Reading history will make you aware of the wall you’re about to hit

I’ve been reading Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin in the evening, when my mushy brain allows me to focus for a bit. It’s good, but weirdly on-the-nose for someone living in America in the 2020s.

A quick summary: William Dodd, an ordinary history professor, gets selected to serve as the American ambassador to Germany in 1933, largely because the usual gang of civil servants all said “Holy shit, no, Hitler is coming to power and that dude is nuts.” He agrees to it because he thinks he’ll be freed up from his many university duties to write his magnum opus, a multi-volume history of the Old South, which, spoiler alert, he’s never going to finish. I sympathize a bit — escaping committee work and teaching for a few years, to host an occasional social whirl among the wealthy people of Europe? Sounds tempting. Except for the “Oh, right, Hitler” part.

So he gets there and steps right into the back-biting internal politics of the diplomatic corps. He’s a middle-class, fairly conservative but politically liberal fellow, plunged into a social scene ruled on the American side by an axis of privileged, filthy rich Harvard/Princeton/Yale alumni who love indolence and the perks of their offices; they’re all maneuvering behind his back to undercut his austerity initiatives, and seem to spend more time defending their right to send lengthy telegrams across the Atlantic while partying to all hours and getting up at 10am than in dealing with the crisis at hand. Dodd is being undermined, while at the same time he’s acquiring a reputation as the Cassandra of American diplomacy, because he’s horrified by the Nazis.

Many of his peers are busy with propping up policies of appeasement — they don’t want their gravy train tipped over. They know Hitler is a jumped-up nobody, and they keep predicting that the sensible German people and their well-established representatives will eventually set the lunatic aside, nobody could possibly let him run roughshod over such a civilized nation. He’s a flash in the pan. Cooler heads will prevail.

Unfortunately, for those who know a little history, in 1934 the Night of Long Knives happens. Dodd, as a diplomat, knew everyone involved — Röhm, the leader of the brown shirts, lived just around the corner from the embassy. Himmler and Göring were familiar social acquaintances; his daughter, Martha Dodd, was sleeping with Rudolf Diels, commander of the Gestapo (she seems to have jumped into bed with any prominent Nazi she could find, and also with Russian NKVD agents — she was a liberal modern woman. She initially admires the Nazis, eventually becoming disillusioned and transferring her adoration to Russian communists. She was also a naive woman.) It’s stunning how much horrible history was happening right there in this corner of Berlin, in these few years of history.

From there, it descends into a seemingly inevitable spiral of chaos, and we know how that ended up. Dodd is eventually squeezed out and returns home to wander the lecture circuit, telling everyone how evil the Nazi regime was.

What most struck me, though, was the ubiquitous anti-Semitism. The Americans opposed Nazi policies of imprisoning and murdering Jews, for sure…but behind the scenes all the American civil servants are nodding and agreeing that yes, there is a “Jewish problem” and gosh, Jews sure have crept deviously into positions of influence, like Jews always do. These were the people of power and influence, all assuming that yes, Jews are undesirable, but it just won’t do to kill them outright like the Nazis were doing. Even Dodd was making these kinds of arguments, accepting the Nazi premise but only rejecting their methods.

Dodd’s wikipedia page makes this same observation.

Edward M. House, a veteran in Democratic Party circles since the Wilson administration, told Dodd that he should do what he could “to ameliorate Jewish sufferings,” but cautioned, “the Jews should not be allowed to dominate economic or intellectual life in Berlin as they have done for a long time.” Dodd shared House’s views and wrote in his diary that “The Jews had held a great many more of the key positions in Germany than their numbers or talents entitled them to.” Based on this view of the proper role of Jews in society, he advised Hitler in March 1934 that Jewish influence should be restrained in Germany as it was in the United States. “I explained to him [Hitler],” wrote Dodd, “that where a question of over-activity of Jews in university or official life made trouble, we had managed to redistribute the offices in such a way as to not give great offense.” Hitler ignored Dodd’s advice and responded that “if they [the Jews] continue their activity we shall make a complete end of them in this country.”

This kind of mealy-mouthed defense is ubiquitous in the book. There are no heroes, only a few people who had glimmerings of the consequences of the bigotry that they also shared.

