Sunday, June 12, 2011

In the Garden of Beasts

LARSON, ERIK. In the Garden of Beasts. New York: Crown, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-307-40884-6. Pp. 448. $26.00.

In 1933 FDR was having a hell of a time filling the position of ambassador to Germany. No one really wanted the position and after offering the job to a handful of candidates, the President turned to William E. Dodd, a history professor at the University of Chicago. Dodd was already looking for a new post that would allow him enough free time to write his projected four-volume history titled The Rise and Fall of the Old South. Assuming the ambassadorial post in Berlin to be a relatively light one, Dodd accepted Roosevelt's petition, traveling to Berlin with his wife and two grown children, Martha and Bill Jr. Unsurprisingly, he never finished the Old South.

Dodd is a strange choice of subject for what is supposed to be, I believe, a riveting history on the rise of Nazi Germany as seen through the eyes of an American family. In some ways, Dodd is worth the effort: he provides a valuable American perspective in his many letters and diaries. On the other hand, Dodd is a great bore on two levels: he thought everyone was a bore, and everyone felt the same about him. Which is why so much of this book is about Dodd's twenty something daughter, Martha. Martha and her father seemed to have shared no character traits, other than a dose of light antisemitism. Dodd père was austere, niggardly, and fairly antisocial. Martha was the opposite. I can't remember how many lovers (Nazis, princes, communists, Americans, French, German, blond, dark, scarred, cherubic, etc.) she had while living in Berlin. I think the number hovered close to a lot. But her promiscuity, while comical, does not add much substance to Larson's history. After finishing the book I came to realize that none of Martha's sexual escapades had anything to do with the overall narrative, other than to sexify what would otherwise have been a plodding description of Dodd's muted, grudging ambassadorship. Martha's significance to this history has nothing to do with her sex life. Rather, she is important because her reaction to the nascent Nazi regime was so demonstrative of what was happening all over the world during Hitler's rise to absolute power.

Nevertheless, Larson fails in one significant respect. In writing a history of an American family in Berlin during the 1930s, Larson only once, and too briefly at that, mentions any similarities that Nazi Germany and the American South might have had. He captures Dodd's reaction to the new segregation of park benches in the Tiergarten, but does not mention the same racial segregation that was present all over Dodd's own homeland. After the ghastly events of the Night of the Long Knives, Larson describes how Dodd "devoted two quiet hours to his Old South, losing himself in another, more chivalrous age". I should mention that I wrote "Excuse me?" in the margins. The old American South was chivalrous to a point. But the same can be said of Nazi Germany. The white Christian men and women of both milieus treated one another pretty well. But an age that celebrated the Ku Klux Klan and mob lynchings and slavery is not chivalrous, even in comparison to Nazi Germany. For shame, Larson.

In the Garden of Beasts ends on a dreary, noncommittal note. Larson introduced so many episodes of little import to this history that I didn't catch sight of a thesis until the last page: "In the end, of course, neither Dodd's nor Wilson's approach mattered very much". (The Wilson mentioned here is Dodd's successor in Berlin, a more traditional [i.e. less stingy] ambassador.) This is an unwelcome conclusion. Surely Dodd played some kind of role in the events leading to the second World War. But taking a step back, and thinking of the number of times he chose to "do nothing," one can't help but feel a little bit short changed.


  1. I have a family member who fought in the civil war by the name of Charles E. Dodd. I tried looking to see if they were related, but I haven't been able to find a link. Charles E. Dodd's parents were from New York, but I can't find out much about William's parents to see if there's any possible connection.

  2. The William Dodd family was a Southern family, so if there is a connection, it would have to go way back.

  3. This is a really good, well-written review, good work. Premise of the book sounds interesting, except obviously it isn't.