In The Garden Of Beasts

I’m currently reading this book by Erik Larson. It’s a chronicle of one year in the life of William E. Dodd and family during Dodd’s first year in Berlin as US Ambassador to Germany (1933).

Dodd’s instinct was to tone down all the stories of bloody beatings and death perpetrated by the Nazis.

One reason was that many US banks had bought German government bonds. The entire Western world was reeling from economic depression, and the bankers felt that if the Germans were insulted, they would default on their loans. As it was, Germany was proposing to pay back thirty cents on the dollar.

But the biggest reason was that Dodd felt that speaking out against the violence would seem biased against Germany. A memorable quote:

“Dodd reiterated his commitment to objectivity and understanding in an August 12 letter to Roosevelt, in which he wrote that while he did not approve of Germany’s treatment of Jews or Hitler’s drive to restore the country’s military power, ‘fundamentally, I believe a people has a right to govern itself and that other peoples must exercise patience even when cruelties and injustices are done. Give men a chance to try their schemes.’”

Knowing that these “schemes” progressed to world war and concentration camps makes the attitude of the Ambassador all the more dumbfounding. I’m looking forward to reading about how his views must surely change the longer he lives in Berlin.

It should be noted that no one wanted to be the US Ambassador to Germany in 1933. Dodd was FDR’s third choice (he informally considered about ten other people first).

What most appeals to me about this book is that it relies heavily on the diaries of Dodd and his 24-year-old daughter Martha, and on the confidential dispatches from Berlin to the State Department from Consul General George S. Messersmith. Firsthand accounts, along with the book’s time restraint of one year in Germany, gives way to a very informative view of what it was like to live in this period of time and to understand it more fully.

That’s why I love reading the diaries themselves of historical figures living in interesting times. One of my favorites is Scum of the Earth, by Arthur Koestler. This is Keostler’s diary during the German invasion of France in 1939. His day-to-day account tells of his flight from Paris, going into hiding, his capture, his escape from a concentration camp, and his successful flight to England.

The supremacy of primary sources is also the reason why I love WikiLeaks (“Courage is Contagious”).

To me, it is not a coincidence that the most accurate, detailed information coming out of Germany in the first 6 months of Hitler’s rule was confidential dispatches to the State Department.

It is no surprise that the WikiLeaks release of State Department emails was very revealing, and embarrassed the US. For instance, the President of Ecuador sent everyone from the US Embassy packing when he learned they were secretly paying entire units of the Ecuadorian police force on their own. Illegal activity by our government in other countries is, of course, embarrassing. And it should come to light.

To go off on a tangent for just a moment, it is an affront to Democracy itself that the press in the United States (with the exception of Rolling Stone) is determined not to accept primary sources of important information just because the founder of WikiLeaks is currently unpopular — they feel threatened that he’s doing a better job than they are.

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