BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Ambassador to Hitler's Germany
, September 13, 2014
IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS:
Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin
by Erik Larson
(Melbourne: Scribe Publications)
Paperback: 466 pages
[available from Penguin Australia]
Reviewed by Jeffry Babb
Some time I ago I met David Kilgour, joint author of a report to the Canadian parliament on the Chinese government’s grisly practice of involuntary organ-harvesting.
A lawyer by training, he has enjoyed a distinguished career as a crown prosecutor, a member of the Canadian House of Commons for 27 years, and a Cabinet minister. He retired from parliament in 2006.
The groundbreaking report that he and David Matas produced in July 2006, entitled Report into Allegations of Organ Harvesting of Falun Gong Practitioners in China, is regarded as being the most authoritative investigation into this insidious practice.
Falun Gong is a form of beliefs and practices derived from traditional Buddhist and Taoist sources. In most countries of the world, including Australia, it is regarded as harmless. The communist regime in Beijing, however, regards it as being a threat to its survival as it does not recognise the ultimate power of the state.
No-one knows how many Falun Gong practitioners there are in China. Bearing in mind the barbaric means which the Communist Party has used to constrain the Falun Gong movement, the number of practitioners is uncertain, but it is likely to number in the millions.
In seeking to explain the nature of the Beijing regime, Mr Kilgour recently suggested that people should read award-winning American author Erik Larson’s book, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin.
It is about the career of William Dodd, who was appointed U.S. ambassador to Germany in 1933, the year Hitler came to power.
Dodd became ambassador almost by accident. A mild-mannered academic from Chicago, Dodd was a well-regarded, though somewhat obscure, academic. His lack of diplomatic experience hampered his effectiveness in dealing with his staff and the U.S. State Department, who refused to take him seriously.
Dodd and his family bore witness to a major turning-point in history. Dodd could see with his own eyes the violence of Hitler’s new order, as could his grown-up daughter and son, who accompanied their parents to Berlin and mixed freely with both the “diplomatic set” and the locals.
Germany’s degeneration towards barbarism alarmed the mild-mannered Dodd, who preferred to comment obliquely on the events of the day rather than to tackle the Nazi regime head on.
The United States Embassy was located in the vicinity of Berlin’s largest park, the Tiergarten (literally the Garden of Beasts). Originally, it was established as a hunting reserve for the king, but it was gradually converted to public use. Its name, of course, was a fitting metaphor for the savage politics that were overrunning Germany, which until then was regarded as “the most civilised nation in Europe”.
The bestial Nazi regime scarcely bothered to conceal its ultimate aims, which Hitler himself had outlined in copious detail. From the early 1920s onwards, he repeatedly expressed his desire to rid eastern Europe of its Slav populations in order to provide lebensraum (“living space”) for Germany’s expanding population.
Dodd did his best to convince his superiors of what was plainly evident to him — that the Nazis were intending to eliminate all opposition and that the situation of Germany’s Jews was dire, and becoming worse.
But they wouldn’t listen. Had he been more forceful, or a career diplomat, perhaps things might have been different.
Ambassadorial posts were usually held by members of America’s wealthy elite, as it was assumed that entertainment expenses would come out of the ambassador’s own pocket. Those without adequate private means, such as Dodd, were at a distinct disadvantage when it came to hosting the lavish banquets expected of a world power. The State Department was known amongst the older-style members of the U.S. Foreign Service as “a pretty good club”.
On his return from Germany, Dodd campaigned to educate and warn the American public about the war, which he felt — quite correctly as it turned out — was inevitable. He was dismissed as being unduly alarmist. American sentiment in the 1930s harked back to Presidents Washington and Jefferson’s wish for the country to stay free of “entangling alliances”.
America, however, could not say, “Stop the world, we want to get off.” The “doughboys” had sailed off to rescue Europe from its folly in World War I, and would do so again in World War II.
Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts is a fine book, written in a style that is easy to digest without insulting the reader’s intelligence. The characters depicted in the book are vividly brought to life.
Not everything turns out well for the Dodds. Daughter Martha was drawn to left-wing causes and started spying for the Soviet Union. In 1957, a U.S. court convicted both her and her husband of espionage, just after they had fled to Moscow.
If this excellent book has one lesson, it is this: evil regimes are not particularly worried about what the world thinks of them. They are self-evidently wicked, and their crimes against their own people are inevitably followed by crimes against other nations.
China may be more open than Hitler’s Germany, but it is the relentless enemy of anyone who displeases it.
When we see well-organised demonstrations promoting Beijing’s agenda, we should ask: who organised this? It is scarcely credible that protest groups, decked out with banners and holding aloft the flags of communist China and Australia, popped up overnight without some guiding hand.
Jeffry Babb is a Melbourne-based writer, who spent several years in China and has visited most of the country’s provinces and major cities.