In the Garden of the Beasts

The Book of the Week is “In the Garden of the Beasts” by Erik Larson, published in 2011. This ebook describes the ill-fated German ambassadorship of William E. Dodd, who was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

A history professor at the University of Chicago for more than two decades, Dodd possessed no public-service experience. As a D-list candidate for other reasons too, he reluctantly accepted the post anyway. Nevertheless, he believed in speaking out against injustice, and in the past when he became embroiled in a controversial situation, he said, “…to remain silent is out of the question for a strong and honest man.” He moved his wife, teenage son and grown daughter to Berlin in the summer of 1933.

Part of Dodd’s job as ambassador at the time was to get the German government to pay its reparations to the United States from WWI. Germany owed more than $100 million in bonds through National City Bank of New York (now Citibank) and Chase National Bank. Dodd failed to do so.

Dodd was also ill-suited for other aspects of the position. Foreign Service officers were an independently wealthy lot– golf-club members with fancy cars and mansions– who threw lavish parties at their own expense, unconcerned with the cost. The German ambassador lived frugally.

As well, Dodd’s daughter caused diplomatic embarrassment, as she became romantically involved with a series of men of political intrigue through the years. These included the chief of the Gestapo, a Soviet political operative, and Fritz Haber, who first formulated the poison chlorine gas that was used at Ypres in WWI. He proved that cumulative exposure to small quantities of gas in the long run was just as lethal as large amounts of a short duration.

Sadly, Dodd and a colleague, George S. Messersmith, America’s consul general, were two of only a very few prescient government officials who understood that Germany posed a serious and growing threat to world peace. The U.S. government was more concerned with Germany’s war reparations.

In the mid-1930’s, lurid stories of extremely uncivil behavior of Germany’s law enforcement apparatus were leaked to the international press. People rationalized that the violent acts (mostly against Jews) were just isolated incidents because they did not want to believe that an evolved society such as Germany’s could be so evil.

Read the book to learn the details of how Dodd became the prophetic, tragic figure in an existentialist drama that set the stage for WWII.

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