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

by Erik Larson

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Student Question

Why were many initially drawn to Nazism and willing to give Hitler everything he wanted, as depicted in the Garden of Beasts?

Quick answer:

Ambassador Dodd and many others at first thought the Nazis were preferable to the Communists, given their focus on youth and strength, and that Hitler would be reasonable once he learned how things worked. In addition, there was a concerted Nazi effort to put the best foot forward in front of foreigners. And finally, those encountering the Nazis early on didn't yet have enough context to understand what they were seeing. Excerpt from In the Garden of Beasts: "An educated man," Dodd said often, "must be tolerant." He had used that word hundreds of times since his arrival. It was one of his favorite words—that is, tolerant—and one he had always tried to live by.

Expert Answers

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While it's not clear that Ambassador Dodd thought Hitler would have a "positive" influence on Germany, and while not everyone was enamored of Hitler—after all, four men turned down the plum post of ambassador to Germany before FDR phoned the unlikely candidate, Dodd, with the offer—Dodd and others were willing to give Hitler the benefit of the doubt. Some people wrote off Hitler and the Nazis from the start as animalistic thugs, but Dodd was willing to make an effort to try to work with the regime. Still others, such as Dodd's daughter Martha, were indeed enamored of the attractive youth aspects of National Socialism and discounted the rumors of violence and sadism.

As for Ambassador Dodd and those willing to give the Nazis a chance, the thinking went as follows: yes, the Nazis had been excessively violent on taking power, but the responsibility of governing a country was causing them to become more moderate. Second, some people were of the mindset that while the ruthless treatment of the Jews was deplorable, the Jews had in part brought it on themselves. Third, Dodd himself thought the best approach to Hitler was to be "as sympathetic and nonjudgmental as possible" (41) and to try to understand Germany's objections to the Treaty of Versailles. Finally, as an intellectual, Dodd also believed that people were inherently rational, and therefore, "'Hitler will fall in line with ... wiser men" (65).

For many foreigners—and this initially was the experience of the Dodds—the "dissonance" between the reports of Nazi violence and the "pleasant times" they actually experienced in Germany led them to discount the reports of violence and remilitarization they heard as exaggerations. The Nazis appeared to have cleaned up the country and brought new hope. Much of this pleasant feeling, however, was due to a concerted Nazi effort to put the best foot forward in front of foreigners, exactly so that they would not believe the darker rumors.

One of Larson's main points is that people like Dodd, encountering Hitler and the Nazis early on, in real time, didn't yet have enough context to understand the true nature of the regime. We see it a certain way in hindsight, because we know the horror that ensued, but people early on didn't know quite what to think.

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