In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin

by Erik Larson
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1907

George Messersmith, the American Consul General in Nazi Germany, learns of an attack on an American by Nazi soldiers. He realizes that Germany is gearing up for a war of conquest, but he cannot make the government in Washington understand this. The new ambassador is due to arrive soon.

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In 1933, William E. Dodd, a Democrat from North Carolina, is seeking a change from his professorship at the University of Chicago to finish his book series on the Old South. Franklin D. Roosevelt is seeking for someone to fill the position of ambassador to Germany and is having difficulty finding anyone who will accept it. He approaches Dodd, who accepts the position so he can have one last time with his entire family: his wife; his son, Bill, Jr.; and his daughter, Martha (who is in the midst of divorcing her husband). The family sails to Germany and establishes themselves in a luxury hotel in Berlin. Dodd gives himself the mission to convince America that the bleak picture the press has painted of Nazi Germany is inaccurate, that in fact the people are pleasant and the country is beautiful.

Martha meets Sigrid Schultz, an American correspondent, who gives Martha a negative view of Germany under the Nazis. Martha cannot agree with Schultz based on what she observes and the people she meets. George Bassett, her husband, arrives in Berlin and agrees to a divorce.

Dodd is torn between his desire to view Germany positively and his intention to intercede for the Jews in the midst of their persecution. He hears of some American citizens, like Philip Zuckerman, who are beaten by the Nazis. Consul General Messersmith is frustrated at Dodd’s rosy view of Germany. Martha meets some highly placed Nazis, such as Gestapo Chief Rudolf Diels. The most highly placed Nazi is Ernst Hanfstaengl, commonly called “Putzi.”

The Nazis have targeted another correspondent, Edgar Mowrer; they want him out of the country. Mowrer asks Dodd to intercede for him so he can remain, but Dodd tells him he has no wish to get mixed up in Germany’s affairs. A scientist named Fritz Haber requests Dodd’s help to get him out of Germany. Dodd hesitates, and Haber manages to get to England. He later dies in Switzerland of heart complications.

The Dodds find a place to rent in Berlin. It is a four-story mansion belonging to Alfred Panovsky, a Jewish banker. The Dodds may rent the first three floors; Panovsky and his mother will live on the fourth floor. Although the house is more opulent than Dodd feels comfortable with, it is large enough that he can entertain in the manner to which he is accustomed. He is at this point still an unofficial ambassador because he has not been able to present his credentials to Hindenburg, the president of Germany, because of the latter’s ill health.

The Dodd family goes on a driving tour of Germany accompanied by a new friend of Martha’s, Quentin Reynolds. They first stop in Wittenberg and then go on to Leipzig, where Dodd went to graduate school. From there, the younger members go on to Nuremberg while the parents return to Berlin. On his return, Dodd is faced with another attack on an American citizen. He receives an official apology, but Messersmith believes these incidents will continue. At Nuremberg, Bill, Martha, and Reynolds encounter an incident of anti-Semitism: an Aryan woman is dragged through the streets for associating with a Jewish man. Reynolds reports this on his return to Berlin, but he does not name the Dodds in order to protect them. Dodd receives an invitation to a Nazi party rally in Nuremberg, but he fears that his attendance would imply approval of Nazi policies. He speaks to the other ambassadors, and it is agreed that none of them will attend.

In August, President Hindenburg is finally well enough to receive Dodd’s credentials. This opens the floodgates of diplomatic duties and parties that tax Dodd’s nerves and health. He must also deal with continued attacks on Americans, this time on H. V. Kaltenborn, a correspondent who had denied that the Nazis were attacking innocent people. The Consul General Messersmith pressures Dodd to post a travel warning, but Dodd resists.

Whereas Dodd dislikes the social aspects of his job, his daughter, Martha, is involved with several men, even Nazi officials. She is linked with Rudolph Diels, chief of the Gestapo, but it is her relationship with the Russian Boris Winogradov that will be most influential in her future. Winogradov is ostensibly a secretary with the Soviet embassy, but in actuality he is an operative with the secret intelligence agency of Communist Russia.

Dodd confronts the Foreign Minister, Neurath, with the continued assaults on Americans. He also brings up the “Jewish Problem.” Neurath will not budge on this, and Dodd points out that, if it comes to another war, Germany will not survive. When the attacks continue, Dodd becomes increasingly discouraged. He is also frustrated by the lack of time he has to work on his history of the Old South. He requests an extended leave in the early part of 1934, which he is granted.

Diels, the Gestapo chief and Martha’s lover, is forced to leave Germany under suspicion of treason. He settles in Switzerland and waits for an opportunity to return, harboring secret documents that contain sensitive information. Martha, in the meantime, continues her social rise, now hobnobbing with both Nazi and anti-Nazi groups.

