The Clare Spark Blog

August 14, 2011

Review: In The Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

Martha Dodd

Read this first: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/20/books/in-the-garden-of-beasts-by-erik-larson-review.html?pagewanted=all.  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 https://clarespark.com/2010/05/23/some-dirty-little-secrets/.) 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 https://clarespark.com/2009/08/25/preventive-politics-and-socially-responsible-capitalists-1930s-40s/.) 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 https://clarespark.com/2009/12/13/klara-hitlers-son-and-jewish-blood/).

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: https://clarespark.com/2009/11/19/the-scary-city-lamprecht-becker-lynd/ 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 https://clarespark.com/2010/03/05/organic-conservatives-and-hitler/ 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 https://clarespark.com/2011/03/27/progressive-mind-managers-ca-1941-42/; also https://clarespark.com/2010/04/18/links-to-nazi-sykewar-american-style/.

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: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/presidents/32_f_roosevelt/psources/ps_germanletter.html. Wilson’s papers are located at the Hoover Institution.

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