The author makes the point that maybe the Nazi catastrophe wasn’t inevitable at all, that what it required were people of integrity to point out that it was all built on lies and hatred, but when the people you depend on to stand for what is right are all Ivy League dickheads who don’t even recognize the humanity of the Jewish people, all responses will be ineffectual and actually enabling. I felt like the diplomatic corps prior to WWII was made of an army of Tucker Carlsons. No wonder Hitler got away with so much criminality early in his career!

The book did not fill me with confidence about the future. I see the same phenomenon going on around me right now: we have media that are constantly making the case that Jews, or Palestinians, or black people, or trans people, or <name your hated minority here> are less than fully human, that we can abridge their rights because they are lesser beings, and we are becoming inured to this kind of language. Nick Fuentes is not some amusing comedian, the Proud Boys are not a fraternal organization, Fox News is not just echoing the perspective of a simple demographic. These are all kinds of monstrous haters who are building a foundation for an unimaginably evil future.

You can try to pretend it can’t happen here…but it’s happening here.


  1. raven says

    What most struck me, though, was the ubiquitous anti-Semitism.

    That is starting to happen here. Again.
    You hear it all the time from the right wingnuts, along with the occasional attacks on synagogues and Jewish organizations.
    The major super villain of the right is…Hungarian Jew George Soros, who is assigned superpowers very far beyond his actual influence.

    The more common bigotry though is directed against Blacks. Racism is getting mainstreamed by the GOP everywhere, most obviously in places where they have absolute power such as Florida with their Orwellian rewrite of history and Texas, taking over the Houston school district which is 90% nonwhite.

    The fascists other favorite demons are the Trans people.
    They are ideal for bullies to pick on because they are a very small minority of 0.6% of the population without a lot of legal protections.

    As to what can be done, we do what we can to oppose hate and bigotry.
    At the very least, pay attention and don’t look away.

  2. Paul K says

    I was born in 1960. My dad turned 18 in 1945, and, like several of his six brothers, he was drafted and sent to Europe after training. Fortunately for him, the European war ended before his training did (not so for my uncles, who fought in most of the major American battles). Pretty much every kid in my neighborhood had dads — and moms — who’d been in the war. All of us knew the evil the Nazis had done.

    So I was really amazed when the TV mini-series The Holocaust aired in the late 1970s, and so many people around me responded with crap like ‘I had no idea’. I was in high school at the time, now living in a suburban foster home, so maybe my memory and experience are not typical. But I seem to recall stories with similar themes in the media, too, about how people were shocked to ‘learn the truth’. How could that be? Where the hell had they been for the past 30+ years? I do not remember a time when I did not know about the death camps, the ghettos, the gas chambers.

    I now understand that people often ‘don’t know’ at best, because they choose not to, and at worst, actually sympathize with or support the baddies. This is obvious now, but the mental disconnect people are capable of is terrifying.

  3. Oggie: Mathom says

    I have recently been reading about the history of Spain leading up to the Civil War and the parallels there are just as obvious. I am also reading a book about the Albigensian Crusades, and the head of one of the families is described as ‘too incompetent to be successful and incapable of remaining in the background.”

    I have studied and interpreted history for my adult life. I graduated in 1989 with a BA in European military history and, after a sojourn in the Army, I became a cultural interpreter for the NPS, focusing on steam technology, organized labour, large corporations, and attempts at government regulation. The goals of the current GOP seem to be to return us to the middle-late 1800s — labour was almost powerless, Christianity (of many different sects) was used to keep the poor and women in their place, racism and oppression women was endemic, corporations were unregulated, and the government, repeatedly, intervened to help corporations. Which sounds an awful lot like an early version of fascism. Or at least in the same family.

  4. robro says

    It’s happened here before so no reason to be surprised that it’s happening now. In my Southern upbringing in the 50s/60s, Jews, Blacks, and later Cubans were the common targets for the bigotry. Of course, other groups (e.g. Italians) could be targets. I doubt it ever stopped, it just got suppressed during the “enlightened” later decades when overt race-baiting wasn’t considered as acceptable as it is again. The coding changed over time, of course. When people talked about “welfare bums” we all knew they were talking about Blacks and Cubans.

    I’m reading history, too: The Dawn of Everything by David Graeber and David Wengrow. I just started, but as I understand they take a look at the current popular views of the mythic history of Western civilization. They start with a critique of the background in Hobbes and Rousseau, but they quickly move to taking Steven Pinker to task for his “West is best” perspective, that the arch of history is from savage past into the progressive “Western” civilization. As anthropologists they assert there’s no evidence for a “savage past” either noble or otherwise, just human.

