Monday, November 4, 2013

In the Garden of Beasts

Greetings, History Fans! 
We are going to take a break from Vikings and Medieval history to enjoy a fresh breath of Nazi air! 

A few weeks ago, Dillon’s mom (sup Lydia!) was kind enough to let me borrow Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts. I have been a fan of Larson’s ever since I read Devil the in the White City all those years ago. He has a knack for uncovering little-known stories from the past and writing a very compelling book around it. Isaac’s Storm is a great example of taking a relatively uninteresting circumstance like the Galveston hurricane and having me, as a reader, hooked until the end.

Whereas Devil tends to get a little lopsided (you start wanting more of H. H. Holmes and less of the World Fair), In the Garden of Beasts is evenly paced, and a thrilling look at Germany’s buildup to World War II.

Larson follows the lives of the Dodd family through letters, diaries, official government transcripts and communiques, as they begin their new lives as ambassadors in Berlin. William Dodd, a history professor, Jeffersonian democrat, and all around grump, finds himself offered the position of American ambassador to Germany by his pal President Franklin Roosevelt. Dodd was unsuited for the job—a point his contemporaries made sure to drive home at every chance they could. His only real qualifications were that he had studied in Germany in college and was familiar with the geography and language. Dodd, on his part, thought being a sitting duck ambassador might give him some extra time to complete his book on the Old South. 

Dodd certainly was hesitant. As a modest penny-pincher, he did not fit the profile of lavishly rich ambassadors who would throw parties for any occasion, vacation on their yachts, and employ more servants than necessary. And people were aware that something important was happening in Germany. By the time of his appointment in 1933, very little was understood about Hitler and his policies. What was then just an undertone of anti-Semitism was not seen as odd or even out of place, if perhaps a little exuberant. It seemed like an exciting time in Berlin, and as Larson reveals, the Dodds were taken in by the majesty of the city and the mystique of the Nazi regime, which had yet to show its true colors.

Finding new and fresh ground within the realm of Nazi Germany and World War II is not an easy task. So much is known and many of its main points have been trampled to death to the point that we can make Goebbels jokes without a second thought. But Larson puts his best foot forward and expresses three major points in his book that I had not been totally aware of prior: the subtlety of the Nazis, the strange proximity and responses by the United States, and the internal discrepancies within the early Nazi party.

It is so difficult for us to detach ourselves from the swastika in order to see the appeal of Hitler and the Nazis in the early 1930s. The swastika, for us, is a symbol of ultimate evil and hatred. But early on, it had been a symbol of hope and revival. Germany shit the bed in World War I, and France made certain that they sleep in it for a long, long time. The Treaty of Versailles, while necessary, was extreme.  It left Germany humiliated, broken, and desperate: a perfect recipe for a psycho to come into power!

The genius of Hitler was his subtlety. People knew he was kind of a nut, but he kept in check in those early years. He was charismatic, compelling, and proactive. He instilled back into Germany a sense of pride that had been stripped from them following the Great War. He slowly built the SA and the SS. Under President Hindenburg, he kept a cool head (until the Night of the Long Knives). But what was really impressive was how they pulled the wool over the eyes of the world, and strangely enough, their own population. Joseph Goebbels was a master at filtering stories and editing information. The rest of the world saw mostly what Goebbels and Hitler wanted it to see: that there was a peaceful revolution happening in Germany. Even more masterful was the persecution of Jews in those early years. Hitler knew he needed to bide his time in order to build the army needed to meet his goals. So he played for peace. And instead of destroying the Jews in an extremely horrendous way, he began by slowly breaking their wills and eliminating them from the social and cultural life of Germany. In 1933, a law was passed that Jewish people could no longer be physicians. Months later, that law was expanded to include dentistry. It was slow and subtle and humiliating, and it worked. Between 1933 and 1935, Hitler had convinced the world, his own country, and probably himself that he wanted peace and that these were simply precautionary steps to insure said peace.

