American author and journalist Erik Larson has long espoused a fresh take on history writing. Approaching the subject with a novelist’s eye, he once quipped that the cardinal error of most historians was that they tend to leave all the best stories languishing in the footnotes.
In his new book, In the Garden of Beasts, Larson has been true to his word and has promoted one of those forgotten asides to centre stage. He tells the engaging story of William Dodd, a middle-aged history professor who – almost by accident – became the US ambassador to Nazi Germany in the summer of 1933; a job that no one in the American political establishment seemed to want. An academic with no diplomatic experience, Dodd was a peculiar choice. A Jeffersonian Democrat and a Germanophile by nature, he was a frugal, modest man who naively believed that the Nazis would respond to reason and that moderation would win out.
Dodd’s 24-year-old daughter, Martha, was of a very different stamp, however. Flighty, flirtatious and foolish, she viewed her sojourn in Berlin as a grand adventure and a convenient release from a hastily concluded marriage back home. She took a string of lovers, including Hitler’s foreign press chief, Ernst Hanfstängl, the former air ace Ernst Udet and the scar-faced head of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels. She was even introduced to Hitler as a potential consort but he was evidently unimpressed.
Politically she was similarly accommodating. Initially showing an embarrassing passion for Nazism, she was seduced by the brutal vitality that Hitler’s movement seemed to demonstrate. Even witnessing Nazi violence at first hand – the public humiliation of a young woman for consorting with a Jew – did little to cool her ardour. Yet a chance meeting with a charming Russian would turn her head. Boris Vinogradov was a KGB agent who expertly seduced the impressionable young American, persuading her in the process to spy for Stalin’s Soviet Union.
With this implausibly rich cast of characters, Larson guides the reader through the dramatic early years of the Third Reich, a time when the true horrors of Nazism were only slowly becoming apparent. Using Dodd’s papers and diaries, he skilfully conveys the complex climate of the time: the unnerving thrill of upheaval and revolution, the all-pervading fear of Nazi violence, and the stubborn hope that decency might once again prevail.
The watershed moment in the book is the so-called Night of the Long Knives, in the fevered summer of 1934, when Hitler turned against his erstwhile allies, the SA, taking the opportunity for a bloody score-settling with countless others in the process. For Dodd, it marked the end of hope, the end of his optimism that the “old” Germany that he had loved might reassert itself against the criminal leadership of the new Reich. Thereafter, he would harden his stance towards the Nazis and become one of the earliest – and loneliest – advocates of a robust response to Hitlerite aggression. He would be doomed as a Cassandra, sending warnings to a political establishment that increasingly viewed him as an irritant. For all his perspicacity and moral rectitude, Dodd earned himself the sobriquet in Washington of “Ambassador Dud”.
Larson tells the story of the Dodds – père et fille – with consummate ease, evoking sympathy for the father and irritation with the daughter in equal measure. Though he naturally brings his journalistic skills to the fore, he never seems to lose his credibility or authority as a historian.
I had anticipated that my historian’s sensibilities would be offended by Larson’s novelisation of history. Yet, In the Garden of Beasts drew me in and won me over. And, far from feeling dubious about the book, I concluded that it brings a fresh perspective to a familiar subject and makes a genuine contribution to our understanding. Most importantly, perhaps, it tells a fascinating story brilliantly well.
Roger Moorhouse is the author of ‘Berlin at War: Life and Death in Hitler’s Capital’ (Bodley Head)
In the Garden of Beasts: Love and Terror in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson, Doubleday, RRP£20, 464 pages