Through In the Garden of the Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, Erik Larsen has taken the lives of William E. Dodd and his family to tell the story of the beginnings of Hitler’s rise to power. Dodd was appointed by FDR as the American ambassador to Germany in 1933. Through his, and his daughter’s eyes, we learn of the intrigues and the terror of the Nazi machine and what it did to Germany. It also reveals the anti-Semitism of the Roosevelt administration, American society at the time, and particularly the State Department. There was a great deal of naiveté, denial, and just plain cowardice at play.
Of course, it is easy for us retrospectively to see these things, and to feel superior to the contemporaries. It reminds us that, when we are in the midst of such movements of history we do not see how blind we are to the forces controlling us and others. How would we have behaved? Would we have been as blind and obtuse and they were? Probably. Most of us refuse to believe the worst of people. Dodd’s biggest problem was that, as an academic (he was professor of history at the University of Chicago), he believed in people working together in a rational fashion. But Hitler was irrational. Reason only takes us so far. The forces of evil stalk the earth and finds ready hosts to inhabit, whether they are the Nazi leadership or Napoleon.
It makes me wonder what is happening today that I cannot see? Am I too sanguine about world events? Is there more evil in our political leadership at home and abroad than I am willing to admit? Are the forces that are controlling the history of our period leading us to yet another time of terror? I am not given to histrionics but I sometimes wonder whether we have too many Nero’s fiddling away while Rome burns. President Roosevelt was not willing to come out and condemn Hitler’s detestable acts. Dodd’s successor in Berlin was Hugh Wilson who emphasized the positive aspects of Nazi Germany and carried on a one-man campaign of appeasement. He accused the American press of being ‘Jewish controlled’ and praised Hitler.
Are there parallels today in our refusal to condemn the evils of foreign leaders, and to play down the precarious state of government debt here and throughout the world? Will the house of cards come tumbling down around us as our culture becomes more immoral, and marriage and family disintegrates? Is all this predestined, as the Bible warns us?
Philip Yancey writes: “Biblical history tells a meandering, zigzag tale of doglegs and detours. God’s plan unfolds like a leisurely opera, not a Top 40 tune. For those of us caught in any one phrase of the opera, especially a mournful phrase, the music may seem unbearably sad. Onward it moves, at deliberate speed, and with great effort. The very tedium, the act of waiting itself, works to nourish in us qualities of patience, persistence, trust, gentleness, compassion – or it may do so, if we place ourselves in the stream of God’s movement on earth… Faith calls us to trust in a future-oriented God…No matter how circumstances appear at any given moment, we can trust the fact the God still rules the universe. The divine reputation rests on a solemn pact that one day all shall be well.” (Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? p.238)