I took a World War II class in college taught by the wonderful Dr. Mark Smith. One of the books we were asked to read was titled The Nazi Conscience, in which the author tried to explain how an entire country could go along with Hitler.  Along with the new found pride in their decimated country, there was a palpable fear that ran through Germany, especially in Berlin. Larson does a terrific job at bringing this fear to life through Dodd’s diary and through letters between Americans and even Germans who were aware of the pressure building within the capital. Ambassador Dodd’s daughter, Martha, might be the greatest example to help us understand just how anyone could have been swept up in the Nazi propaganda. Martha was taken by the young German men, impressed by their passion, and quick to dismiss the disturbing rumors of brutality. She even witnessed a public display of anti-Semitism in Nuremburg and still waved it off as an isolated event. Germany and in particular Berlin contained a very majestic quality, something regal of the old, Prussian world. Add to it the excitement of a gathering national pride, and you can see how people could be smitten with the country.

We can also put it into a modern context that we can understand. Keep in mind that I am not comparing the weight, horror, or consequences of these two events. I simply want to illustrate how a group of people can be wont to go along with bad ideas in the wake of horrific events. Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the United States Congress gave the okay for our military to go to war with Iraq. This made zero sense, and in retrospect, was ridiculous and wrong. However, the country felt vulnerable for the first time in nearly 200 years. Someone needed to be punished, and everyone went along with a bad idea during an emotional time. Now, those events happened within two years. The distance between the end of the First World War in and the rise of Hitler to Chancellor is much greater. And again, the events are not equal by any means, but the environment in which those ideas became realities was eerily similar. 

“But!” you are probably saying, “Not everybody wanted to go to war with Iraq! We protested!” Yes, and this is where Larson unveils a hidden gem within the early Nazi years: not everybody was on board. 

It is easy to make the assumption that everyone who lived in Nazi Germany was kind of a bad person. You either A) believed in the Nazi doctrine B) went along with it out of fear or C) did not say or do anything to challenge those in power. The heartbreaking stories we get of Germans sheltering Jews and hiding whole families are the exception, not the rule. But this assessment is unfair. It was not that black and white. Take the Night of the Long Knives for example. Rohm, Hitler’s pal for years and a person instrumental in bringing him to power, gets shot in the back of the head because he is an inconvenience. No one felt safe. Friends were pulled from their homes and never heard from again. Staying silent was staying alive. But Ambassador Dodd, protected by his status, decided to say what the Germans could not. In an uncharacteristically ballsy move, Dodd gave a speech at an event in which he slyly condemned the Nazi order by discussing the failures of countries with too much hubris to know they are crossing the line. He of course mentioned the subject of his one true love: the Old South. The Nazis did not like Dodd’s speech at all, and had it removed from newspapers and radio programs. They saw right through his guise and saw the critical admonishment directed at them. But many Germans, and even Germans within the current government, sent Dodd their congratulations and thanks. What they could not say out of fear, Dodd spoke brashly out of simple stubbornness, much to the annoyance of the State Department back home.

Is it possible to say that there were good men who sported the swastika? That might be a stretch. Could it be possible that in those early years, men believed in Hitler as a leader and stayed quiet about their disgust with some of his policies and with his means of carrying them out? Surely. Does that make these men good or morally superior to their peers? I don’t know! I do know, however, there existed at least two men within the Nazi party who eventually spoke out and did what they could to slow the oncoming tide of aggression and violence. The first was Rudolf Diels, who, at the beginning, was head of the Gestapo. Being the head of anything within the Nazi regime kind of makes you automatically a shithead. And leading the Gestapo makes a violent and dangerous shithead. So Diels was definitely not a good guy. I’m sure he had his hands dipped in torture and murder. But he was also instrumental in closing notoriously violent prisons and concentration camps. Hitler deemed he had too soft of a heart and probably would have been exterminated if it weren’t for his close friendship with Goring. 

The other person who stood up against his own party and government was vice chancellor Papen. Granted, Papen was closer to President Hindenburg than Hitler, and much of the credit for his courage needs to go to his speech writers, but Papen stood up and spoke his mind about the way things were shaping up. The vehicle, like Dodd’s, was a speech. But unlike Dodd, Papen and his speech writers were not as candid about their disagreement with the Nazi party. If it weren’t for his closeness to President Hindenburg, Papen would surely have been a dead man following that speech. And in the end, that speech didn’t do much good. Hitler ignored it like he ignored all other forms of human feeling and plowed right on ahead to his plan of extermination and decimating his beloved Germany all over again. But for us as historians, this speech is incredibly illuminating. Papen had not agreed with Hitler. Finally, we have evidence of someone attached to the swastika that did not agree and actually said something. But beyond that, it was his speech writers’ idea. They formulated the plan and Papen followed through. This gives me hope that we can remove the stigma that the German population was evil or stupid or cowardly. We now have seen a few men light sparks in the shadows.

