History Lite, and History Heavy

Two books – one deals with the looming threat of Hitler, the other with its tragic consequences.

Jan Karski 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Jan Karski 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
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.
This 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.)
In 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.”
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 farm.
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.”
To be 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 regime.
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 breathtaking speed).
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.
Daughter Martha 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 age 82.
“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 courier.
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.”
After 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.