  5. birgerjohansson says

    “all responses will be ineffectual”

    I am thinking of conservative Democrats. Yes, Dumpf is too stupid to be another Benito or Adolph, but his successors will be another matter.
    Christ, the Dems did not even castigate Dubya after he dismissed the intelligence warnings that Bin Laden was planning something in USA.

  6. mordred says

    And here in Germany the “Alternative for Germany” become more and more openly fascist and reach new heights in the surveys. They’re still far from a majority (at least on a federal level), but the direction this is going is not good.
    The other parties are still declaring that they would work with everyone else to keep them from power, but some conservative politicians are talking about possible cooperation on a local level…
    People haven’t learned from history, even here where it happened.

  7. CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain says

    What most struck me, though, was the ubiquitous anti-Semitism. […] all the American civil servants are nodding and agreeing

    Ken Burns’ “The U.S. and the Holocaust“, about America’s inaction, conveyed that as well.

    isolationism kept the U.S. out of the war for years […] The documentary dispels the myth that many Americans didn’t know the extent of Hitler’s murderous vision. […] A radio dispatch by Edward R. Murrow, from December 1942, describes it in plain language

    Ken Burns OpEd

    a period marked by a swell of homegrown, right-wing extremism, isolationism, xenophobia and racism.
    In the 1920s, desperate to restrict immigration to preserve the “racial” makeup of the country, Americans justified their intolerance by championing […] eugenics, which provided a rationale for limiting the ability of certain “races,” including Jews, to move to the U.S. […] This same intolerance later established insurmountable obstacles for thousands of refugees seeking to flee to America from the Reich.
    When Nazi jurists sought statutes on which to base their own antisemitic laws, they turned to the Jim Crow South. Race laws in the U.S. revealed the hypocrisy of any American outrage against Germany and undermined our credibility
    mainstream and powerful figures […] businesses […] reporters […] accepting of Nazi propaganda and no doubt sympathetic […] our response to Nazism was hindered by our own fears and prejudices

  8. christoph says

    Hitler also admired the way the US treated Native Americans. He used much of that as a model for his “Final Solution.”

  9. raven says

    …championing […] eugenics, which provided a rationale for limiting the ability of certain “races,” including Jews, to move to the U.S. […]

    When Hitler and the Nazis started persecuting and rounding up the Jews, the US took a few in.

    And refused to let a huge number of Jewish refugees in. The Voyage of the Damned shows what happened.


    Based on historic events, this dramatic film concerns the 1939 voyage of the German-flagged MS St. Louis, which departed from Hamburg carrying 937 Jews from Germany, bound for Havana, Cuba. The passengers, having seen and suffered rising antisemitism in Germany, realised this might be their only chance to escape.

    The Cuban government refuses entry to the passengers while the ship in under way, and next the liner heads to the United States. As it waits off the Florida coast, the passengers learn that the United States also has rejected them, as Canada subsequently does; leaving the captain no choice but to return to Europe.

    The MS St. Louis with 937 Jews was refused entry to Cuba, the USA, and Canada.

    It worked as you would expect. “Later research tracing each passenger has determined that 254 (29.2%) of those who returned to continental Europe were murdered during the Holocaust.”

    I’m just going to say it.
    This was not our finest hour here!!!
    We could have done a lot better.

  10. neabinorb says

    Rachel Maddow has a podcast entitled ‘Ultra’ all about nazis and anti-semitism in the US in the 1930s. It’s chilling but also very informative. The Dodd story is not that surprising.

  11. birgerjohansson says

    Mordred @ 8
    This is exactly what happened in Sweden. A few years later, our xenophobe party (SD) is part of the bloc supporting the conservative coalition.

  12. eastexsteve says

    I read an article from a September 4th, 1970 life magazine titled: [On the march for what they still haven’t got-Women Arise] “Free child care, free abortions, and equal employment opportunities and pay scales are the movement’s three main demands”. How’s that working out? Three steps forward two steps back? We like to study history, but I agree with Dunc@1

  13. wzrd1 says

    eastexsteve, currently, it’s looking more like one step forward, three steps back.
    Hell, we just had one governor suggest summary execution with machine guns for anyone who is suspected of drug smuggling while being illegally in the country.
    The prick would’ve hated me were I present for that statement, as I’d ask him precisely which caliber he recommends shooting a newborn infant in the head with.

