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.

November 19, 2009

The Scary City: Lamprecht, Becker, Lynd

[Added 11-8-10: The prolific historian Karl Lamprecht is discussed below. It is helpful to know that he was a strong supporter of Pan-Germanism and expansionism as a way to buy off the working class, hence to counter the influence of Social Democrats (revolutionary socialists) in Germany. Like other imperialists, he emphasized the crucial role of the “leading personality.” See discussion in Rohan D’O. Butler, Roots of National Socialism (1941), pp 194-96 . ]

Some historians have complained about the influence of Michel Foucault on the programs of historical associations and periodicals. I agree about his enormous influence, but applaud him insofar as he focuses us on institutions and ideologies in the diagnosis of mental illness;  I also think it is an error to identify one particular intellectual with the near-hegemony of “cultural history” or cultural studies. The same error was committed in the book The Shadow University by Alan Kors and Harvey Silverglate, which blames whacko speech codes and secretive kangaroo courts in academia to the baleful influence of Herbert Marcuse and especially his essay on repressive tolerance. The post1960s generation, however, did not initiate those tendencies in the teaching of history.

This website has been reviewing the salvos directed at the “scientific historians” of the late nineteenth century by the German historicists (derived partly from the 18th C. theologist J.G. von Herder, the founder of comparative literature and cultural studies based on his concept of the Volksgeist) who created the field of “social psychology,” a field that simply swallowed up all of history in its capacious maw; it was the latter group of extreme subjectivists/relativists (oddly calling themselves “progressives”) who invented the policy of “multiculturalism” and the practices of “postmodernism.” Some historians reading my blogs will be aware of Carl Becker (a student of Frederick Jackson Turner). Becker was promoted by conservative liberals as a great historian and great artist (the linking is crucial) after his death in 1945. They might profit from a series of five lectures in English entitled What is History? by the German historian Karl Lamprecht (d.1915), an important influence on Becker (who seems to have simply appropriated his ideas), along with William James’s. These Burkean gradualists knew exactly who and what the enemy was and took accurate aim: cities (the site of urban disorder and revolution), working-class militancy, “the economic interpretation of history,” the philosophes of the Enlightenment, eighteenth-century  liberalism (Adam Smith), the machine, materialism, empiricism, the possibility of an objective history of the past as it occurred,  the overstimulation of the modern world that was causing mass neurasthenia and the exaggerated belief in the perceptiveness of the individual fact-gatherer (aka narcissism) as well as the susceptibility of the masses to hypnotic suggestion by demagogues.

Here is more detail about Lamprecht’s intervention in the campaign for the establishment of “culturally-oriented investigations” and the positing of “national identity.” See What Is History? Five Lectures on the Modern Science of History, by Karl Lamprecht, Professor of History in the University of Leipzig, translated from the German by  E. A. Andrews and published by Macmillan, 1905. William E. Dodd, Wilsonian historian and diplomat, had a hand in the revisions for the English-speaking reading public. Here is what the preface says about Lamprecht’s importance:

[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

Here are two excerpts from the Third Lecture (Transition to Present Conditions) that lay out the ideological program of Lamprecht (playing doctor to society) and his successors among Pragmatists and Progressives and New Left postmodernist critics of mass culture/modernity. First he diagnoses the primary symptom of decadence, Reizsamkeit. (Because of individualistic science, Romanticism and naturalism, the world was too much with us.):

[Lamprecht:]   “The first effect of the revolution is a complete dissociation of the former socio-psychic conditions. The social changes with the resulting increase of city activity, with its nervous haste and anxiety, its unscrupulous abuse of individual energy, progress of the technical arts, and the extraordinary multiplication of the means of communication throughout the world, the rapid development of all the sciences which deal directly with man, followed this enlargement of life: all these and a thousand other moments of modern development produced a great number of new stimuli, which neither the individual nor the community could escape; for they formed in their totality, so to speak, a new historical atmosphere.  But the individual as well as the soul of the people as a whole, being continually surrounded, besieged, and permeated by a flood of new impressions, soon lost the former self-mastery and weakly yielded to the new stimuli. This went on, in the beginning, under a strong repulsion of the higher moments of will; energy was absorbed in a high degree by the acceptation and augmentation of the new stimuli, and was thus limited to an energetic volition in economic life and to a marked receptiveness in the domains of the higher intellectual culture. Moral standards (Anschauung) and intellect were taxed to the utmost; they were subjected to the perpetual assault of the new stimuli.  This is the cause of the general nervous excitement, which now began and which often came to light in pathological investigations–it was now that neurasthenia was discovered as a special form of disease,–and which has not abated until today, but rather entered into the very psychic nature of the present and has become a constituent of the excitability or mental attitude of the age.

