Is it possible that if there had been a more experienced United States ambassador in Berlin in 1933 that Adolph Hitler might have been stopped before it was too late? We will, of course, never know the answer to that question. What we do know is that Ambassador William E. Dodd, despite what seems to have been his best intentions, failed to build strong enough a case against Hitler to convince Franklin Roosevelt and others that the world was on the brink of disaster.
Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts is not just William Dodd's story; it largely reflects the hopes of governments all over the world that Hitler's aspirations for restoring Germany to its former glory could be contained through the usual diplomatic channels and behind-the-scenes political pressures. In hindsight, with the exception of his failure to control his rather promiscuous daughter Martha (who "befriended" several questionable suitors at a time), Dodd's efforts do appear to have been more on the mark than those of many, more qualified, politicians of the period.
Dodd was not Roosevelt's first choice for the Berlin ambassadorship, something the new ambassador only learned after accepting the assignment. Clearly, the University of Chicago professor (and head of its history department) had no idea what he was getting himself into when he agreed to become America's German ambassador. But believing that the new job would allow him more free time to work on his four-volume history, The Rise and Fall of the Old South, Dodd decided to move his family to Berlin.
Unprepared as he was, Dodd did recognize that Hitler was not a man to be trusted and that Germany's Jews were in a dangerous position. This alone marks him as a more perceptive man than most of his peers in the U.S. State Department - a department in which an anti-Jewish sentiment was largely the norm. Hitler’s takeover did not happen overnight, and as the world watched the slow but steady fall of the German government to him and his henchmen, Dodd gradually came to realize that Hitler intended to expand the boundaries of Germany by whatever means it took. When he finally tried to convince Roosevelt of Hitler’s true intentions it was too late, and his superiors in Washington easily undermined his efforts. The result was that the United States, along with the rest of the world, procrastinated until it was too late to stop Hitler without the loss of millions of innocent lives.
Bottom Line: Reading In the Garden of Beasts is like being an eyewitness to one of the saddest chapters in world history, a year during which there might still have been time to stop one of history's madmen before it was too late. If only the right people had listened...