  14. TGAP Dad says

    Another recommendation: the HBO series The Plot Against America, which imagines an alternate history where Charles Lindbergh was elected over FDR, and swiftly stuffs the administration with Nazi sympathizers. You can buy the entire series for $22.99, and it’s worth every penny. There are obvious parallels to 2020 USA, including electoral dirty tricks.

  15. nomaduk says

    I’ll just note that In the Garden of the Beasts is available for 99p on the UK Kindle store, which seems a bargain.

  16. hemidactylus says

    @2- raven

    Soros as hedge funder had ill-gotten gains that kinda make me balk. He surely benefited from capitalism more than most could dream. But he was heavily influenced by Mont Pelerin neolib Karl Popper to push for Open Societies. He was critical of the market fundamentalism Popper’s pal Hayek pushed. He cut against the totalitarian grain of closed society former Soviet states. He even early on gave Orban a push in his native Hungary he would regret. Soros is a mixed bag. Rich because late capitalism but parlays that to ok liberal causes. Right wingers demonize him for the wrong reasons. He’s no saint, but tries to be on the side of the angles.

    His economic views are interesting, and worth reading, but monomanic.

  17. Daniel Storms says

    I just read today that a new (to me, anyway) neo-Nazi group has decided that New England would make a great whites-only region. I thought the idea was to put it in Idaho, but now we have to deal with these morons. Ah well, we did it before with the Nazi/Father Coughlin affiliated Christian Front during WWII, I guess we can do it again.

    I’d like to endorse Erik Larson as an author, though. I’ve read a half-dozen of his books, beginning with “Devil in the White City,” a history of both the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and of H. H. Holmes, America’s first publicized serial killer. His books on Marconi, the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, the Lusitania, and other topics are all well worth reading.

  18. John Morales says

    nomdeplume @19, you’re misapprehending the text.

    “The book did not fill me with confidence about the future.”
    does not mean nor imply
    “you [PZ] had “confidence about the future””.

    No WTF there, at all.
    What’s being expressed is that the book does not fill one with confidence (that is, it’s not upbeat), not that it’s diminishing existing confidence.

  19. microraptor says

    wzrd1 @15: Obviously you’d use a JR-15 for that.

    Excuse me, I’m going to go vomit.

  20. wzrd1 says

    microraptor, if asked, I’d simply suggest either an M2 .50 BMG or 12 gauge at point blank range.
    I already vomited.
    The idea being, make it as objectionable to even the barely sane rabid maniac, let the crowd tear them to pieces, as they’ll see their own children and grandchildren as erroneous targets.
    As I’ve said before, I’m the monster sent out to destroy monsters. I turn weaponized anything against itself, as destructively as possible to the attempted wielder.
    The rest of the time, in person, I’m actually a really nice guy. That just hates monsters.

    Daniel Storms @ 20, good news, it’s within oceanic bombardment range. Enough said, should they manage to win any day.

    nomdeplume @ 19, there will always be a future. Whether people survive to be in that future isn’t exceptionally relevant or even noticeable by the universe.
    Future for the US, that’s a wee bit different, but I do wonder what the other global nuclear powers would think about the risk of a US nuclear arsenal that’s up for grabs at any point.
    Actually, I don’t. Preemptive strike to eliminate every last ton of it. Lest it get received by whatever unstable remaining mind conquers its control mechanisms. It’s what I’d do. And “in their shoes” is literally one area I’ve always excelled in.
    The alternative is far, far worse. Think The Hunger Games President Snow’s nukehappy self, within a global, rather than national context. He’d be nuking whenever he got irritated.

    Now, back to pondering logistics for an Island emergency aid response.

  21. jrkrideau says

    She initially admires the Nazis, eventually becoming disillusioned and transferring her adoration to Russian communists [1]

    Perhaps not the best choice in Stalinist times but senior Soviet communists were not genocidal maniacs. They were equal opportunity killers of anything that looked dangerous.

    They were not “Russian” communists . The country was the USSR. Stalin was an ex-seminarian from Georgia. He was not ethnically or culturally Russian. Nor was a good part of the Politburo.

  22. John Morales says

    They were not “Russian” communists . The country was the USSR. Stalin was an ex-seminarian from Georgia. He was not ethnically or culturally Russian.

    The usual stuff from you, jrkrideau.