There appeared hand in hand with this increased irritability, according to the law of interaction, and as a sort of accompaniment, a condition of motor-psychic weakness: quick but shallow excitation of the will and a strong tendency to the enjoyment of excitation became general, because the much-desired compromise of excitations was never produced; excitations followed each other so rapidly that the even temper of mind, the oequitas animi of the ancients, was only seldom acquired.

These were, and partly still are, conditions which can be observed in all departments of life, but most distinctly among the entrepreneur class and in the new society. The entrepreneurs, the social and political leaders of the upper bourgeoisie, are above all typical representatives of this modern Reizsamkeit. How does this class of men despair during great economic crises, then how rash are they in periods of prosperity! And how irregular do these people appear in their pleasures, when, after the excitement of the day, they repair either to the exciting charms of color and form in a modern home or to the modern theater or concert-hall, where the mind is kept in constant tension!

Even the laboring classes created under the new conditions are subject to similar, though modified, psychic impressions; up to what degree is shown by the fact that special forms of psychosis, as e.g., the traumatic one, have appeared in that class as well as with their employers. Have the older classes remained untouched by the modern psychic state of excitability? We can hardly say positively that the peasants themselves, since they have exchanged their chalk accounts on the wall-door for the ledger and begin to read the market quotations, remain untouched, not to speak of the artisans, who have been seized by the rush of industrialism in the cities. What of the intellectual classes? The new nervosity is winning its way among them in various unobserved, and therefore most devastating, forms. (98-102)”

To counter the devastating effects of Reizsamkeit, a new science is taking shape, one with a definite political program:

[Lamprecht:]   “It is obvious…that, in a time of great psychic changes, the intellectual sciences would be thrust into the foreground. In this very domain a strong reaction set in against the unsystematic, individualistic investigation of the last decades; an analysis of the phenomena, to be made from new points of view, was required, and thus one came to the paramount methodical principle that, in the phenomena of intellectual life, the innermost, psychologic proceedings should be clearly understood, so that their reduction to general laws might be possible, be it laws of psychological mechanics or of evolution or biology. This is the impulse which is coming more and more to dominate the intellectual sciences, and the goal is a new synthesis rather than the detail work of the last few years.

When thus the imaginative and intellectual activities entered into the vast sea of modern stimuli, taxing their own lines of development toward new dominants, a general stimulus seems to have been applied. Men began to collect their forces again in the several lines of human endeavor; personal motives and aims were soon more clearly defined and often not quite so high-flown; the excessive demands of the so-called Übermensch gave place to the more simple and yet entirely modern postulates as well of individuals as of the state, and in society.  Ethical movements with high-set altruistic aims began to take form–a universal peace being one of the chief of these; a so-called aristocratic feeling or appearance became the first demand of cultivated society; piety was no longer considered a luxury; the former exchange of aesthetic and religious devotion disappeared, nobody regretting or perceiving its loss. The great unifying elements, society and the state, gain the first place in men’s minds, and that not because of the influence of a distinguished personality, like that of Prince Bismarck, but as a result of entirely new tendencies and motives in the lives of individuals. Unreasonable economic competition was first attacked; new legislation corresponding to recently developed social-moral ideals was enacted; men felt the old avenues of progress, opened by the laissez-faire policy of the years just passed, closed by the new ideals of a growing moral and clerical cosmopolitanism.” (113-115)

And Lamprecht means the rooted cosmopolitanism invented by his hero Herder, mentioned several times in the text: “…I must not fail to mention the honored name of Herder, the hundredth anniverary of whose death has just been fittingly observed by Germans throughout the world. In the realm of Germanic cultures, and even beyond it, Herder stands as the creator of the conception “Folk soul” (the psyche of the masses).  He was the first to admit the importance of the socio-psychic demands for the proper comprehension of the most important of all human communities,–nations,–and to draw from these the necessary conclusions…Science becomes a prophecy, philosophy turns to poetical metaphysics. That was the character of the great German period of subjectivity that began with Klopstock, and ended in the spreading branches of the philosophy of identity–the period to which Herder, as one of its first great phenomena, belongs….”(19-20, see also p.226 for Herder as rationalist).

