One of the more interesting parts of history is when you grasp the horror of a situation, and wonder, Why didn't anyone stop this in time? That was the feeling that I had when I finished Erik Larson's look at Hitler's Berlin before the start of World War II, as told through the eyes of the American Ambassador at the time.
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In January of 1933, Adolf Hitler was named chancellor of Germany after an election, and nearly immediately, the irrevocable slide towards World War II began. Both Europe and America (and the rest of the world) were recovering from the first World War, and the economic boom that followed, along with the usual bust that landed everyone in the great Depression. Germany was still mired in outstanding loans (nearly from the United States alone) and making repatriation payments to the French. In the United States, Franklin Roosevelt was taking over, and as was customary when a new president is elected, new ambassadors were being chosen.
Needless to say, the choice for Germany was going to be a tricky one. Indeed, the first candidates flatly refused, and eventually, it was someone whom no one had considered who was selected for the post -- William Dodd, a middle-class academic who had worked himself up the ladder, and had spent some of his learning years in Dresden, Germany. He did not have the social connections, nor the personal wealth that the job of ambassador really needed, and his straightforward approach was less than appreciated by other members of President Roosevelt's cabinet and State Department.
Along with Ambassador Dodd came his wife and children, Bill and Martha. Indeed, most of this book is about Martha, and her rather wild life in Germany as she hobnobs with the elite of the Nazi inner circle. Most notable of her affairs is with Rudolf Diels, the first head of the Gestapo, despite the fact that they were both married, somewhat, and that Martha really didn't make any secret of her involvement with him. Her actions certainly caused plenty of talk, and I could only guess at the reactions back in Washington, DC.
On a far more serious note, I learnt a great deal in this one on the escalating moves that Germany was under as Hitler almost immediately started his plans to bring the country under his control. The press began to be censored, minority groups were under attack and the delicate game of politics with other countries to minimize debt, and bring the German army back to a truly formidable force was already underway. Most sinister were the constant round-ups of anyone who the Nazi party deemed against them, and it didn't matter who they were. Most surprising to me were the attacks on Americans, most of whom were Jews, and nearly all of them led by Ernst Rohm's SA or Stormtroopers. To his credit, Dodd tried to stop these and did everything he could to get American citizens who had been imprisoned or attacked out of the country, and did mention the continual threat to all Jews back to the State Department in Washington. Unfortunately, most of those pleas fell on deaf ears, as anti-Semitism was rife in American politics, and no one much lifted a hand to stop what was going on.
While Dodd did prove to be a rather ineffectual ambassador, he was very insightful, and managed to predict most of what was going to happen in the long lead-up to World War II. But he simply did not have the political savvy, or background to be a truly useful ambassador in one of the hotbeds of world politics. And that is rather sad, as so much hinged on those years that Dodd was serving in Berlin, from 1933-1936, when he was recalled from Germany. Dodd would not live to see America enter the war in 1941, and passed away in 1940.
While the book is very well researched, I found the ever-increasing focus on Martha and her carrying-ons with the Nazi elite to be very trite and sensationalistic. Unfortunately, that also brought down the usefulness of this book as well. After reading two of his previous works, both of which I found to be fascinating, this was more of a lead sinker for me. I knew quite well that it was going to be a downer from the subject matter, but the overall tawdriness just grated on me, and I was relieved to see it finally grind to a halt. And that's rather sad, as this book could have been so much more.
One of the more macabre scenes in the book is a visit to Hermann Goring's countryside villa, Carinhall, where the Dodds were invited to witness the reinterment of Goring's wife in a massive, rather ghastly grave and ceremony that is both chilling and laughable. More serious is the Nazi infighting between Rohm and the man who would replace him, Heinrich Himmler, and the events leading up to what would be known as The Night of the Long Knives.
If someone is looking for a more in-depth look at the rise of Nazi Germany, there are far better books out that cover the same events. Best among them is still William Shirer's massive work, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.
There are a few photographic reproductions at the start of each chapter, and maps of Berlin on the endpapers. There are copious notes, and an extensive bibliography as well.
Sadly, this book really did not meet the mark for me. I came away without a lot of respect for Dodd or his daughter by the end, and in all honesty can only give this one three stars. That's too bad, as Larson is a very good writer, and his previous books are still readable and entertaining. This one just simply did not do justice to the subject.
Other titles by Erik Larson:
The Devil in the White City
Many thanks to the Books CL, Dramastef who was able to add this title to the database for me, and has been a real gem in putting up with my requests this month!
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin
2011; Crown Publishing, Random House Inc., New York
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