If only FDR had listened about Hitler

July 1, 2011

Bobz Book Reviews

Are you a World War II junkie?

Love history and politics?

Here’s a great read for you.

As Adolph Hitler was gearing up his Nazi steamroller, American diplomat William Dodd tried to warn the U.S. government.

The Holocaust and World War II are evidence that Ambassador Dodd failed.

“In the Garden of Beasts” tells how and why Dodd couldn’t convince either Franklin Delano Roosevelt — the president who appointed him — or the high-society members of the U.S. Foreign Service that Hitler shouldn’t be treated like the leaders of other countries.

The four short years of Dodd’s tenure as ambassador to Germany come alive in Erik Larson’s latest superb nonfiction work. The brutality of Hitler and his Nazi brethren is palpable. The internal politics of 1933-37  Germany are ruthless and bloody.

And the snooty wealthy class that populated U.S. consulates at the time played no small part in enabling Ambassador Dodd’s cautions to go unheeded.

Unlikely and disliked

Plucked out of the history department of the University of Chicago, Dodd may have been a third or fourth choice for the post in Berlin, an appointment FDR made under pressure of a deadline. Naive enough to have his family Chevrolet shipped to Germany when the world’s ambassador class generally used limos and chauffeurs, Dodd’s middle-class values put him at odds with the consulate staff in Berlin, made him the source of German leaders’ ridicule, and worst of all caused his reports to be disrespected by those in Washington who should have been listening to his warning cries.

Don’t be put off by the nonfiction character of “In the Garden of Beasts.” Larson has done amazing research here, but the way he fashions the change in Dodd and Dodd’s daughter Martha, too, from being lovers of all things German (Martha in more ways than one!) to a critical analyst of that country’s leadership and people is brilliant and makes for meaty reading.

As you’re reading, try to be aware of parallels in the social culture of 1930s Germany and some aspects of 21st century life. A word to the wise?– bz

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About Bob Zyskowski

Bob is the Client Products Manager for the Communications Office of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. A 42-year veteran of the Catholic Press, he is the former Associate Publisher of The Catholic Spirit. You can follow him on twitter or email him at zyskowskir@archspm.org.

View all posts by Bob Zyskowski