Since the end of World War II, countless books about Adolph Hitler have raised the same question: How could such a monster have brought the entire world to the brink of destruction? Erik Larson offers a few answers in his historical account of an American family.
In 1933, William Dodd was sixty-four years old when President Roosevelt appointed him ambassador to Berlin. The University of Chicago professor accepted the post thinking it would allow him time to work on a history he was writing about the American South. Accompanying him were his wife Mattie, son Bill, and daughter Martha.
From the start, Dodd had trouble fitting in with the diplomatic corps. Unlike his wealthy colleagues, he was middle-class and frugal. His disparaging dispatches to the State Department annoyed his superiors, and he sometimes ran afoul of the Hitler regime, which in 1933 had only a tenuous grip on power. Worse, Martha became entangled in a series of romances, one with a Russian official, others with Nazi collaborators, that scandalized onlookers and tended to compromise Dodd’s mission.
Like others in a position to observe the Nazis up close, the Dodds failed to recognize what Germany was becoming, despite public incidents in which Jews and even Americans were assaulted by Hitler’s Storm Troopers. Charmed by the friendly people and Berlin’s outward beauty, the Dodds dismissed Hitler’s government as a temporary oddity that would soon collapse. They changed their minds after June 30, 1934, the day that Hitler took steps to make sure no one would stand in his way.
Larson’s account makes clear that there was plenty of blame to go around. The American government in particular was more interested in getting Germany to pay its debts than in standing up to Nazi outrages. By the time America and other foreign powers finally woke up, it was too late.
Though Larson’s account, like all his histories, is meticulously documented, it’s the humanity of those on the world stage that shines through. A few are heroic. Most are despicable. I came away from this book reflecting that ninety years later, the lessons of Nazi Germany have yet to sink into the hearts of my contemporaries. If that’s true, it most surely can happen again.