In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson: A Witness to Hitler's Rise

In Erik Larson’s new book, In the Garden of Beasts, he tells the story of the Nazis terrifying rise to power through the eyes of the US ambassador, but he fails to ask crucial questions says Zachary Shore.

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, April 20, 1939. (Photo: Hugo Jaeger, Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images)

In Erik Larson’s new book, In the Garden of Beasts, he tells the story of the Nazis terrifying rise to power through the eyes of the U.S. ambassador, but he fails to ask crucial questions says Zachary Shore.

The German language has two ways of saying “you.” There’s the polite, formal form: “Sie,” and there’s the informal, friendly form, “Du.” Hitler almost never used the friendly form with anyone. Ernst Röhm was one exception. Scarred down his left cheek from an early fencing duel, Röhm had the kind of toughness that Hitler valued—the kind he often wished his generals possessed. The two men shared a bond born of their common world view: you tested your mettle in battle. Though Hitler was quite a prude when it came to sex, for years he knowingly overlooked Röhm’s flagrant homosexuality. That tolerance of deviance was one more powerful sign of Hitler’s deep respect for Röhm as a Nazi leader. Röhm had built a million-man-strong paramilitary band of street thugs, the brown-shirted Storm Troopers, or SA. And in the summer of 1934, when a clash occurred between Röhm’s SA and the non-Nazi, aristocratic army generals, Hitler had his old friend murdered.

If anyone at the time had wanted to know what kind of man the Führer was, this episode should have caught someone’s attention. It did. American Ambassador, William E. Dodd, lived through the bloody assassination of Röhm, his henchmen, and possibly up to two hundred others. Dodd saw that no one was safe, no matter how high his position. One of the two most recent Chancellors (the German term for a Prime Minister), Kurt von Schleicher, was shot in his home, along with his wife, in plain view of their young daughter. Another ex-Chancellor, Heinrich Brüning, fled for his life, eventually settling down at Harvard, where at least the bitter rivalries never seemed quite as dangerous. The Vice-Chancellor, Franz von Papen, whom Ambassador Dodd had grown to appreciate, was placed under house arrest, left to wonder about his fate. His closest aides were not as lucky. One was simply shot across his desk at the Vice-Chancellery. The other was dragged off and killed later. Within the first two years of Hitler’s rule, some 60,000 Germans were arrested and another 2,000 killed, but the greatest single burst of violence occurred in the days immediately following 30 June 1934, when Josef Goebbels telephoned Hermann Göring with the sinisterly pleasant codeword “ Kolibri” (hummingbird), which set the death squads in motion.

Why did it take Ambassador Dodd and his daughter so long to see the Nazi government for the ruthless regime it was?

Erik Larson's latest work, In the Garden of Beasts, revisits these chilling times, from Hitler's ascent to power in 1933 to the orgiastic climax of killings in the Night of the Long Knives. But he crafts his narrative through the eyes of America's ambassador, a history professor from Chicago, and his rather easy-virtued daughter, Martha, whose amorous encounters introduce us to a cadre of kooks, including a love-sick Soviet spy and the inadequately sadistic Gestapo chief.

Dramatizing the work of historians, Larson has produced a page-turner on par with The Devil in the White City. As with that earlier book, he rivets the reader to a plot of jarring contradictions. While street violence and state surveillance permeate German daily life, Ambassador Dodd is more focused on completing his opus, a history of America’s old south. Instead of landing the sinecure he expected, Dodd finds himself in a classic Foreign Service quandary: undercut by colleagues from above and below. The Ambassador is disrespected by his own Embassy staff—a cohort of golden boys, chummy members of their exclusive “Pretty Good Club”—and chastised by his superiors back home, who rename him Ambassador Dud. Beyond the bureaucratic back-biting, Dodd must serve as America’s debt collector. Rather than standing strong against Nazi anti-Semitism, Washington’s main objective, as it had been since the close of World War One, is to extract German reparations for American investors. Larson neatly juxtaposes these concerns against the terror sweeping through Germany.

For all the narrative skill with which the author retells this grim tale, the book contains some frustrating dead ends. Larson peeks into a cauldron of brewing questions, yet backs away without letting us look inside. Why did it take Ambassador Dodd and his daughter so long to see the Nazi government for the ruthless regime it was? Dodd, like most foreign diplomats in Germany at the time, had to seek compensation for their citizens who had been assaulted by the SA. Those gangs were hardly selective in their abuse. Even foreign officials like the Portuguese Consul-General in Hamburg were beaten up by SA thugs. Larson explains that Ambassador Dodd thought that the Nazis would not last, and his daughter was enamored of Nazi strength. But he contrasts the Dodds’ myopia with American embassy official, George Messersmith, who grasped early on the regime’s true nature. Larson does not delve deeply into the reasons for Ambassador Dodd’s slow awakening. He gives us only hints at the larger question of why two men of similar values can observe the same brutal events yet come away with strikingly different reactions to it.

Though Dodd is Larson’s protagonist, the author only superficially deals with the roots or depth of Dodd’s anti-Semitism. True, the Ambassador’s attitudes were akin to those held by men of his ilk. But what makes Dodd most interesting is the striking contradiction in his character. He believed himself, Larson says, to be President Roosevelt’s chosen standard-bearer of liberal values. Yet his willingness to sympathize with Hitler’s rage against the Jews suggests at least some illiberal inclinations. Dodd’s own struggle on this front could give us useful insight into the limits of liberalism at this historic moment, yet the author does not go there.

Perhaps the most intriguing question left unanswered is why, after so much bloodletting, Hitler spared Vice-Chancellor von Papen. The long knives struck deep into the political elite, murdering or removing the regime’s opponents. Yet it was Papen, after all, who spoke out against Nazi excesses in a public forum, to the fervent cheers of his audience. If the purge was intended simply to expunge the opposition, then Papen should have been the first to go. Dodd was sufficiently concerned that he drove by von Papen’s home just to see if his friend was still alive. Larson does not explain that the Vice-Chancellor was spared in order to inculcate uncertainty. No one in a position of authority, especially the non-Nazi officials still within the government, could fail to get the message. You can be destroyed at any time; your wives and children, too. Von Papen never again spoke out against the regime.

The non-Nazi Foreign Minister, Konstantin von Neurath, heard the message loud and clear. Though Larson notes several occasions when Dodd and Neurath met, Larson does not relate that a few days following the purge Dodd visited Neurath in the Foreign Ministry and found the Minister deeply distressed. Naturally Neurath repeated the standard line, that Röhm had planned a putsch, but Dodd could sense that Neurath was shaken. Unbeknownst to Dodd, members of Neurath’s own ministry had been forced into hiding. Dodd was also slow to recognize what Neurath knew too well. Hermann Göring’s wire-tapping bureau ( Forschungsamt) was monitoring every communication with foreign officials. The icy climate of fear had now suffused even the highest ranks of government.

Larson gives an excellent account of the expanding cloud of terror, mainly by popularizing previous works. His true skill is as a narrator of violent histories, and his subject does not disappoint. As a way of learning about the Nazi’s early years in power, Larson’s book is a lot like Wikipedia: a great place to start but not to stop. If you're looking for a gripping tale of intrigue and fear, horror and hope, make this your next read. Tragic that it isn't fiction.

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Zachary Shore is the author of What Hitler Knew: The Battle for Information in Nazi Foreign Policy (Oxford University Press, 2003), and most recently Blunder: Why Smart People Make Bad Decisions (Bloomsbury, 2008).