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.


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.

Mephisto – Klaus Mann

…hidden in every real German isn’t there a little of Mephistopheles, a bit of the rascal and the ruffian? If we had nothing but the soul of Faust, what would become of us? It would be a pushover for our many enemies! No, no—-Mephisto, too, is a German national hero. But it’s better not to go around telling people that.

Hendrick (neé Heinz) Höfgen is an actor in Hamburg, a provincial star who dreams of stardom in Vienna or Berlin and lords over his local cast. He rebuffs the advances of “little” Angelika and Hedda, who has intimacy but no relationship, he torments the young National Socialist Miklas, and he perpetually puts off the opening of the “revolutionary theater” planned by his communist friend Otto. The year is 1930. The directors lament that Hendrick is overpaid, but he remains the star and they tolerate his moods and eccentricities. Hendrick draws his energy from his “dancing lessons” with Princess Tebab, his black Venus, and waits.

His patience pays off, his fame builds, and he manages to convince the daughter of a privy counsellor, his “good angel” to marry him. But things really take off when Hendrick excels in the part of Mephistopheles during a performance of Goethe’s Faust and catches the eye of the Prime Minister. (The person is Hermann Göring, but just like with Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler, the three prominent Nazis to appear in the book, Mann never mentions them by name, a point I will come back to below.) With this patronage, Hendrick rises to the top of society and is able to reject his past associations with revolutionary communism, his marriage to a political dissident of “questionable” lineage, and his African mistress—-even over the objections of the Propaganda Minister. However, while Mann portrays Hendrick as complicit because of his obsession with ascending the ranks as an actor, he also shows that Hendrick must still face the moral consequences of his actions; he is a consummate actor and hardly consistent, but seems to have had legitimate political sympathies and affections for people now deemed impure and thus with fame becomes ever more tortured.

Loosely based on the career of the author’s brother-in-law, Klaus Mann’s Mephisto is an interesting mixture of surreal beauty, insightful analysis of the rise of Nazi Germany, and rote polemic. It is not that Mann offers this as a hackneyed retrospective, since it was originally published in 1936, but many of the critiques have since become commonplace.

What Mann did particularly well in Mephisto was to give a panorama of the rise of the Nazi state and the subsequent fallout. For instance, both Hendrick’s friend Otto and his nemesis Hans Miklas come to unfortunate ends, Otto (twice) for dedicating himself to fighting against the Nazis and Miklas for being a true-believer betrayed by the system that still manages to reward Hendrick. Similarly, Mann accounts for the trajectories of Jewish actresses, dissident ex-wives, and deported mistresses to show how Hendrick’s rise and the system that enabled it affected those around him. I also appreciated the depiction of the top Nazi officials, who Mann described as demigods of the underworld who extended their benevolence to mortals.

In this portrayal, it is of little surprise that Hendrick so fully embodied Mephistopheles, who he characterized as “a tragic clown,” a “rascal,” who “knows mankind.” Hendrick is Mephisto. Mephisto is Hendrick. More independent than evil, ever ingratiating, and more than a little lucky. In this case, however, he is also torn by powers stronger than he, torn asunder by the very lack of willingness to stand for anything other than himself. This is not the banality of evil, but something in the same vicinity where personal ambitions of even a person with a conscience can cause him to betray almost everything in his life, whether he believes in those things or not.

I liked Mephisto, though not as much as Klaus’ father, Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus, which was published more than ten years after this book. It has been too long since reading the latter to really compare the two, but perhaps if I reread it this summer I will have to think about this more deeply. That said, I am not in a hurry to jump into that project since I am once more feeling burnt-out on depictions of totalitarianism in Europe.

Next up: I am currently reading Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz and still working on The Struggle for Sea Power by Sam Willis.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Nazi Germany

On this day seventy years ago, the National Socialist German Worker’s Party put out an official statement in regards to a well-loved children’s story and song about Christmas, put out just one year previous. It was bad enough that Saint Nick was the patron saint of Moscow, but this song was seen as contrary to the Nazi agenda since Santa, aka Saint Nick was now being led by a reindeer with a bright red nose. This could not stand.

To counter the influence, but to also stand with their agenda all of the stories in Germany were replaced with a new story: Adolph the White-Nosed Reindeer.