Tuesday, July 26, 2011

It Wasn't Just Hitler

(Warning- this post is for history buffs. There are no cute crafts, sinfully yummy recipes, or whimsical reminiscences. Not even any butterflies. Sorry, but History is what I read and like to share. Expect more. You've been warned.)

Finished this book lthe other night. In 1933, William Dodd became the US Ambassador to Germany. In The Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson follows Dodd's first year in Germany (there's a bit a of wrap-up at the end). Dodd, a history professor, had studied in Leipzig during his college years and went into his tenure as Ambassador with warm feelings toward the German people and nation but no diplomatic experience. Dodd was not Roosevelt's first choice for Ambassador. Or his second. Or third. In fact, Dodd was embarrasingly low on the list. No one else wanted the job. While the persecution of the Jews, initially subtle, was beginning to be discussed in political circles, Dodd felt that most Jews were over-stating the problems in Germany and strove to be neutral on the issue. Dodd and his daughter Martha both looked at life in Nazi Germany with rose-colored glasses, wanting to believe in it's innocence and quaintness. Consequently, it was almost a full year before Dodd and his family (wife, daughter, and son) came to understand the truth of Hitler's threat to the world. The last straw was the June 30th 1934 purge of the leadership of the Storm Troopers, then led by Ernst Rohm. Hitler, as did many of his loyal fellow leaders, saw the Storm Troopers, the SA, as a threat to the traditional German military and their own political ambitions. Between June 30th and July 2nd, Storm Trooper commanders and supporters were arrested and executed for treason. No trial, just executed. This purge became known as the Night of Long Knives. Hitler declared to the German people that he had averted an attempt by certain SA leaders to overthrow the German leadership and was thus justified to naming himself judge during the purge. Hitler claimed just over seventy traitors were executed but the historical record shows that individuals who opposed Hitler, such as a priest, journalists, Jews, and others were killed in the action. Some estimate the casualties closer to 700. We will most likely never know the exact number, but for the shootings to have continued for three days indicates that the violence was more widespread than the Nazis wanted the world to believe. We see clips of Hitler giving speeches in which he is ranting and spitting like a mad man (huh, image that) but to read some of the translations is interesting. Hitler was a master orator and manipulator (oh and a lair, just sayin') and the German people by in large, at least in the beginning, swallowed his speeches hook, line, and sinker. Later it was fear that kept them silent. The Night of Long Knives was a pivotal truning point for the German people, who had been increasingly dissatisfied with Hitler and his Nazi tactics, his initial use of the SA as his personal bully army as part of the reason. By regining in the SA, the German people believed Hitler had actually eliminated a threat to their security and way of life. Some did see it for the dire warning that it was.

Image via Traces

Larson's book focuses mostly on Dodd and his daughter Martha, who had several affairs with high ranking German officials, as well as a man who turned to to be a Soviet spy who has been tasked with recruiting Martha to spy for the Soviets. Martha was, as they used to say when it used to matter, a floozy. Dodd and his left-leaning daughter could not have been more opposite if they had tried. Larson provides an interesting look, through diary excerpts and official cables, at how the US Embassy functioned, Dodd's struggles as Ambassador, the daily lives of those living in Germany, and gives insights as well into the Nazi leadership and the psyche German people after WWI. It wasn't just Hitler. Himmler, Goebbels, and Goring to name the big three were power hungry- oh let's just say it- lunatics- who manipulated Hitler and used his mental instabilities to their own advantages.

Image via Amazing Discoveries

There was a point, around the time of the Night of Long Knives, when Hitler could conceivably have been stopped. Had Roosevelt heeded the increasingly dire reports from Dodd and other Embassy personnel, as had the leaders of other countries from their personnel, things may have turned out differently. But for some reason, which Larson wonders about but does not pursue, Roosevelt and other world leaders did not want to speak out against Hitler. In The Garden of Beasts, however, is an interesting look inside Nazi Germany in the years immediately prior to World War II.

This is just a brief peek inside In The Garden of Beasts. Visit Pittsburgh Live for a better review. I like Erik Larson, having read everything he's published since happening upon Issac's Storm several years ago and would recommend any of is books.

So call dibs on the best reading chair, pour a glass of iced tea, and get to reading. I would love to hear what book you've got your nose into.

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