In 1938 the main figure in “In the Garden of Beasts” tried to convince the world
that the Nazis planned to go to war and to exterminate all the Jews. After the
war was well under way, the main figure in “Story of a Secret State” tried to
inform the world that the extermination of the Jews was indeed in progress. We
know that in both cases few – and especially few of those in power in the West –
paid much attention.
Readers are certainly paying attention today to Erik
Larson’s “In the Garden of Beasts.” Despite the book’s narrow focus – the
experience of an American diplomat in the first year of Hitler’s reign – it has
become a huge bestseller in the US. The reasons for the book’s popularity are
twofold: The story is rife with moral quandaries, tension, violence and sex, and
the narrative is relayed in the sort of undemanding prose and brisk sound-bite
chapters made popular by Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code.” Which is to say “In
the Garden of Beasts” may be thought of as nonfiction beach reading.
is unsurprising for Larson, an author who made his reputation with accounts of
historical murder cases (e.g., “Devil in the White City” and
“Thunderstruck”). But for all that, “In the Garden of Beasts” (the title
refers, at least on one level, to Berlin’s famous Tiergarten) does have some
compelling figures who undergo significant experiences.
The first of
these personages is William Dodd, a mild-mannered history professor at the
University of Chicago. Just as the Nazis were coming to power, Dodd became
Franklin Roosevelt’s improbable choice for ambassador to Germany. Dodd was
tapped only after a half-dozen other candidates declined the post. The
professor’s chief qualifications, at least in Roosevelt’s view, were his
impeccable character and the fact that as a youth he had studied in Germany and
knew the language reasonably well.
The State Department was much less
impressed: Dodd was not one of the foreign service’s typical moneyed, Ivy League
old boys. Just about the only thing in his favor, in the view of the State, was
that Dodd, by birth a rural southerner, shared the antipathy for Jews that was
common at the time in the US diplomatic corps.
So Dodd , along with wife, two grown children and the family’s old Chevrolet, arrived in Berlin. They
rented a grand house across the street from the Tiergarten on the cheap from a
Jewish couple with the condition that the pair would quietly occupy the top
floor. It was the summer of 1933 and Dodd found Berlin beautiful, bustling,
sophisticated, exciting and not a little intimidating. Dodd was new to
diplomacy, uncomfortable with his staff, unsure of his duties. (His chief
assignment was to chivvy the German government into paying debts, mostly war
reparations, owed to the US, something that was not going to happen.)
addition, change was under way in Germany; there were, for example, all those
Storm Trooper parades. Yet Dodd, who had hesitated before accepting his post,
remained optimistic. He had happy memories of his student days in Leipzig, he
liked the people, and he was impressed with the energy and aspirations of the
newly animated nation.
He also readily accepted the assurances from his
German contacts that war was the last thing the Nazis desired. As for Germany’s
plans for its Jews, which Dodd had been warned about by, among others, Rabbi
Stephen S. Wise, Dodd adopted a wait-and-see attitude. Indeed, as he opined to a
visiting American businessman, “Jews had held a great many more of the key
positions in Germany than their numbers or talents entitled them to.”
the German foreign minister Dodd stated: “We have had difficulty now and then in
the United States with Jews who have gotten too much of a hold on certain
departments of intellectual and business life.” And in a letter to Roosevelt,
the ambassador wrote: “I believe a people has a right to govern itself and that
other peoples must exercise patience even when cruelties and injustices are
done. Give men a chance to try their schemes.”
Yet, within his first year
in Berlin, Dodd found it increasingly difficult to maintain these positions. The
legislation and other restrictions enforced against Jews appeared to Dodd as
unnecessarily harsh. The Nazi officials with whom he had to deal seemed deluded,
disingenuous, dishonest, even thuggish.
An eventual private meeting with
Hitler frightened Dodd because of the Führer’s sudden hysterical tirade against
the Jews. Frequent outbursts of violence – occasionally against Americans –
proved irksome to say the least. (Anyone who failed to give the stiff-armed
salute as a parade passed by was likely to earn a beating by the Brown Shirts.)
In addition, the evidence of Germany’s growing militarism and rearmament could
not be ignored. Things certainly weren’t helped by a State Department that
minimized Dodd’s concerns and instructed him to tone down his criticism of
Germany. Before his first year of service was completed, Dodd requested
(and received) a two-month leave to calm his spirits on his beloved Virginia
If all this wasn’t enough to complicate the
novice ambassador’s life, there was his daughter Martha. She was blonde,
she was vivacious, she loved parties, she had literary ambitions, she was as
thick as yesterday’s kasha – not the most promising combination of attributes.
Although she had been secretly married back in the US (the marriage was already
strained when she moved to Berlin), Martha embarked on a series of affairs, none
of which suggested particularly good judgment.
One such liaison was with
Rudolph Diels, the chief of the Gestapo. Another was with Boris Winogradov, a
married Soviet diplomat who turned out to be (surprise!) a spy for the NKVD, the
forerunner of the KGB. In between she took up with a number of Nazis. I mean,
even if your daddy isn’t the American ambassador….
But what might we
expect from a woman who, shortly after her arrival in Germany, gushed in her
diary: “Wholesome and beautiful these lads, these Germans, good, sincere,
healthy, mystic, brutal, fine, hopeful, capable of death, deep, rich, wondrous
and strange these youths.” And who wrote in a letter: “I felt like a child,
ebullient and careless, the intoxication of the new regime working like a wine
in me.” And who could tell a friend, even after witnessing anti- Semitic
violence on the street: “We sort of don’t like the Jews anyway.”
fair, Dodd was hardly the only outside observer in 1933-1934 who believed that
Hitler couldn’t last, that Göring and Goebbels were buffoons, that the Nazi
program was nothing but bluff, that the anti-Jewish ideology wouldn’t grow legs
in an enlightened and modern European state, like Germany.