As wonderful as it is to see Germans standing up against Hitler, it is equally as shocking to see America’s response to Hitler. Before arriving in Berlin, Dodd was charged with two missions. The first was his official task handed to him from the State Department: get those Germans to pay their debts! Part of the Treaty of Versailles demanded that Germany pay its debtors, which humiliated Germany and worried the United States. Hitler, who despised the treaty, of course refused to pay anything to the United States when he became chancellor. Dodd was charged with getting the payments back on track. His second task was off the books, charged to him in confidence from none other than President Roosevelt himself. This task was to do as much as he could in an unofficial capacity to protest the mistreatment of the German Jews. Before long, Dodd understood that repaying the debt was the last thing on Germany’s mind. So he set his mind on performing his duties and to the mission that Roosevelt had put on his shoulders. But how could he carry out such a task, and without the official backing of the United States?

By the time Dodd took up his post in Berlin, President Roosevelt had been working on a silent and secret game of chess. He personally wanted to head on over and wallop Hitler before any real damage could be done. But the consensus in the U.S. was that of isolation. The Great War was still fresh on their minds. Plus, the country had fallen into a depression and drought. Things were a mess! And the last thing the American people wanted to do was go fix a problem in Europe that they had already tried to fix! WHAT IS THE DEAL WITH THE EUROPEANS?! The government, too, was keen to stay out of any European affairs. They just wanted their god damn money from the war. Roosevelt was in a tight spot. Getting their debt settled with Germany was the number one priority, so what followed was the most heinous of crimes that is not actually a crime: appeasement. The U.S. government had to look the other way and believe the lies trickling out of Berlin that stated all Hitler wanted was peace. And once Dodd became disenchanted with the Germany he had loved since his college years, Roosevelt had to hear the truth and ignore it. 

This appeasement of the United States is another point that I think is difficult to appreciate in retrospect. Roosevelt had the information. Dodd had the information. Things were looking grim in Germany and still we didn’t do anything. But it took the Dodd’s nearly two years to accept what was happening in Berlin and throughout the rest of the country. And they were there to see it firsthand. The book shows some fantastic examples of Americans vacationing and travelling in Germany who dismiss the rumors of violence and have nothing but wonderful things to say about the new Germany. Even the intelligence community at that time didn’t have a full grasp on what was going on in Europe. All they had were rumors and the transcripts and letters from the ambassadors that they didn’t fully trust or respect. 

What really weirds me out is just how close the Dodd family, and thereby the U.S., was to the center of the Nazi storm. William Dodd frequented parties that featured Nazi officials. He had two separate meetings with Hitler in which he got to speak with the lunatic one on one. Diels was a common guest in his house, and his neighbor was the chubby gay boy Rohms, who was on everybody’s shitlist. Martha Dodd was an independent and adventurous woman. Who liked to sleep around. She had affairs with Nazi officials, with Russian spies, with Carl Sandburg, the poet from Chicago, and was even set up on a lunch date with the Big Cheese himself, Hitler! While Dodd was eventually canned and sent back to the states, he took Roosevelt’s charge to heart. He stopped attending the parties and events hosted by and in honor of the Nazis. He took what unofficial action he could with what little power he had.

The last and shortest point is the derision amongst the Nazi leaders. I really had no idea how much they all hated each other. Himmler and Goring hated Rohms, who wanted his SA to engulf the army, which would have made him more powerful than probably Hitler himself! They then manipulated Hitler’s fear and anger by feeding him some misinformation, which led to Rohm’s death, as well as many others on the Night of the Long Knives. Diels was on Hitler’s shitlist, but was saved because of his close relationship to Goring. Hitler was known to despise and mistrust everyone and preferred the company of his chauffer and mid-level thugs. It is possible that once the war started really rolling, the Nazi government started to mesh a little bit more, but in those early years, it’s a wonder they could get anything done. I think it shows just how charismatic Hitler really was. He united many (despicable) people under his cause and kept the machine oiled just enough to perform his sinister deeds. What a butthole. 

Well, I hope you learned a little bit today. Love each other, and keep trying to destroy each other’s ethnic groups. We will be diving back into some Norse Mythology on our next post. But King Cnut is right around the corner!

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