On Columbus Day, Dodd gives a speech that is indirectly (but recognizably) critical of the German government. The State Department in Washington warns him against alienating his host country. A few days later, Dodd receives an invitation to a personal meeting with Adolph Hitler. Putzi Hanfstaengl plans to introduce Martha to Hitler in the hopes of fomenting a romantic relationship between them.

Dodd’s meeting with Hitler begins with the subject of the attacks on Americans. Hitler assures Dodd that the perpetrators will be punished. Dodd also questions Hitler about Germany’s withdrawal from the League of Nations and the nullification of the Treaty of Versailles. Martha is taken to meet Hitler at a hotel restaurant. She is struck by his eyes; she sees him in a more positive light than he is portrayed in the newspapers. She does not meet him again.

Dodd tries to decrease the expenditures of the embassy but meets resistance from both the embassy staff and the State Department in Washington. He is also concerned that the large number of Jews among the embassy employees will hinder his work with the Nazis. Martha attends the trial of the arsonists who burned the Reichstag. Göring, as witness, makes it clear that the fate of the defendant, Dimitrov, is sealed no matter the verdict. Martha goes on a motoring tour with Boris and encounters a statue of Christ that reminds her of Dimitrov’s coming sacrifice of his life.

On November 12, 1933, Germans overwhelmingly approve a public referendum in favor of rearmament and withdrawal from the League of Nations. Dodd writes to Roosevelt that the election is a farce. Roosevelt replies with strong support for the work Dodd has been doing. Martha becomes even more romantically involved with the Soviet Boris Winogradov, despite her best instincts.

As the year 1934 commences, there is the general feeling that Hitler is improving and becoming less irrational. The persecution of the Jews seems (at least on the surface) to have eased. The concentration camps are presented as temporary. Dodd’s worries are more focused on the increased animosity toward him from the State Department in Washington.

Martha is becoming more consumed with Boris. He brings her to his private quarters in the Soviet embassy and introduces her to his daughter. As the physical relationship increases in intensity, Martha begins to feel a sense of foreboding. With her family in the American embassy, she is aware of an increased restraint for fear of espionage in the embassy itself, perhaps from Fritz the butler. The culture of surveillance is seen as omnipresent. Tensions in Germany at large increase, and it is clear that the government is planning on the probability of war. Dodd meets with Hitler a second time. The Nazi leader is upset by a mock trial in New York, though Dodd assures him that it is not connected to the U.S. government. It is clear that Hitler is buying time to allow Germany to rearm.

Dodd prepares to return to the United States on his leave. In Washington, he confronts the excessive policies of the Foreign Service Department, which he refers to as the “Pretty Good Club,” with the result that the Dodd’s enemies become more aggressive in their attacks on him. Back in Germany, Martha is concerned that her friend Diels is in trouble. She asks Messersmith to help him. Eventually, Diels is reassigned to Cologne as a regional commissioner, which leaves Himmler in charge of the Gestapo. It becomes common knowledge that President Hindenburg is in increasingly ill health and will most likely not survive the summer.

Messersmith is at last transferred to a post in Austria, much to Dodd’s relief. There is a growing feeling of oppression that bothers both Dodd and Martha. Martha begins to plan a journey to the Soviet Union against the advice of her parents and others. She insists it is only because of her love for Boris and does not have any ideological motive. Dodd feels that the Jewish problem has not improved after all, but he is certain that Hitler, Göring, and Goebbels are too erratic to last much longer. Vice Chancellor Papen speaks out against the Nazi policies, standing as a mouthpiece for President Hindenburg. Hindenburg himself is concerned about the rising tensions in Germany and warns Hitler that if he does not get things under control, he will declare martial law. When Hitler hears the rumor that Himmler and Göring are planning a coup, he decides the time has come for action.

June 30, 1934, witnesses a mass execution of Röhm and others who are suspected of less-than-avid support of the Nazi party. Almost three hundred people are killed; that day becomes known as The Night of the Long Knives. Martial law is put into effect in Berlin. Vice Chancellor Papen is under house arrest and manages to survive.

Martha leaves for her journey around Russia. She is unimpressed, but during the trip she realizes that any sympathy she might have had for Nazi Germany has disappeared. Dodd begins to think he ought to resign. He contacts the other ambassadors to discourage them from going to hear Hitler’s speech in person, and they all agree. Nevertheless, no government recalls its ambassador, and the German people themselves make little protest over the executions. Hitler proclaims himself Führer and Reich Chancellor. In the meantime, Martha is approached by the Soviets about being a spy for them, and Boris is transferred back to Moscow.

Dodd’s is one of the few voices that warns about the true nature of Hitler, but the United States remains committed to a stance of isolationism. Dodd’s opponents in the State Department pressure Roosevelt, and in 1937, Dodd is recalled. The Dodds return to America, where Dodd retires to his farm in Virginia. Mrs. Dodd dies in 1938, and Dodd passes away in 1940. Martha eventually marries (Boris having been executed by Stalin). She dies in 1990.

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