In the Garden of Beasts

As a historian, [Dodd] had come to see the world as a product of historical forces and the decisions of more or less rational people, and he expected the men around him to behave in a civil and coherent manner. But Hitler’s government was neither civil nor coherent, and the nation lurched from one inexplicable moment to another.

One of my favorite topics to explore with students in US history classes is how the United States engaged––or didn’t––with the rise of Nazi Germany. Simple ignorance is an insufficient explanation, as is the turbulence of the decade between the Depression and the Dustbowl. Rampant racism, as shown by a 1939 “Pro America Rally” at Madison Square Garden that hung swastikas from the rafters, contributed, but all of these factors spun together to create the US response.

Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts, sits at the heart of this question, tracing experience of William Dodd, the first American ambassador to Hitler’s Germany, from his appointment in 1933 through the Night of the Long Knives in 1934 when Hitler consolidated power by purging Ernst Röhm and the leadership of the SA, the Nazi paramilitary organization. Over the course of this year, Dodd and his family become disillusioned both by the American diplomatic establishment whose primary concern lies with recouping debts for American creditors and with the the Nazi party that professes to uphold the rule of law but actually embodies the fickle and capricious mania that propelled it to power.

In the Garden of Beasts follows the arcs of two members of Dodd household, the professor-turned-unlikely-ambassador William and his adult daughter, the flirtatious (and perhaps promiscuous) Martha.

William Dodd was a historian of the American South who received his doctorate in Germany and fancied himself a democrat of the Jeffersonian mold, complete with a Virginia farm. Despite his credentials and connections to the Wilson White House, Dodd remained an outsider to elite society, and so it was only the unlikely confluence of his request to become a diplomat (albeit at a sleepy post where he could work on his magnum opus) and Roosevelt’s failure to find an ambassador to the new German government that landed him the position. Dodd reluctantly agrees and set out for Berlin with his wife and children in tow, but immediately offended the diplomatic establishment with his insistence that they live modestly and without the fanfare expected of an American embassy.

Martha Dodd, as Larson describes her, delights in the attractions of men, but is married, and separated. In Berlin, she becomes swept up in the glamour of the diplomatic world, having romantic liaisons with, among others, Rudolf Diels, the head of the Gestapo, Ernst Hanfstaengl, one of Hitler’s aids, and a Soviet diplomatic attache (and undercover NKVD agent) Boris Vinogradov who dreams of converting her to the communist cause. Once, she is even considered as a potential match for Adolf Hitler.

Larson’s strength in drawing characters serves him well here. He might be overly interested in describing Martha’s promiscuity, but her affairs introduce a wider cast than focusing on the official ambassadorial story and Larson is also led to these descriptions by his sources, which include Martha’s memoirs of her liaisons in Berlin.

However, for all of brightly colored, if often menacing, characters in In the Garden of Beasts, the book didn’t have the same propulsion as Devil in the White City, his other book that I read. There are several explanations for this. One is that where the latter book is the story about the dark underbelly of triumphalism in the late-19th century American city, the former covers the awakening of a naïve family to the horrors going on around them. The result is a downward trajectory to In the Garden of Beasts that bottoms out with Hitler consolidating power––a compelling story, but not necessarily an exciting one.

The second factor limiting In the Garden of Beasts returns to the central question of the US diplomatic engagement with Nazi Germany. Larson tries to create stakes out of the various frictions in the diplomatic establishment: between US citizens being attacked in Germany and the demand to recoup debts owed from World War One; between the establishment’s wealthy aristocratic values and Dodd’s democratic simplicity; and between Dodd and the civil service in place in Berlin who chaffed at this inexperienced outsider’s mandates. This last was particularly notable since Messersmith, the man on station in Berlin, saw the dangers of the Nazi regime before Dodd even arrived. These disputes simultaneously felt like the weaker and the more existentially important thread, a contradiction left unresolved when the book slips into a denouement after July 1934 and Dodd becomes an outcast Cassandra warning about the dangers of Hitler’s regime.

I found In the Garden of Beasts darkly compelling, but, beyond the Dodds’ story, it didn’t reveal anything new about either Nazi Germany or 1930s America.

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I have been on a run of non-fiction reading, recently, finishing All the Pieces Matter, Jonathan Abrams’ oral history of The Wire, and am now reading Sally Jenkins’ The Real All Americans, a history of the Carlisle football team that beat West Point in 1912.

The Devil in the White City

Chicago was an eventful city in the 1890s. It had a booming population, reaching the status of second city in time for the census at the start of the decade and, as a center of industry, its leading citizens were determined to make Chicago the site of the World’s Fair commemorating Columbus’ voyages to America. To the eastern elite Chicago was unsuited for this distinction as a smelly, uncouth, backward city. But win the bid it did, commissioning the architect Daniel Hudson Burnham to design a fair that had to be ready to open in 1893 and surpass the grandeur of the Paris World’s Fair of 1889, by any means necessary.

The end result was the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, an event that set a single-day record for peace-time attendance at nearly three quarters of a million on Monday October 9. The White City and accompanying Midway with its massive Ferris wheel, the first of its kind, spinning above it, was a marvel of engineering and science. The designers had to overcome monumental challenges of the landscape during construction, and the final product featured the latest technological marvels, including widespread lighting systems powered by a grid using alternating currents.

But just a few blocks away from the fair there was another building designed with the utmost care. But where the fair was designed with an eye toward grandeur and beauty, this other building, designed by an amateur, was sinister in its functionality. This building was owned and operated by a charming young man who went by H.H. Holmes, the first known serial killer in the United States.

Erik Larson weaves a narrative from these two stories as they build toward their conclusions, with interspersed vignettes from a young man named Patrick Prendergast who believed he was owed a political appointment. The result is a highly engaging book that brings to life in 1890s Chicago and makes the case that this remarkable event shaped the direction of modern America in a myriad of ways.

From a purely aesthetic point of view I loved this book and I can see why it is a popular choice to assign students. But at the same time, the more I read, the more I thought it was a remarkable coincidence that Holmes was active at the same time as the fair. The details of Holmes’ method and the reality of his building offer the perfect counterpoint to the opulence taking place down the street, even if the two narratives are practically unconnected. Nor do I doubt that the broad strokes of the chillingly fascinating account of Holmes’ life are accurate, but Larson breathes life and pseudo-sexual motivation into the killer in a way that is based on supposition.

(Larson acknowledges the difficulties of the sources about Holmes in his notes, and it is not actually clear whether Holmes killed anyone in town just for the fair.)

The result is that while the part of my brain that was reading The Devil in the White City for pleasure ate this story up, the academic side of my brain was left asking what this part of the story contributed to Larson’s case that this fair shaped modern America.

There were other, smaller quibbles that gnawed at me at times, including Larson’s seeming obsession with gout that emerges from being overly enthralled by the characters in the book at the expense of systems that were taking place at the fair (tell me more about the food not at banquets, please). But these complaints notwithstanding, The Devil in the White City is a deeply engaging read that brings the city of Chicago of that era to life and death.

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I have been spending more time reading than writing over the past week. I’ve also finished Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, Brandon Sanderson’s Edgedancer, and Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist. I’m on the fence as to whether I will write about the first two, but I absolutely loved the third and have thoughts.