Sunday, August 21, 2011

In the garden of the beasts

During my vacation I read "In the Garden of the Beasts" by Eric Larsen, subtitled "Love, terror and an American family in Hitler's Berlin." The title derives from the original meaning of Tiergarten, the famous park and wooded area in the center of Berlin, which was originally a forest where the artistocracy hunted "beasts." This suffices as a metaphor for the Hitler period when the hunting and killing of humans became the chief pastime of the ruling elite. Also, the family of the US Ambassador to Germany William Dodd lived on Tiergartenstrasse during the period 1933-1937.

Dodd was an unlikely candidate for this post, especially at such a critical time. A senior professional diplomat was called for, but the position had been offered to several and they had turned it down. Seeing the storm clouds gathering around Europe they might have been wise to avoid such a challenging task of dealing with the newly elected Chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler, now flexing his muscles and looking for ways to increase his power. Dodd was a Professor at the University of Chicago, Chairman of the History Department, specializing in American history. But, in his youth he had studied in Germany and spoke near fluent German. Furthermore, he was an ardent Democrat and supporter of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. A friend of Dodd's suggested his name to the President and the President liked him and called him to the White House. Roosevelt like many Presidents was eager to have a like-minded Ambassador in such a critical post, especially as a way of avoiding going thru the State Department, which at that time was staffed by mostly rich professionals who were generally sympathetic to Hitler, whose policy was to deal with him and who generally were also anti-Semitic. Roosevelt asked Dodd to act as a representative of democracy and to support the moderates in Germany and in the Nazi party, such was their naievete. Dodd accepted, but insisted that he would live according to his salary and wanted to take his family with him, his wife, his daughter Martha, 23, who was about to be divorced and his son, Bill Jr.

So the family sailed for Germany and after staying in a Hotel for some months found a large house on Tiergartenstrasse that they could afford to rent. One might ask why they were able to rent such a magnificent house so cheaply, and the answer was that the house was owned by a Jewish family, who made an agreement that they could occupy the top floor while the Dodds occupied the rest of the house. Evidently they hoped that the presence of the US Ambassador in their house would afford them some protection.
Dodd was quite critical of the Nazis in general, he looked for some sympathetic moderates in various posts that he could communicate with, but Martha started as a gung-ho sympathizer of the Nazis, and she played a very influential role in this strange story.

During this early period of Hitler's regime, he had a slim margin in the Reichstag. But, he either engineered the Reichstag fire or took advantage of it by expelling all Communist members of the Reichstag, thus gaining enough of a majority to pass laws giving him controlling power. One of Dodd's main complaints was the periodic beatings of American citizens by Storm Troopers of the SA (Sturmabteilung), who had been responsible for Hitler's ascension. They were led by Erich Rohm, an early supporter of Hitler and one of his friends. However, the many complaints of foreign governments caused Hitler embarrassment. The SA were essentially out of control, having their own secret prisons where they took anyone they disliked for beatings and executions, including many Jews.

Once the SS was founded under Himmler, he saw Rohm as an undesirable rival. Also, Rohm had proposed that the SA be merged with the German Army, the Reichswehr. The Generals were very afraid of this arrangement. Himmler and Goring plotted to persuade Hitler that Rohm was conspiring against him. So Hitler made a secret agreement with the Defense Minister Gen. von Blomberg that he would get rid of Rohm and the SA if the Army would support him. This he did on June 30, 1934, when Rohm and his deputy Ernst, on the first evening of his honeymoon, were arrested and summarily executed. Also, the Nazis took the opportunity to get even with other rivals. Several Generals were murdered and perhaps thousands of others, in what became known as the "night of the long knives." This terrible episode convinced Dodd and even Martha that they were dealing with a homicidal maniac, not fit to rule a civilized country. As Hitler increased his grip on Germany, the State Department were critical of Dodd, still preferring to get along with the Nazis.

Martha was a very attractive blond with a promiscuous streak. She quickly became the lover of several influential men, including the head of the Gestapo Rudolf Diels, a prominent Nazi Ernst (Putzi) Hanfstaengel and the second secretary at the Soviet Embassy Boris Winogradov, who unknown to her was the KGB rezident, and who was her real love. Since she left an unpublished diary, intimate details of her affairs were recorded; she had been a journalist and apparently intended to publish it as a novel. The Nazis apparently did not realize the significance of compromising the US Ambassador's daughter for spying or propaganda, since they viewed her as not serious and flighty, which she was. But, Putzi was so taken by her that he arranged a meeting with Hitler himself, with the intention of trying to get Hitler to fall for her, but Hitler remained aloof. Nevertheless the Soviets did realize her potential, and over time her lover Boris persuaded her that the Nazis were brutal and not worthy of her sympathy, and she gradually became pro-Communist, resulting in a tour of the Soviet Union. Once she was compromised, Boris was taken off her case and ultimately was executed by the KGB for not exploiting her enough due to his romantic bourgeous leanings. She then continued her laison with the third secretary of the French Embassy, Armand Berard. Eventually she married a rich American businessman with leftist leanings and when the Communist witch hunts started in the US in the 1950s they escaped to Czechoslovakia, then under Soviet control, and spent the rest of their lives there.

Meanwhile her father, tired of the perpetual round of diplomatic parties and dinners, became disillusioned with his role. The few "moderate" Nazis he was able to cultivate were either soon murdered or stopped meeting with him. Even the head of the Gestapo, Diels, was not sufficiently extreme for the Nazi leaders and was forced to flee Germany twice in order to save himself. He ended up as a minor offical and survived while the sadist Richard Heydrich, one of Hitler's favorites, replaced him at the Gestapo. Eventually the compromisers at the State Dept. who were conspiring against Dodd, persuaded Roosevelt to replace him with one of their own, and so Dodd and his family left Berlin just before the cataclysm. This was a fascinating glimpse into life in Berlin before the advent of WWII and revealed details of an otherwise unknown episode in US-German history.


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