The Clare Spark Blog

August 14, 2011

Review: In The Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

Martha Dodd

Read this first:  Janet Maslin review.

Erik Larson deserves praise for writing a popular book, enhanced by diligent archival research, that does not evade the prevalence of antisemitism in 1930s WASP America, including the State Department and, to a lesser degree, in the family of William E. Dodd, an academic historian who was appointed to be ambassador to Germany in 1933. Not atypically, all were attuned to the notion that there was a “Jewish problem.” What was that “problem”? After the emancipation of German Jews in the 19th century, many Germans of Jewish extraction had attained positions of influence in finance, science, and the professions, far more than their percentage of the population would warrant, according to their competitors.  The notion of  disproportionate Jewish power as a disagreeable feature of modernity  is current even today, and can be found in respectable circles across the political spectrum and amongst persons who do not consider themselves anti-Semites. See for instance an exhaustively documented book by UC Santa Barbara professor Albert S. Lindemann, Esau’s Tears: The Rise of the Jews and Modern Anti-Semitism (Cambridge UP, 1997). (See also my blog And along these lines, it is obvious that some supporters of Israel  have been interested in ridding their countries of their own “Jewish problems.” (See Larson, p. 235, on the U.S. State Department project to relocate Jews, a project launched by the League of Nations. Ralph Bunche found an identical attitude among members of the UNSCOP group who visited Palestine in 1947.)

The fact that Roosevelt appointed Hugh R. Wilson* as ambassador to succeed Dodd, an even more pro-German enemy of the “Jewish-controlled press”  than the Jeffersonian democrat William E. Dodd had been initially (p.355), is shocking, given that Dodd, attracted to the Germany of Goethe and Beethoven, had finally exposed to his superiors the terroristic character of the Nazi regime to Roosevelt, especially after he witnessed the treatment of Franz von Papen as the regime turned to consolidate power by purging its militantly left-wing populist SA in the Night of the Long Knives, June 30, 1934, an event that serves as the emotional climax of the book.

Also, Larson partly explores the role of conservative nationalists such as Paul von Hindenburg, Franz von Papen and Hjalmar Schact in putting the supposedly manageable Hitler in power [in order to destroy the growing German Communist Party, C.S.]—many persons, unfamiliar with the history of the Third Reich, still believe that Hitler was elected by a democratic majority. The Nazi enablers are not necessarily familiar to the broad reading public. (Robert Wistrich had written about the conservative nationalist-Nazi coalition for a popular audience in Hitler’s Apocalypse, 1985.)

In the 1930s, numerous journalists saw that the conservatives’s “tool” Hitler was a wild man who would turn on his anti-Weimar, anticommunist patrons,  but after the war a different narrative displaced it, facilitated by allies of the Roosevelt administration, as I have shown in numerous website blogs.  Namely that Hitler, the crazed, failed artist and thug, had mesmerized the normally sensible and advanced Germans through the deployment of propaganda, spectacle, and mass media.  What these propagandists had done was to deploy the “revolt of the masses” theme that had scared European aristocrats for centuries, but especially after the French Revolution. It should be noted that the Frankfurt School of critical theorists lined up with such social psychologists as Henry A. Murray, Harold Lasswell, and Talcott Parsons. (See blog It should also be noted that German intellectuals fought bitterly over whether the Nazi era was a deviation from German history or, conversely, if was significantly continuous with German politics and culture– the so-called Sonderweg debates in 1986. It appears that Larson’s book, by featuring Dodd’s disillusionment with Germany, 1933-37, lines up with mainstream American sociology that continues to emphasize Hitler’s otherness and outsider status, even his possible Jewish blood (see

But there are also deficiencies in this otherwise informative and fascinating book: Larson is keen to contrast the frugal, gentle, almost simple-minded Jeffersonian agrarian, Dodd, leader of “an American family” (as the subtitle tells us) with his extravagant, careless, unwary colleagues in the State Department, who are more concerned about German failures to pay interest to  American bondholders than they are about the growth of the terror state. The latter diplomats, as shills for big business, the money power, and WASP exclusiveness, making their continuing brutal remarks about Dodd (in their eyes, the lower-class, incompetent, cheapskate), shade into the savagery of the Nazis. I wonder if Dodd’s change of heart was partly owing to a personal identification with persecuted Jews, rather than a thought-out reversal of his earlier attitudes toward problematic Jewish power? Moreover,  other Jeffersonian democrats (Ezra Pound for instance) could also line up with Nazis during WW2. (See my blog: for Dodd’s early support of the German Karl Lamprecht, a diagnostician of the mental illness caused by cities and speedy urban life. Or see for influential  American literary critics who published in the pro-Fascist American Review, that was strongly Southern agrarian in its overall ideology).

