In the Garden of Beasts

“That you have found me… among so many millions is the miracle of our time!  And that I have found you, that is Germany’s fortune!”  -Adolf Hitler

In the Garden of BeastsI just finished reading “In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin”, a nonfiction book by Erik Larson that tells in somewhat graphics about the ascent of Hitler from chancellor to absolute tyrant.  In 1933 President Roosevelt appointed a new ambassador to Germany, and the book was based on first-hand eyewitness experience of the Dodds family living in Berlin.  There are a few things that I saw as striking resemblance of what happened then with what is happening nowadays:

  • On the surface everything was fine, but underneath a foundational transformation was taking place.
  • Everything changed quickly in one day without warning.
  • People were immune to their surrounding.  They applauded evil as good and good as evil.
  • Only few people saw what’s coming.

On the surface everything was fine, but underneath a foundational transformation was taking place.

Nice days were still nice.  “The sun shines,” wrote Christopher Isherwood in his Berlin Stories, “and Hitler is the master of this city.  The sun shines, and dozens of my friends … are in prison, possibly dead.”  The prevailing normalcy was seductive.  “I catch sight of my face in the mirror of a shop, and am shocked to see that I am smiling,“ Isherwood wrote.  “You can’t help smiling, in such beautiful weather.”  The trams moved as usual, as did the pedestrians passing on the street; everything around him had “an air of curious familiarity, of striking resemblance to something one remembers as normal and pleasant in the past-like a very good photograph.”

Beneath the surface, however, Germany had undergone a rapid and sweeping revolution that reached deep into the fabric of daily life.  It had occurred quietly and largely out of easy view.  At its cores was a government campaign called Gleichschaltung-meaning “Coordination”-to bring citizens, government ministries, universities, and cultural and social institutions in line with National Socialist beliefs and attitudes.

“Coordination” occurred with astonishing speed, even in sectors of life not directly targeted by laws, as Germans willingly placed themselves under the sway of Nazi rule, a phenomenon that became known as Selbstgleichschaltung, or “self-coordination.”  Change came to Germany so quickly and across such a wide front that German citizens who left the country for business or travel returned to find everything around them altered, as if they were characters in a horror movie who come back to find that people who once were friends, clients, patients, and customers have become different in ways hard to discern.  Gerda Laufer, a socialist, wrote that she felt “deeply shaken that people whom one regarded as friends, who were known for a long time, from one hour to the next transformed themselves.”……

A central element of Coordination was the insertion into Germany’s civil service law of the “Aryan clause,“ which effectively banned Jews from government jobs.  Additional regulations and local animosities severely restricted Jews from practicing medicine and becoming lawyers….

(Chapter 6, Seduction)

Everything changed quickly in one day without warning.
On June 30, 1934 Hitler and his regime killed a lot of his political opponents.  The event that is known as “the Purge” took place in a single day, and……

No one knew exactly how many people had lost their lives in the purge.  Official Nazi tallies put the total at under one hundred.  Foreign Minister Neurath, for example, told Britain’s Sir Eric Phipps that there had been “forty-three or forty-six” executions and claimed that all other estimates were “unreliable and exaggerated.”  Dod, in a letter to his friend Daniel Roper, wrote that reports coming in from America’s consulates in other German cities suggested a total of 284 deaths. “Most of the victims, “ Dodd wrote, “were in no sense guilty of treason; merely political or religious opposition.”  Other tallies by American officials put the number far higher.  The consul in Brandenburg wrote that an SS officer had told him five hundred had been killed and fifteen thousand arrested….. Diels later estimated seven hundred deaths; other insiders place the total at over one thousand.  No definitive total exists.

(Chapter 49, The Dead)

People were immune to their surrounding.  They applauded evil as good and good as evil.

On Friday, July 13, Hitler gave a radio speech before the deputies of the Reichstag to explain the event that took place on June 30.  Ambassador Dodd, just like everyone else in Berlin, wanted to hear what the chancellor had to say about the purge.  But he could stand the prospect of being there in person and listening to Hitler justify mass murder; therefore, he decided not attend the address, but to listen on the radio.

At eight o’clock that night, in the library at Tiergartenstrasse 27a, Dodd turned on his radio and listened as Hitler took the dais to address the Reichstag.  A dozen deputies were absent, murdered in the purge…… Even over the radio Dodd could hear the frequent rising and Heilings of the audience….

Dodd heard the clamor as the audience leapt to its feet, cheering, saluting, and applauding.  Hitler resumed……

The hall resounded with the thunder of applause and massed voices singing the “Horst Wessel Lied.”  Had Dodd been present, he would have seen two girls give Hitler bouquets of flowers, the girls dressed in the uniform of the Bund Deutscher Mädel, the female branch of the Hitler Youth, and would have seen Göring step briskly to the dais to take Hitler’s hand, followed by a surge of officials bent on offering their own congratulations.

(Chapter 52, Only the Horses)

Only few people saw what’s coming.

Due to internal pressure from the State Department and the external pressure from the German foreign office, President Roosevelt ordered that Dodd should leave his ambassadorial post before the end of 1937.

On January 13, 1938, at a dinner given in his honor at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, Dodd, by now a private citizen, declared, “Mankind is in grave danger, but democratic governments seem not to know what to do.  If they do nothing, Western civilization, religious, personal, and economic  freedom are in grave danger.”

At a speech in Rochester, New York, on February 21, 1938, before a Jewish congregation, Dodd warned that once Hitler attained control of Austria-an event that appeared imminent-Germany would continue seeking to expand its authority elsewhere, and that Romania, Poland, and Czechoslovakia were at risk.  He predicted, moreover, that Hitler would be free to pursue his ambitions without armed resistance from other European democracies, as they would choose concessions over war.

In a June 10, 1938, speech in Boston, at the Harvard Club-that den of privilege-Dodd talked of Hitler’s hatred of Jews and warned that his true intent was “to kill them all”

Five months later, on November 9 and 10, came Kristallnacht, the Nazi pogrom that convulsed Germany and at last drove Roosevelt to issue a public condemnation.  He told reporters he “could scarcely believe that such a thing could occur in twentieth century civilization.”

(Chapter 55, As Darkness Fell)

It is a powerful book, and as students of history, let us learn from it because history destined to repeat itself.

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