Monday, September 19, 2011

Convene Reads: In the Garden of Beasts

If you've ever thought that a diplomat's life involves anything besides meetings -- and conferences, receptions, cultural events, and tete-a-tetes -- In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin, by Erik Larson, is here to set you straight. In Larson's telling, William Dodd's time as U.S. ambassador to Germany -- during the beyond-crucial years of 1933 to 1937, when Hitler first came to power and then got busy consolidating it -- was nothing but face time. Ditto for his 24-year-old daughter, Martha, who cut a swath through Berlin's social scene, and was rumored to have had an affair with the head of the Gestapo. Throughout this engrossing, superbly detailed book, Larson uses meetings and other get-togethers to show how the politics of the day were playing out; it's fascinating to see the many different uses to which live events can be put, and how often what's happening publicly on stage can mask or diverge from what's actually playing out behind the scenes. Such as:
Dodd too was fast gaining an appreciation of the prickly sensitivities of the day. No event provided a better measure of these than a speech he gave before the Berlin branch of the American Chamber of Commerce on Columbus Day, October 12, 1933. His talk managed to stir a furor not only in Germany but also, as Dodd was dismayed to learn, within the State Department and among the many Americans who favored keeping the nation from entangling itself in European affairs. 
... He gave the talk the innocuous title "Economic Nationalism." By citing the rise and fall of Caesar and episodes from French, English, and U.S. history, Dodd sought to warn of the dangers "of arbitrary and minority" government without ever mentioning contemporary Germany. It was not the kind of thing a traditional diplomat might have undertaken, but Dodd saw it as simply fulfilling [President] Roosevelt's original mandate. In defending himself later, Dodd wrote, "The President told me pointedly that he wanted me to be a standing representative and spokesman (on occasion) of American ideals and Philosophy."
And after reading about the Foreign Press Association's 1933 Little Press Ball, held at the Hotel Adlon, you'll never say that a banquet is "just" a social occasion again:
Shortly before eight o'clock, the Adlon began receiving the first of a long procession of big cars, many with headlights the size of halved melons. Out stepped an array of senior Nazis, ambassadors, artists, filmmakers, actresses, writers, and of course the foreign correspondents themselves, from countries large and small, all bundled in big coats and furs against the damp, near-freezing air. ...
 As Dodd was about to find out, in a milieu as supercharged as Berlin, where every public action of a diplomat accrued exaggerated symbolic weight, even a mere bit of conversational sparring across a banquet table could become the stuff of minor legend.
To recap, then: Keynote speakers might just have an ulterior agenda. And seating charts really, really matter.

No comments: