Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Americans in the Tiergarten

What would an outsider, arriving in Berlin in 1933, say about Hitler's Germany? Erik Larson found two such outsiders, who left copious impressions in diaries and letters.

They were William Dodd, the American ambassador who came to Berlin in 1933; and Martha Dodd, the ambassador's 25-year-old daughter. Larson's book, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin tells the story of their initial willingness to like and accept Nazi Germany, as well as their growing disillusionment and eventual horrified rejection.

Dodd was a college professor, known for his intelligence and incorruptible honesty. But he had no diplomatic experience, no finesse, and was stubborn and inclined to lecture. He valued reason above all things, and his inability to sway the Nazi leadership with good sense shocked and depressed him.

Dodd grew convinced that Germany represented a grave threat to Western civilization, but could get no one in the United States to pay attention to his warnings.

I found Martha's story fascinating. A beauty whose status as an ambassador's daughter gave her instant social cachet, she was quite willing to have a good time in Germany, scandalously dating a number of men. Martha was pro-Nazi at first; she loved the enthusiasm of the German people, their ardent desire to rise above the wreckage of their nation’s past and create a new future. She was willing to turn a blind eye to atrocities, for a time -- until she could ignore them no more.

If you're interested in the years that lead up to World War II, you should enjoy the unique viewpoint provided by Larson's In The Garden of Beasts.

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