In In the Garden of Beasts, Erik Larson tells the story of William Dodd, the United States’ Ambassador to Germany during the 1930s. He describes his background and seemingly lack of qualifications for the appointment Roosevelt gave him during one of the most pivotal periods in modern history.
Dodd was an historian who earned his Ph.D. in Leipzig 40 years earlier. He never had high aspirations and was considered something of a lightweight and a joke by his fellow American diplomats. Although Dodd did not look forward to his ambassadorship, at the age of 64, he figured Germany might provide a quiet safe place for him to finish his latest writing project. So he decided to accept the appointment and moved with his wife, son, and daughter Martha to Berlin.
He was also a very unassuming and modest man. He didn’t enjoy the lavish parties thrown by heads of state, nor did he want to be chauffeured around Germany in an expensive car. In fact, Dodd had his old Chevy sent over to Germany--which he drove himself--and made the decision to rent his residence at a discount from its Jewish owner. At a time when the ruling parties in Germany respected only power and assertiveness, Dodd was the exact opposite of who should have been sent at the time.
Soon after arriving, Dodd and his family began witnessing the escalating violence and discrimination against Jews in Berlin. He saw the efforts being made to strip Jews of their German citizenship along with a myriad of other steps being taken by the Nazi Party to dehumanize Jews and force them out of German society.
As time progressed, and as Dodd became more and more concerned with the direction he saw Germany heading, he repeatedly communicated his concerns back to President Roosevelt, who seemed to respect Dodd, but repeatedly dismissed him and his reports in favor of guidance he was receiving from members of his cabinet.
Larson does a great job of showing the ineffectiveness of Dodd’s ambassadorship. But he balances that by positioning him as a man who always stayed true to his own convictions and never wavered in his assessment of what he was witnessing, even when the rest of the world ridiculed and dismissed him. In hindsight Dodd can now be seen as a singular voice of warning. One that was ignored with consequences.
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