US Ambassador to Hitler’s Germany in Erik Larson’s ‘In the Garden of Beasts’

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William Edward Dodd (1869-1940) of the state of Illinois was appointed as political ambassador to Germany in June 1933.  He presented his credentials on August 30, 1933 and resigned from post on  December 29, 1937.

In the nonfiction book, In the Garden of the Beasts, Erik Larson pens the story of  William E. Dodd, the history professor from Chicago who was chosen by President Roosevelt to be America’s first ambassador to Nazi Germany and Dodd’s daughter, Martha, who was 24 years old and “came along for the adventure, and to escape a dead marriage.”

The book scheduled for released today is already #9 in Amazon’s bestsellers list. If you have read Larson’s The Devil in the White City [2004] about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and a serial killer masquerading as a charming doctor or Thunderstruck [2007] about Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of wireless telegraphy and a notorious murder in London, this one should not disappoint.

TRACES, a non-profit educational organization created to gather, preserve and present stories of people from the Midwest and Germany or Austria has a lengthy account of Ambassador Dodd in Germany. Excerpts below:

As Washington’s diplomatic mission in Germany required a staff to represent the United States in Berlin, Franklin Roosevelt chose William Edward Dodd to fill the ambassadorial position. Dodd arrived in Berlin in the early summer of 1933 with no experience in diplomacy, yet hoped to propagate the ideals of Woodrow Wilson and felt optimistic about developing close relations with the recently installed Nazi regime. He swore before leaving for Berlin that “Germany can hardly fail to realize the importance of friendly cooperation with the 120,000,000 people of the United States, and the United States can hardly fail to realize the value of economic and social cooperation with the land of Luther, Stein and Bismarck.”

When he first arrived in the German capital, Dodd became encouraged by the warm welcome then-President Paul von Hindenburg extended him, for the two exchanged speeches calling for cooperation and friendship between their countries. Soon, however, the brutality of the Nazis became obvious. Within Dodd’s first six months in Berlin, for example, over twenty cases were reported of Nazis assaulting U.S. citizens who refused to yield their salute. This—as well as Germany’s moratorium on debt repayments—disillusioned the former University of Chicago history professor. He spoke against Berlin’s political and economic policies, as well as attacks in the German press on New York Mayor La Guardia, U.S. women and the United States in general. His protests, however, meant little.
The Nazi regime not only embittered Dodd, but also strained his relations with Washington. After four frustrated years he resigned as the U.S. Ambassador to Germany. Dodd had become so openly critical of the Nazis that Hitler gave him no farewell audience, the German Foreign Minister omitted the customary dinner for departing diplomats and the German press did not even mention his departure. In a statement he made upon his return to the U.S., Dodd confessed that he had found representing the United States in Hitler’s Berlin a hopeless task. “In a vast region where religious freedom is denied, where intellectual initiative and discovery are not allowed, and where race hatreds are cultivated” he asked, “what can a representative of the United States do?”
William E. Dodd’s enthusiasm to work with the officials of the German government under Hitler paled early in his career as the United States Ambassador to Germany. Repeatedly throughout his stay in Berlin he considered leaving his post, feeling frustrated at his seeming inability to affect the Nazi regime or represent the United States as he saw fitting. Finally, he no longer could bear to stay in the Third Reich and in late July of 1937 sailed for the United States to confer with President Roosevelt about his wish to resign, visit a number of important public officials, attend the funeral of a longtime academic colleague and see how the crops fared that year at Round Hill, the Dodds’ beloved farmland retreat in Virginia.

Dodd stayed in the United States that visit for two and a half months, returning to Hitler’s Germany only when he could no longer avoid attending to diplomatic duties. On Friday 29 October he noted with resignation in his journal: “In Berlin once more. What can I do?” With little choice but to immerse himself back into the work which had led him away from his professorship at the University of Chicago in 1933, Dodd soon recorded “I have had three busy days reading documents and recent newspapers to get the drift of things”.

On 3 November Dodd reported that although he had asked to be “relieved” on 1 September 1937, President Roosevelt strongly requested him remain in Berlin until 1 March 1938. He confessed “I feel I must go because of the unbearable tension of Nazi Germany, my increasing years, and the difficulty of writing the other volumes of my Old South [a historical series] if I wait much longer.” Dodd summarily executed his duties—receiving other foreign diplomats, attending receptions and official parties, meeting various dignitaries—yet he counted the days until he could leave Fascist Germany. A decent, idealistic man detained in a country he no longer could tolerate because of loyalty to his own land and conflicting ideology, Dodd struggled to maintain public appearances, often meeting with German officials yet secretly loathing doing so. At an annual bar association ball, for example, he met a “quite interesting Judge of the People’s Court,” yet to avoid debate “We talked German history, since present conditions cannot easily be discussed.”

Read in full here.

Check out Erik Larson’s website here.