In the Garden of Beasts

The Scientist Responsible for Zyklon B Won a Nobel Peace Prize

Few things manage to shock me. This does: that the man, Fritz Haber, responsible for the Zyklon B formula, the killer gas used in concentrations camps, was also awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. Also he was born Jewish. I learn this while reading ‘In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin’ by Erik Larson. Garden of Beasts is a heavy read about the ‘adventures’ of the hapless American Ambassador (Dodd) to Germany during Hitler’s time, and his impressionable daughter. It’s a dense read with lots of names and lots of information crammed onto every page and though this can get overwhelming, for those interested in this time period it is never the less a very worthy read.

Although Larson does not go into Dodd’s feelings about segregation in the U.S. (this is not a book about civil rights in the U.S. though connections would have been welcome), I did wonder about Dodd  reconciling his disgust with separate benches for Aryans and Jews, versus all the separate amenities for blacks and white in the segregated South. In one of the final chapters, chapter 55 ‘As Darkness Fell’, Larson mentions ‘a strange episode’ i.e. while driving Dodd has a hit and run with a four year old black girl.  Considering Dodd is the hero, if you will, of In the Garden of Beasts on account of his sense of right, wrong, fairness and moral righteousness, his subsequent reactions and actions after this accident are a very interesting look into this man’s ethics in his ‘own’ world.Dodd did pay her medical bills and the girl did recover, but Dodd did not stop at the scene and he also wrote a rather interesting letter to the girl’s mother.  Which makes me ask: are we someone else abroad and someone else at home?  

from ‘In the Garden of Beasts’:

“Another of Dodd’s early visitors was, as Dodd wrote, ‘perhaps the foremost chemist in Germany,’…..He was Fritz Haber. To any German the name was well known and revered, or had been until the advent of Hitler. Until recently, Haber had been director of the famed Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical Chemistry. He was a war hero and a Novel laureate. Hoping to break the stalemate in the trenches during the Great War, Haber had invented a poison chlorine gas. He had devised what became known as Haber’s rule, a formula, C  x t = k, elegant in its lethality: a low exposure to gas over a long period will have the same result as a high exposure over a short period. He also invented a means to distribute his poison gas at the front and was himself present in 1915 for its first use against French forces at Ypres. On a personal level, that day at Ypres cost him dearly. His wife of thirty-two years, Clara, had long condemned his work as inhumane and immoral and demanded he stop, but to such concerns he gave a stock reply: death was death, no matter the cause. Nine days after the gas attack at Ypres, she committed suicide. Despite international outcry over his poison gas research, Haber was awarded the 1918 Novel Prize for chemistry for discovering a means of mining nitrogen from air and thus allowing the manufacture of plentiful, cheap fertilizer–and, of course, gunpowder. Despite a prewar conversion to Protestantism, Haber was classified under the new Nazi laws as non-Aryan, but an except granted to Jewish war veterans allowed him to remain director of the institute……Within a decade, however, the Third Reich would find a new use for Haber’s rule, and for an insecticide that Haber had invented at his institute, composed in part of cyanide gas and typically deployed to fumigate structures used for the storage of grain. At first called Zyklon A, it would be transformed by German chemists into a more lethal variant: Zyklon B.’”

Also it is often said that a country can be judged by how well its animals are treated. The next quote struck me because whenever I have taught how to write well-rounded characters, one of my examples is always the fact that as horrid as Hitler was his dogs loved him and he loved his dogs. 

At a time when nearly every German is afraid to speak a word to any but the closest friends, horses and dogs are so happy that one feels they wish to talk,” he (Dodd) wrote. “A woman who may report on a neighbor for disloyalty and jeopardize his life, even cause his death, takes her big kindly-looking dog in the Tiergarten for a walk. She talks to him and coddles him as she sits on a bench and he attends to the requirements of nature….” In Germany, Dodd had noticed, no one ever abused a dog, and as a consequence dogs were never fearful around men and were always plump and obviously well-tended. “Only horses seem to be equally happy, never the children or the youth,” he wrote. “I often stop as I walk to my office and have a word with a pair or beautiful horses waiting while their wagon is being unloaded. They are so clean and fat and happy that one feels that they are on the point of speaking.” He called it ‘horse happiness’ and had noticed the same phenomenon in Nuremberg and Dresden. In part, he knew, this happiness was fostered by German law, which forbade cruelty to animals and punished violators with prison, and here Dodd found the deepest irony. ‘At a time when hundreds of men have been put to death without trial or any sort of evidence of guilt, and when the population literally trembles with fear, animals have rights guaranteed them which men and woman cannot think of expecting. He added, ‘One might easily wish he were a horse.’