In the Garden of Beasts

[Ed. : Note to future Historians: this entry contains topical references which we hope will be meaningless in a few short years. We hope.]

Hitler Addressing the S.A. 1933

I’ve just read a book about the opening days of the Nazi regime takeover of Germany which, of course, followed the days of the Weimar Republic, a government that couldn’t seem to get anything done. Sort of like the one we in the United States seem to have right now. Of course, huge differences exist. The Weimar government couldn’t get much done because of outside forces it could do little about. The Treaty of Versailles and then a world-wide depression constrained its ability to do much. The current inability of the United States government to do anything is an entirely self-inflicted wound administered by a group of petulant children from the ideological right-wing, abetted by surprisingly feckless Democrats led by a president bent on jumping off the cliff with the children. Only time will tell if they all manage to destroy what is left of the economy of this great Nation.

The book, In the Garden of the Beasts by Erik Larson, follows the four-year tenure of America’s ambassador to Germany from 1933 through 1937. A scholar and chairman of the History Department at the University of Chicago, William E. Dodd, was picked by President Roosevelt for the job. He arrived with his family in Berlin just five months after the Nazis took power. Dodd quickly grasped what that meant. Along with two other embassy employees he tried to raise an alarm, but the wiser, richer heads running the State Department were much too worried about collecting bond debts from Germany for private American investors dumb enough to have bought them in the first place.

Ambassador Dodd and Family Arriving in Germany - LOC

We all learned in school about the European powers of the day adopting appeasement of Hitler as policy. Less is taught in U.S. schools about the U.S. government’s similar policy: “Ignore him and maybe he’ll go away.” Of course, not everyone in the upper reaches of the State Department thought Hitler should be ignored; some thought we could do business with him. (As did many titans of U.S. business.)

Dodd thought otherwise and was appalled at the lack of concern in Washington about what Germany was doing to its Jews, it’s lawless state-sponsored murders of people thought disagreeable by the Nazis, and by its open and plain-to-see rearmament in violation of the Treaty of Versailles.

One joke circulating through Germany about the illegal and supposedly secret rearmament may have reached Dodd. One man with a new baby in his family tells a friend that he doesn’t have enough money to buy a stroller for the baby. The friend works in a stroller factory and volunteers to bring enough spare parts to his friend so he can build a stroller himself. Some weeks later the friend spots the father carrying the baby in his arms and asks why he isn’t using the stroller he should have built from the parts. The Dad says, “I tried. I tried three times but it always ends up as a machine gun!” (From the book: Endnote 213)

Gestapo Head Rudolf Diels - Bundesarchiv

One suspects there may have been jokes circulating about Dodd’s daughter as well. She managed to bed a fair number of Nazis and other Germans while she was there. At one point she carried on a simultaneous affair with both the head of the Gestapo and a NKVD Russian spy. She had a good time in Germany even if her father didn’t.

William Bullitt - LOC

The Germans complained about Dodd, the upper-level wise men did not like him, and so they convinced President Roosevelt to replace Dodd with Hugh Wilson, another wise man from State, who set about his new job in Berlin with gusto, promising Germany’s Foreign minister, the Nazi von Ribbentrop, that if war came to Europe he (Wilson) would do all he could to keep the United States out of it. William Bullitt, one of the stars of the State Department, wrote Roosevelt that the appointment of Wilson “increased definitely” the chances for peace in Europe. Secretary of State Cordell Hull and his undersecretary Sumner Wells applauded. Soon Hitler gobbled up the Rhineland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, and invaded Poland. The rest is history.

My point? At long last I come to it: History teaches that people at high levels of government, despite their pretenses, don’t know much more about how things will turn out than we do. They aren’t bad people; they aren’t stupid, they just can’t see any further into the future than we can. And sometimes, not as far.


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