His last lecture imagines the future of cultural history, a “scientific Weltgeschichte“. The new discipline of “World History” anyone? There is a brief discussion of Lamprecht and his influence on the American historian Becker in “Carl Becker: On History and the Climate of Opinion,” by Charlotte Watkins Smith, Cornell University  Press, 1956, pp. 66-68. The author somewhat evades or minimizes the influence of Lamprecht, in my opinion, but quotes Becker’s letter to a sociologist, A. J. Todd who was critical of Lamprecht’s subjectivism and abandonment of scientific procedure:

(Becker:)”It is quite possible to deal with the various sorts of particular activities in any period–the political, economic, religious, and intellectual activities–as illustrating, or as related to, certain mental or psychic characteristics common to the social group or nation. These common characteristics thus become a unifying principle round which facts or events, political or other, may be grouped.” (67)

What I found most interesting about Carl Becker’s last work is his volte-face with respect to the egoistic and self-deceived Enlightenment philosophes depicted in his The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers, Yale UP, 1932) after the war started. In his address to The American Philosophic Society, April 22, 1943,”What Is Still Living in the Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson?” (published in Detachment and the Writing of History: Essays and Letters of Carl L. Becker, Cornell UP, 1958, a publication funded by the Ford Foundation), Becker reinterpreted the intellectual legacy of Thomas Jefferson, libertarian and agrarian advocate of small government, discarding Jefferson’s outmoded views to favor the social democratic state of the New Deal. Becker contrasted the Roosevelt administration and its regulatory measures with the selfish and ruthless laissez-faire policies of nineteenth-century liberalism that, he said, had led to global war and that he implied characterized Nazism! (234-235) Facts were now more separable from “the climate of opinion,” and the changing value biases of the participant-observer; apparently (in my view) historische Individualität could come and go as politically required.

Becker wrote: “…the incredible cynicism and brutality of Adolf Hitler’s way of regarding man and the life of man, made real by the servile and remorseless activities of his bleak-faced, humorless Nazi supporters, has forced men everywhere to reexamine the validity of half-forgotten ideas, and to entertain once more half-discarded convictions as to the substance of things not seen. One of these convictions is that “liberty, equality, and fraternity,” and “the inalienable rights of man” are generalities, whether glittering or not, that denote realities–the fundamental realities that men will always fight and die for rather than surrender.” (p.238)

Stating that Jefferson’s core values were timeless, Becker’s essay ends with his rewritten Declaration of Independence that he calls the “modern declaration of democratic faith”:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that the individual man has dignity and worth in his own right; that it is better to be governed by persuasion than by force; that fraternal good will is more worthy than a selfish and contentious spirit; that in the long run all values, both for the individual and for society, are inseparable from the love of truth and the disinterested search for it; that the truth can be discovered only in so far as the mind of man is free; that knowledge and the power it confers should be used for promoting the welfare and happiness of all men rather than for serving the selfish interests of those individuals and classes whom fortune and intelligence have endowed with a temporary advantage; and that to secure these high aims in the life of man no form of government yet devised is so well adapted as one which is designed to be a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” (240)

Of course Hitler and Nazism were also opposed to laissez-faire, but American diplomats and propagandists were intent on carving a clear channel between the two societies, indeed an antithesis. When historians quarrel over the question of relativism, it is often the case that there is a sub-text invisible to many readers: whether or not there are certain structural similarities between combatants in World War II as they had attempted to meet the crisis of capitalism in the interwar period.