In any event,
the ambassador held fast to his views for a lot less time than did many others.
After the so-called Night of the Long Knives in June 1934, when Hitler led a
murderous mass purge of the SA leadership and of other perceived enemies, Dodd
could barely conceal his disillusionment with, and indeed contempt for, the Nazi
The Nazis, in turn, had had enough of Dodd, infuriated by, among
other things, his refusal to attend Nuremberg rallies. (Dodd’s
explanation was that he was ambassador to the German nation, not to the Nazi
Party.) By this time, moreover, the old-boy network in the State Department was
actively undermining Dodd and agitating for his replacement. Dodd would cling to
his position until 1938 (Larson skims over these later years of service with
But in the end Dodd was relieved to get out of
Germany. Immediately thereafter, as noted at the beginning of this review, he
was speaking out to anyone in the US who would listen about the evils of the
Nazis. Kristallnacht later that year and the Nazi invasion of Poland the
following year confirmed all his predictions about the path Germany would take.
By 1940, Dodd, his health and spirit broken, was dead.
lived on with a new husband named Alfred Stern in New York, both devotees of
leftist causes, and Martha apparently a low-level spy for the Soviets. In
the McCarthy era the couple fled to Mexico, then settled in Prague, where they
lived, deeply unhappy, for several decades. Martha died there in 1990, at
“In the Garden of Beasts” is hardly an indispensable text on the
Nazi era, but Erik Larson to his credit has done the requisite research,
integrates his material deftly and turns it all into a page-turner. The book
also has fine illustrations and splendid endpaper maps of Central Berlin. It may
be History Lite, but it achieves its ambitions.
By contrast, Jan Karski
’s “Story of a Secret State” is History Heavy, being a document written during
the war and the Holocaust and unsparing in its depiction of their multiple
horrors. Yet it’s also a page-turner, crammed as it is with acts of derring-do,
secret missions, espionage, disguises, captures, tortures, escapes and the like.
A bestseller when it was originally published in the US in 1944, it was
subsequently reissued in Polish in 1999 with corrections and updates blended
seamlessly in the text, and this extended edition has now been published in the
UK. A major film adaptation is reportedly in the works.
Jan Karski, of course, is
better known than William Dodd, not least because he was one of the first
individuals to bring an eyewitness account of the Warsaw ghetto and the death
camps to the attention (or perhaps inattention) of the leaders of the allied
nations. for his efforts Karski was added to the ranks of Yad Vashem’s righteous
gentiles in 1982 and was awarded honorary Israeli citizenship in 1994. Karski
was also the recipient of numerous other honors in the US, where he died in 2000
at age 86, in Poland, and elsewhere.
As suggested above, his story is
nothing short of dazzling. It begins in august 1939 as a dashing young member of
the Polish foreign Service and a mounted artillery reserve officer comes home
from a party only to receive a midnight mobilization order – the sort of call-up
all too familiar to Israeli reservists. the man was Jan Kozielewski (Karski
would later be his nom de guerre, then his legal name).
Believing only a
routine exercise is under way, our hero cheerfully packs a light kitbag and
heads for his assembly point. Soon he and his equally unsuspecting comrades are
on a train bound for the military barracks at the obscure little town of Oswiecim, which had at that time some 7,000 inhabitants, about half of whom were
Jews. (the barracks would later be taken over by the Nazis and turned into a
prisoner-of-war camp, the first stage of Auschwitz.)
From that moment on
Karski’s life was anything but routine. after the outbreak of hostilities Karski
was captured by the red army. By concealing his rank, he was spared execution in
the Soviet massacre of Polish military officers at Katyn. Instead, he was handed
over as a POW to the Germans. he soon escaped and joined up with the fledgling
Polish underground, for whom he eventually became an international
Captured at one point by the gestapo, he was brutally beaten and
tortured. Yet the remarkable Karski effected yet another escape. The man
had more lives than a cat. With the impunity of the Scarlet Pimpernel, he
continued to smuggle himself from one occupied nation to the next. he got
himself in and out of the Warsaw ghetto more than once and, disguised as
ukrainian camp guard, even got himself in and out of an auxiliary camp of the
Belzec death factory.
Karski eventually made his way to England to plead
for support of the Polish free forces and to report on the barbarities being
visited upon the Jews. Prime minister Winston Churchill declined to see him.
foreign secretary Anthony Eden afforded Karski some minutes but little else. he
met with other British political figures, with the press and with the Polish
government-in-exile, and testified before the newly established united nations
War Crimes Commission.
Frustrated in London, Karski traveled on to the US. he met with Supreme Court Justice Felix frankfurter, with Jewish community
leaders, with the attorney general and the secretary of state. finally he
succeeded in seeing president Roosevelt, but nothing substantive came of the
meeting. he even met with Hollywood producers, hoping a movie might publicize
what he had seen, but this came to no avail. Karski then wrote, in haste but
with considerable literary panache, “the Story of a Secret State.”
the war Karski became a US citizen and earned a PhD at Georgetown university,
where he then taught international relations for some 40 years. Karski earned
numerous academic and other honors and produced other writings, but his greatest
achievement is “Story of a Secret State,” and we are fortunate to have it in
this new edition.