In my lifetime (1940-so far, so good) the biggest historical question has always been, “Why didn’t the German people stop fascism?”
Book Review: Erik Larson, “In the Garden of Beasts,” Crown, New York, 2011
When we meet people from Germany, we start looking for the right opportunity to, politely, ask them. When we read the histories, it’s what we want to know. “In the Garden of Beasts” relates the personal histories of the four family members of Professor William E Dodd, Ambassador to Germany 1933-37.
Worldwide attitudes toward the Nazis ranged from admiration to revulsion when Dodd moved to Berlin. Like most people, his family fell somewhere in between. Dodd felt that his role was to be an intermediary without strong bias. That changed over time and the course of this book.
Probably the most detailed account comes from vivacious daughter Martha Dodd. That may be because she wrote the most and lived the longest. It may also have been because she was more involved with more people and with people of more disparate political views. One of her lovers was a communist who worked in the Soviet Embassy; another headed the Gestapo, and there were several in-between.
Hitler had already been elected to high office before the Dodd’s arrived, and his popularity was already rising to fanatic levels. But he didn’t really consolidate all his power until the period that the Dodd’s experienced up close and personally. While they were there, he murdered some of his rivals and outlasted General Hindenberg, the only single person who could have stopped him.
Interestingly, Dodd had his detractors within the State Department all along. Especially after he began to condemn the Nazis, powerful Americans wanted him removed and finally had their way. His successor was still apologizing for Hitler at the end of the book. According to this author’s account, President Roosevelt supported Dodd’s view, but was forced to acquiesce in getting rid of him.
After Dodd returned to the United States, he toured the country to warn about fascism. Martha, too, worked against the fascists, but, like many others, she had to seek exile during the post-war witch hunt.
So, why didn’t the Germans stop Hitler? The best answer I got by asking came from a World War II veteran (their side, not ours) living in Dallas. He said, “The Nazis got people jobs.” Hitler came to power during the great worldwide depression. German unemployment was 25%. That’s why it was so easy for the relatively wealthy National Socialist Party to recruit young men into their Stormtroopers. After they took power, the Nazis started their great military building, which eventually overcame the worst of their unemployment problem. That’s a partial answer to the question, but not a fully satisfying one.
The real answer may never be found by asking individual Germans or reading history books. The real answer has to do with comfort zones, lack of understanding, lack of organization, miseducation, and lack of will. The reasons the German people didn’t stop fascism, even though they could see it, are the same reasons that the people of the United States have not yet stopped the trend toward fascism here. Let’s start asking about that!