Dodd’s Diary, pp. 183, 194-95, 213, 240 and 242; and Robert Dallek, Diplomat and Democrat: The Life of William E. Dodd (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968) pp. 193-94, 231, 237-38.

3. The reporting from American Embassy Berlin prior to Dodd’s arrival astutely analyzed both the Nazis parallel governing structure and the broader dangers of the Hitler regime. See U.S. Department of States, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1933, vol. II (Washington, Government Printing Office, 1949), pp. 188-247.

4. Messersmith to Moffat, 25 April 1933, George S. Messersmith Papers, University of Delaware Library, Newark, Delaware, Box 2, File 10; Messersmith to Phillips, 20 June 1933, Messersmith papers Box 2, File 13; Messersmith to Phillips, 26 June 1933, Messersmith Papers Box 2, File 14. The Messersmith papers are digitized and available at http://www.lib.udel.edu/ud/spec/findaids/messersmith/index.html.

5. George S. Messersmith, “Some Observations on the Appointment of Dr. William Dodd, as Ambassador to Berlin,” undated memorandum, Messersmith Papers, Box 18, File 134. For a view of the Dodd-Messersmith relationship, see Jesse H. Stiller, George S. Messersmith: Diplomat of Democracy (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987).

6. Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev, The Haunted Wood: Soviet Espionage in America – The Stalin Era (New York: Random House, 1999), pp. 50-71; John Earl Heynes, Harvey Klehr and Alexander Vassiliev, Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), pp. 150-51, 179-83, 431-45; John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr, Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), pp. 269-73.


AuthorMichael A. Butler retired in September 2010 at the rank of Minister-Counselor following a thirty-year Foreign Service career. He holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Virginia. Butler has taught at the University of Virginia and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and has lectured at universities in Argentina, Spain and Finland. He is the author of Cautious Visionary: Cordell Hull and Trade Reform, 1933-1937, and is currently working on a book-length study of the foreign-policy aspects of the Hoover-Roosevelt transition of 1932-1933.

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