    But sure, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was an country which included Russia, Russia being only one of the republics.
    Equal to all the others, ostensibly.

    Anyway. Now it’s the Russian Federation, not the USSR.

    So. I hear Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporozhzhia are seen by the Russian Federation (not the Russians, they’re only part of that, right?) as part of Russia.

    (Are they Russian now, in your estimation?)

    How’s your expressed confidence in Russian might holding up for you, BTW? ;)

  23. laurian says

    Another book I found helpful in my efforts to grok the NSDAP is The Nazi Conscience by Claudia Koonz Belknap Press 2003

  24. says

    Read the book a couple of years ago. I thought the daughter was very interesting. She didn’t hook up with just Nazis and Commies, she also, well let’s just say she was liberated. I thought Dodd was working on a multi volume biography of Jefferson, but I could be wrong. At any rate he was an old school Southern Democrat, with all that implies.

  25. wzrd1 says

    Well, a woman can’t decide upon who to mate with, going with whoever seems the most powerful and then is indoctrinated fully by injection or something equally idiotic.
    Don’t ya know? Wimmen are stuupd and can’t have a miiiiiind.
    Commies are evil, the devil’s spawn and attract wimmen, who can’t help themselves from their serpentine members.
    Need I go on with the damned near verbatim blather I’ve actually heard with my own, thankfully growing deaf ears?

  26. jo1storm says

    These were the people of power and influence, all assuming that yes, Jews are undesirable, but it just won’t do to kill them outright like the Nazis were doing. Even Dodd was making these kinds of arguments, accepting the Nazi premise but only rejecting their methods.

    Oh, I hear those arguments all the time from what are otherwise normal, sensible people. Half the time they are in “didn’t think this through” group, other half are in “good, that is as it should be” group when it comes to repressive measures. All are in “don’t consider subjects equally human as themselves” camp. I have also noticed that it makes them VERY uncomfortable if you call “those other people” refugees instead of migrants/immigrants like they prefer to call them.

    As for the first group, when they spout ignorant bullshit it is interesting to see dawning horror of realization if only for a moment when you ask them “Would you like yourself or your children to be treated that way in another country?”. Although the most interesting conversation was with a guy who spouted that “Immigrants shouldn’t be able to roam or take our jobs while they wait for asylum.” while in the same breath saying “We shouldn’t pay for their food and housing. They should be forced to work by the state, cleaning the streets, breaking rocks in the stone mine or hard work in the fields for that.”. When pointed out that what he proposed was literal slavery / labor camps, he acted surprised. My dude, if a person cannot leave (doesn’t have freedom of movement), cannot choose their job, is not getting paid for their work, will get punished if they refuse to work and is threatened with uncertain death if they do (as in, deported back into literal warzone) then what you are talking about here is slavery. Just add barbed wire and what you got here is labor camp.

    It lasted for just a moment, then he pointed out that Russia, China and USA do the same with their prisoners. First of all, refugees are not convicted criminals. Second, I thought you don’t like USA?! Third, yeah, in the USA slavery is illegal unless you are convicted prisoner of the state. Which means that USA does have legal slavery but is that really the thing you want to emulate from them and nothing else? Also, is it really a thing you want to emulate from Russia and China and nothing else? Funny enough, when pressed he said that he would rather live in Germany than in either of those countries because Germany treats immigrants like he would be if he moved there better than USA, Russia or China.

  27. says

    Martha Dodd…was a liberal modern woman. She initially admires the Nazis, eventually becoming disillusioned and transferring her adoration to Russian communists. She was also a naive woman.

    I wouldn’t necessarily call her “naive” for making that jump. Back in those days, once you’ve decided Nazis and fascism were evil and had to be fought, you really had no choice but to work with the USSR if you wanted to get anything done about them. No one else was doing anything serious to fight fascism. Yes, there were democratic(ish) countries back then, like Britain, France and the USA, but they were all, at best, not at all willing to fight the fascists, and at worst, lots of their voters were overtly sympathetic to the fascists’ cause and wanted to fight FOR them, against the evil unions, commies, atheists, uppity women, and of course Joos. If you wanted to fight fascism, you had to either work for the USSR or get nothing at all done and probably get shot for your troubles. The Cambridge Five, the Lucy Ring, “Agent Sonya,” Richard Sorge…all those people and more spied for the USSR, and no one who knew anything about them would call them “naive.”