book cover imageIn the Garden of Beasts
by Eric Larsen
(Crown, 2011). 464 pages, $26.

In the Garden of Beasts features William E. Dodd, the American ambassador posted to Nazi Germany from 1933 through the end of 1937. Dodd, a 64-year-old University of Chicago history professor, was not President Franklin Roosevelt’s first choice, but several others asked had declined. Even the professor initially turned the president down. He had lobbied for an ambassadorial appointment not to a European nation but to a small nation where he could work on his first interest, a history of the American South. Acceptance of the posting came when he convinced himself that it could be the highlight of his professional life, perhaps even accomplishing good. He had been a student at Leipzig University and came to appreciate the many good qualities of the Germans, qualities that convinced him that the majority of Germans would eventually reject the Nazis and all they represented. The ambassador seriously underestimated the seductive power of Adolf Hitler and the popularity of what he offered. In time, however, he learned the reality and warned of an impending conflict.

How Ambassador Dodd dealt with this most difficult assignment is the informative side of the book. Entertainment, a staple of the mainstream press, is provided by Dodd’s lusty daughter Martha, whose experiences in Germany are, to put it politely, quite engaging considering that her many love affairs included the German Gestapo Chief and a Soviet KGB agent. Martha’s story, unfortunately, is overplayed at a cost of underplaying the ultimately more significant story of her father. Larsen covers Dodd’s activities and difficulties well from his arrival in July 1933 through 1934. But we learn nothing of 1935, little of 1936, and Larsen is then silent until Dodd’s departure in December 1937, all years critical in the rise and growing threat of Nazi Germany.

During this period the ambassador had to deal with the outbreak ofSpain’s Civil War—with Hitler backing his fellow fascist, Francisco Franco—and the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which included the presence of Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr., who became an excellent propaganda foil for the Nazis (the Embassy military attache, Major Truman Smith, on his own initiative, invited Lindbergh “on behalf of General Goering and the German Air Ministry.”) Also confronting Dodd was the steady elimination of Jews from public and private life in Germany, actions we now know led to the Holocaust. By the time Ambassador Dodd was withdrawn from Berlin, he understood quite well where Nazi Germany was headed and attempted to convey this to Washington and elsewhere, with little success.

Larsen has culled official diplomatic documents, memoirs, diaries, private letters, periodicals, and books, sources that included Ambassador Dodd’s Diary (1941) and Through Embassy Eyes (1939) by Martha Dodd. But one of Larsen’s most unusual and often-cited sources is Blood & Banquets: A Berlin Social Diary by Bella Fromm (1942).

Bella Fromm was a journalist whose Berlin beat included official diplomatic functions as well as private affairs hosted by high Nazi officials, foreign diplomats and their staffs, and members of Berlin’s society. Very able and well regarded, Fromm had many contacts among ranking Nazis, several of whom were close personal friends. In her reporting she kept her readers informed of what, when and who regarding their many receptions and private parties. She also recorded in her diary her assessment of the Nazis and their internecine struggle for power, details that would assure her arrest; Bella Fromm was a Jew. When her survival in Germany became increasingly doubtful, she mailed her diary to a friend in Paris. She was able to obtain an exit permit in 1938 and headed for New York by way of Paris where she repossessed, and subsequently published, her diary.

In the Garden of Beastshas several quotes from Bella Fromm’s diary, but one that appears flawed has to do with an Embassy banquet in honor of the American Consul General, George S. Messersmith. Messersmith, a career diplomat, did not believe Dodd was up to the task in Berlin and criticized him through “back channels” to officials in Washington, a fact known to Dodd who counteracted by pressing Washington to post him elsewhere. When Messersmith was appointed Ambassador to Austria, Dodd, in the words of Larsen “faced the prospect of hosting a giant good-bye banquet for Messersmith” on May 18, 1934. But did Dodd host that party?

Fromm, who covered the affair, lists the banquet as occurring on May 12, not May 18, several days before Dodd had returned to Germany from a leave in the U.S. Setting the party on a date Dodd could not appear is understandable. Personally honoring a man he sought to be rid of would have been out of character for the professor.

Fromm’s entry in her diary is in chronological order (she reports on another party for Messersmith at the American Chamber of Commerce on May 18), so the May 12 date appears correct and more likely considering the strained relationship between the two men. Larsen also quotes a passage from Fromm’s May 12 entry but still holds to the May 18 date. One would think Mr. Larsen, an experienced journalist, would have kept the facts straight.

This error aside, Eric Larsen remains a fine writer and In the Garden of Beasts is both informative and entertaining. He does, however, cross over a line by enhancing the story to cater to readers who demand to be entertained rather than informed.  

Robert Huddleston is a freelance writer whose most recent book, Edmundo: From Chiapas, Mexico to Park Avenue, tells the story of a Mexican-American espionage agent in World War II who, at war’s end, married a German princess.