Cf. Robert S. Lynd, Knowledge for What? The Place of Social Science in American Culture (Princeton U.P., 1939).  Like other slippery corporatist liberals, Lynd is transfixed by images of disintegration brought on by the excess of liberty and individualism transmitted by English high culture and spawned, he claimed (erasing the artisan radicals and scientists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries), by aristocrats.  Freud, unlike Jung, is one of their (degenerate) band, pessimistically resigned to the eternal wars generated by innate aggression (240).  Lynd’s faux Marxist polemic (originally the Stafford Little lectures at Princeton, 1938) may be seen as a manifesto of the structural functionalism produced by Talcott Parsons and other ‘antifascist’ supporters of Italian Fascism at Harvard.  Reprinted six times by 1948, Knowledge For What? could stand as handbook for all the corporatist liberals/social interactionists discussed in my book on the Melville revival, including Lewis Mumford and the New Left Melvilleans.  For these radical critics, American society was made decadent by “the culture of cities” and the unfettered Ricardian economics that bred imperialism (personified in the hyper-individualist proto-fascists Ahab and Pierre).

As a masked Burkean conservative (239) Lynd, a Columbia University professor, presented himself as the defiantly open-minded objectivist, resolutely overcoming philistines commanding college boards of trustees who notoriously restrained Marxist insights and all independent research; Lynd will be satisfied with revolutionary transformation if that proves warranted by the collective of interdisciplinary social scientists, by training fit to examine the minutiae of human behavior in specific settings, the better to make us happy.  Lynd’s (German idealist) historicist philosopher-kings take some matters for granted: (English empiricist) history, social psychology and philosophy (hitherto associated with laissez-faire theories of government) are obsolete, but useful insofar as these tools are dragged away from the Ivory Tower and made handmaidens to social scientists dedicated to the problem-solving and relevance urgently needed by a society in crisis (175, passim).  Most crucially, as Lynd cautions near the end of his book, people are not only naturally unequal in endowments, they are decisively motivated by emotions, not by educated understanding based on experience; with the (unmourned) waning of Christianity and all religion, there can be no national cohesion without irrational appeals; anyway there are only different versions of the truth (cf. “intersubjectivity” in postmodern literary criticism) (166).

This passage says it all: “No large society can long exist which is careless of this element of community in feeling and purpose.  The tactics of a Hitler are profoundly right in so far as they recognize and seek to serve the need of human beings for the constant dramatization of the feeling of common purpose.  In our own culture, the roots of the earlier forms of common sentiment were in certain structuralized forms of authoritarian security: church, nation, local community, and family.  These latter, with the exception of nationalism, have weakened or disintegrated with the growth of historical criticism, science, and a mobile individualism.  The democratic right of the individual to think–or to think that he thinks–has played its part in the discrediting of some of these earlier authorities that were wont to focus man’s feelings.  And democracy, interpreted largely as the right to be free to take or leave the world about one and to acquire private property, has afforded little basis for deep common sentiment.  The heavy current reliance upon a man’s job (and the resulting offensive-defensive labor balance of property rights) to hold our culture together is due, not so much to the fact that people want only money, as to the fact that this is the clearest value that remains in a culture which has allowed other values to trickle away (85)…. American culture, if it is to be creative in the personalities of those who live it, needs to discover and to build prominently into its structure a core of richly evocative common purposes which have meaning in terms of the deep personality needs of the great mass of the people (230).”

(This is of course a paraphrase of Hitler’s populist analysis of Jewified modernity and its remedy, but Lynd does not seem to notice, having described Nazism/Fascism solely as racial theory run amok (159n), as “creeping” “leprosy” (221), or as “dictated…class-interest” 240.)  Lynd’s admired rooted cosmopolitans include (besides Mumford) Charles Horton Cooley, Frederick Jackson Turner, Carl Becker, Charles Beard, Vernon Parrington, Thorstein Veblen, George Santayana, John Dewey, Karen Horney, Harold Lasswell, Franz Boas, Carl Jung, Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Gardner Murphy, and the newly formed Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (164fn).

Lynd’s book was a call for concerted action by antifascist, anticommunist social science intellectuals resolved to plan and deliver a totally analyzed, predictable, and controlled society where true love, spontaneity and mutuality could once again reign.  As an irrationalist, he did not have to adumbrate a rational theory of accountability in the organicist, harmonious utopia to be guided by the “blueprints” of rational and selflessly neutral planners–the social scientists who alone would determine what “cultural structures” needed change (237)–nor as a professed antifascist did he suggest a Fascist coup-type transition (213) to the benign and well-adjusted post-democratic but anti-authoritarian people’s community where everyone would get an education in the opera of everyday life. Where are the Foucauldians when you need them?

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