Ocean City, N.J. – The Atlantic was as blue as it regularly is off the beaches of South Florida, and that, in some 70 years of occasional visits to this place, is a rare sight. Typically the water is a gray-green, the colors that the Royal Air Force used to camouflage its aircraft in World War II. The Brits nicknamed the scheme “slime and sewage.” But yesterday was wonderful great-to-be-alive weather in this favorite escape for people from Philadelphia and much of eastern Pennsylvania, and it was hard to believe that all is not right everywhere in the world.
Among those who once were summer regulars here was the Kelly family, one of whose members was Grace Kelly, later princess of Monaco. Mention that name to your average 15-year-old today and they will ask “Who is Grace Kelly?” Sic transit gloria mundi. That’s a line from a play written by Princess Grace’s uncle, George Kelly, once a famous figure, now more forgotten than the beautiful actress turned princess. But neither of them is as forgotten as William E. Dodd, the subject of our vacation reading. He was the American ambassador to Germany in the years just preceding World War II. History is one of my fancies, and I never heard of the man. Happily, his memory is rightfully restored in Erik Larson’s book In The Garden of Beasts, published last year.
Dodd was a college professor who was tapped by President Franklin Roosevelt to become ambassador to Germany in 1933, largely because nobody else wanted the job. Dodd was qualified because he actually knew something about Germany, having studied there years before. In another sense, he was an odd choice. Unlike most ambassadors, he was not wealthy and was unable to use his own money to party the way ambassadors usually do. He was actually resented, and ridiculed by members of what was called “a pretty good club.” The members of that club, and many of the political leaders in the U.S. and throughout Europe, tended to dismiss Hitler and his Nazi thugs as almost comical, hardly the sort who could dominate a country such as Germany.
Dodd and his family arrived in Germany at a tragic hinge of history, although few realized it at the time. President Roosevelt told him to assess Hitler and conditions in Germany. Dodd appreciated the good qualities of the German people, and he did his best to remain open-minded even as the Nazis consolidated power, and brutally began exterminating political opponents and persecuting Jews. He even went so far as to worry that his staff had too many Jews, which he feared would antagonize the German leadership and complicate his delicate work. But that was 1933 and by 1937, he had done enough to earn the hatred of the German regime and put his own life, and that of those he associated with, in danger. He took risks to attempt, with some success, to protect people who might otherwise have died at the hands of the Nazis.
He returned to the U.S. to lecture widely, warning that Hitler was bent on war and the extermination of a race of people. President Roosevelt, we now know, was listening, but in the mood of America at the time, he felt politically unable to take action that might have prevented World War II. The enormous pressure William Dodd felt took a toll on his health and he died in 1940, living just long enough to see his predictions coming true.
Seventy years later it is hard to believe it ever happened, and that a man with a front-row seat to the beginnings of the Holocaust and preparations for a war that would cost millions of lives, could be ignored by all but a few. Today, with parts of the world ruled by people with no more scruples than the Nazis, and like Hitler vowing to exterminate nations and people, and having already demonstrated an ability to create massive destruction, and with Western leaders faced with similar political constraints, In The Garden Of Beasts and the story of William Dodd take on an ominous poignancy.
Even with fair skies and cool winds blowing in from an ocean blue.