Perhaps Dodd’s initial appointment reflects an agrarian outlook in Roosevelt, and echoed by Larson. Defending Dodd from columnist Drew Pearson’s judgment that Dodd was a failure, Larson writes “[Dodd] had spent the better part of four years seeking to fulfill Roosevelt’s mandate to serve as a model of American values and believed he had done as well as any man could have been expected to do, given the strange, irrational, and brutal nature of Hitler’s government “(p.342).  Can American society be said to be the exact, entirely rational antithesis of Nazi Germany? Was there no cult of the Leader in the U.S. at that time, were there no supporters of “the new Germany” in the Ivy League and elsewhere? Were irrational methods of mass persuasion not being advocated by influential social psychologists even at Harvard? Indeed, were not important progressives consciously copying Nazi methods of mind-management?  (See; also

Overall, the projects of the book seem to encompass two major themes: 1. a rehabilitation of quasi-medieval agrarianism, for instance in this startling remark referring to Dodd’s longing to complete his book on the Old South, described by Larson as a “more chivalrous age.” (333). Or see the lengthy quote from Papen’s speech that got him into trouble with the regime: “ The Government is well aware of the selfishness, the lack of principle, the insincerity, the unchivalrous behavior, the arrogance which is on the increase under the guise of the German revolution.” (p.284) The latter characteristics listed by Papen are typically applied to capitalists and to Jews, with the latter often believed to have been the chief beneficiaries of modernity and urbanization. Larson should have picked up on this well-known set of tropes.

2. There is a hint of Wilsonian and Rooseveltian international cooperation (e.g. the UN) as the solution to subsequent hyper-nationalism. Larson quotes Dodd’s farewell speech to the American Chamber of Commerce in Berlin: “The world must face the sad fact that in an age where international cooperation should be the keyword, nations are farther apart than ever.” (p.349)

I have one more reservation about what is otherwise a gripping and original book.  By downplaying the transformation of Martha Dodd from Nazi sympathizer to convinced Communist, Larson does not sufficiently enlighten his readers as to the structural similarities between Nazism and Communism, e.g. the utopian authoritarian statism common to both societies, not to speak of less dramatic but nevertheless protofascist tendencies in the New Deal. There is much more to be gleaned from the materials produced by Dodd’s daughter Martha, whose sexual adventures (along with graphic Nazi violence) may provide much of the popular appeal of Larson’s book, a slant that is introduced in the subtitle of the book, “…Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin.”

*The only relevant source on the internet that I have found so far for Hugh R. Wilson is here, an informative letter to FDR: Wilson’s papers are located at the Hoover Institution.


  1. […] This series reveals the astounding opinons derived from German and Nazi war propaganda that were adopted by leaders of the progressive movement on the threshold of America’s entrance into World War Two. It is deeply shocking to those who see an unbridgeable chasm between Roosevelt and Hitler. It also underlines the theme of this website: the growing literacy and numeracy of ordinary people since the invention of the printing press terrified aristocrats in Europe, and their opinions were easily transmitted to American progressives whose social democratic aspirations created a new aristocracy in America, similar to the idea of the Platonic Guardians. For a related blog with more evidence see On the power of Jeffersonian agrarianism among progressives, see […]

    Pingback by Links to Nazi sykewar, American style | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — June 11, 2013 @ 4:35 pm | Reply

  2. […] [William E. Dodd:]  ”Like everything else in this world, this little book has its raison d’être and its special occasion. As to the former, the author felt that in his work on the “History of Germany” he had carried his investigations far enough into the different culture-epochs to justify him in formulating and presenting to the public his ideas as to the content of history and the true method of writing it. The immediate occasion came in the form of an invitation to take active part in the Congress of Arts and Sciences which met in St. Louis during the World’s Fair. There the first lecture was delivered. Being called on also to deliver some addresses on the occasion of the celebration of the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Columbia University, New York, in October of the same year, it seemed proper to follow up there the same line of thought. In this way originated the last four chapters of the book. Another incentive was given in the literature of recent psychological science, particularly in von Lipps’ “Outlines of Psychology,” –a book which seemed to invite a further application of the laws of psychology to the science of history.” For more on William E. Dodd, see […]

    Pingback by The Scary City: Lamprecht, Becker, Lynd « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — March 17, 2012 @ 5:48 pm | Reply

  3. […] was favorably reviewed by William E. Dodd (see my remarks on Dodd’s Southern agrarianism in . Peter Novick in That Noble Dream, p.231, states that Bowers’s achievement in discrediting […]

    Pingback by Before Saul Alinsky: Rules for Democratic Politicians « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — December 12, 2011 @ 10:57 pm | Reply

  4. Although I do not share Clare’s political views, I was in general agreement with her review of Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts. It is “informative and fascinating” by dint of “diligent archival research” (as is Clare’s own work). I was not prepared to agree,however, with her lead-in assertion of an “underlying agrarian ideology of the book and William E. Dodd, treated sympathetically by Eric Larson.” Clearly Dodd qualifies as an agrarian, but Larson portrays him,
    as Clare acknowledges, as “almost simple minded,” passive and un-heroic even at his best. Larson may sympathize with Dodd’s love of and wish to return to his family’s farm, but that sympathy may not extend to the ideology. She says “Perhaps Dodd’s initial appointment reflects an agrarian outlook in Roosevelt.”
    Perhaps, but the book makes the case that the U. of Chicago professor of economics was chosen for his early support for Roosevelt’s economic policies and American liberal values. I share her dismay that Roosevelt chose Hugh Wilson to succeed Dodd, but Roosevelt may have been pushed to do so by Dodd’s enemies in the State Department, whom Clafre disapproves of as I do. Her best evidence is what she does with the word “chivalrous,” as used by Dodd, Papen, and Larson, but I’d like to know more about Larson before I accepted her conclusion that he shares the agrarian world view, especially since, as she points out, the American agrarians of the thirties were on the right, which Larson clearly is not. Her two last points also give me pause. She seems to disapprove of “international cooperation” (dreadful idea) and to imagine that in a book about a passionate young woman Larson should discuss “the structural similarities between Nazism and Communism.” Martha Dodd’s attraction to Nazi and Communist leaders, both of whom are ultimately rejected by their parties, seems to be based not on ideology but on romantic attraction to exciting men. Her story is more psychological than political.

    Comment by Alex Liddie — August 15, 2011 @ 5:51 pm | Reply

    • I was a glad to see a comment from fellow-Melvillean Alex Liddie, a retired professor of American literature. But I must take issue with his comment to some extent. First, I don’t understand what my “political views” have to do with anything. I have written frequently about my rejection of activist academics. Striving for objectivity, all professional scholars should be judged solely on the quality of their scholarship, i.e., fidelity to the sources. Since I have not seen the archival materials that Larson has culled, I can only make inferences based upon such matters as repetition of certain themes, in the case at hand, Dodd’s longing for the soil. Moreover, Larson might have told us a bit more about Dodd’s unfinished ms. on the Old South; he also should have done some digging in Hugh R. Wilson’s papers at the Hoover Institution, rather than relying on Messersmith’s opinions. As for whether the Southern Agrarians were on the Left or Right, it is in hindsight that we locate them, and as C. Vann Woodward demonstrated in his _Tom Watson, Agrarian Rebel_ (1938), populists could switch from left to right with breathtaking speed. Or see The Southern Agrarians are being rehabilitated by scholars who are published by academic presses. Are they Left or Right? You tell me. In my view, organic conservatives can be found all along the political spectrum: they are all anti-“materialist” and see social cohesion as produced, not by shared interests, but by mystical bonds.
      In any case, the populist-progressive movement was always set against “the money power”, and Larson makes the most of it by repeated attacks on Roosevelt’s money-mad State Department (recall the repeated point that these diplomats were fixated on German interest payments to American bondholders). In general, I would make the daring, but informed, point that antisemitism is a full-blown socio-economic-political movement, and should be taught as such in the schools, instead of being ignored, or trotted out as some kind of aberrant, reactionary set of “prejudices”–a regrettable feature of the U.S. between the wars, but which is now relatively defunct.
      If any visitors to this website want to defend the United Nations as an effective organization for the suppression of terror, I can only shake my head and request that they rethink their position in light of the development of that once idealistic organization. I am hardly against “international cooperation”, but it must be based on shared interests and adherence to the rule of law, not upon utopian fantasies.
      A great deal of work has been done on structural similarities between the Nazi and Soviet utopias. Not having pursued the unpublished writing of Martha Dodd, I can only wish that Larson had done even more digging and reporting before publication. It is perhaps too much to ask of a non-scholar. As it is, he apparently opened up a rich field for ploughing by professional historians and political scientists.

      Comment by clarespark — August 15, 2011 @ 7:28 pm | Reply

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