American interventionism in Germany in relation to In the Garden of Beasts

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Sovereignty refers to the supreme power and authority of a state. A sovereign state should have the ability to control its internal operations. Germany was such a state before 1933 and the period leading to the Second World War. The country had a functional government supported by a proactive constitution, the rule of law and fundamental tenets of democracy (Rosenbaum, 2010). As a manifestation of its democracy, the country held an election in 1932 thus making the Nazis the largest political party in the Reichstag. The systemic intervention of the United States in the affairs of Germany before 1939 was therefore unwarranted aggression. The United States lacked both the rights and responsibility to intervene in Germany. The interventions by President Roosevelt’s regime thus contravened fundamental American policies and defied the sovereignty of Germany as the discussion below portrays.

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The debate on whether the United States was supposed to intervene in Germany arose from the rise of Adolf Hitler to power and the subsequent atrocities his regime committed. Hitler’s Nazi party rolled out the worst humanitarian crisis characterized by genocide and ethnic cleansing as the party targeted the minority Jews (Šafîr, 1999). The rise of militarism and the inherent violence that marked the rule was a significant concern not only to the United States but also to other European counterparts like Britain and France. The two countries attempted to sway American opinion on Germany thus leading to the declaration of Germany as an enemy of the United States. Despite the gravity of the crimes committed by Hitler’s regime, the United States did not have any right or responsibility to intervene in the affairs of Germany.

The lack of rights and responsibilities to intervene in Germany arose from legal structures in the United States and the sovereignty of Germany. The United States prided itself on being a beacon of democracy characterized by the rule of law and an elaborate constitution that governed the various structures of the government. The Congress made all the laws under the country’s constitution, and the president among other parties lacked a choice but to adhere to the laws. At the time, the American approach to reign policy and conflicts in Europe was non-interventionism. The Congress formulated a series of legislation designed to entrench the policy of isolation in the operations of the government. As such, the American government lacked any ground to intervene in the affairs of Germany. Similarly, Germany was a sovereign state with structures of government. Any other country including the United States had the basic obligation of respecting the sovereignty of Germany by keeping off its affairs.

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In his book entitled In the Garden of Beasts, William E. Dodd, America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany records the rise of a dictator and the human rights violations he committed in the country. Dodd spent one year in Germany a time within which he witnessed as Hitler’s prominence rose and he transformed the democracy into a dictatorship. The diplomat records that Adolf Hitler changed laws and normalized brutality in the country. He orchestrated one of the worst crisis because of his hatred of the Jews who lived in the region. The diplomat also notes that while the atrocities were severe and abused fundamental human rights, Hitler’s actions resonated with the feelings and thoughts of most Germans at the time. Native Germans supported Hitler’s actions even as he developed one of the most aggressive militaries in the region. The diplomat concludes by admitting that irrespective of the nature of the gravities, Hitler represented the feelings of his people since the people had the right to govern themselves. Hitler was a result of a democratic process and represented the wishes of the German people (Larson, 2011). As such, other people including Americans had no alternative but to remain patient even as Hitler’s regime committed atrocities and violated fundamental human rights.

First, the primary goal of earlier American interventions in Germany was to change the German government. America’s first large-scale military intervention in Germany was in the First World War which also offered the United States essential lessons on how to engage in the country in the future. Before the United States entered the war, the dominant view held by Britain and its allies was that the German policy was militarism characterized by medieval autocracy. The allies argued that the policy opposed the primary cause of human civilization. President Thomas Woodrow Wilson held similar views as he argued for the need to change the German government. President Wilson’s regime thus categorized Germany as an enemy of the United States (Kershaw, 2001). The categorization did not change until Congress declared war as the United States joined the war. The case demonstrates a selfish look at foreign policy in which the United States adopted the view of Britain and her allies thereby justifying its attempt to violate the sovereignty of Germany with the view to changing the German government.

Similarly, the United States did not have any rights and responsibility to intervene in Germany before 1939 because of the sovereignty of Germany. As Dodd rightfully points out in his text, “Fundamentally, I believe a people has a right to govern itself, and other peoples must exercise patience even when cruelties and injustices are done” (Larson, 2011). Before the outbreak of the Second World War, Britain and France believed that Germany’s policy of militarism was a significant threat to the peace and stability of the continent. Coincidentally, the two nations managed to spread the opinion to other countries across the world including the United States. President Roosevelt expressed his concern over the growing prevalence of militarism in Germany. Roosevelt thus supported the desire to change the government of Germany. The proposal to change the government of Germany was not legal to move since it threatened the sovereignty of Germany.

Before 1939, Germany was a sovereign state with every element of sovereignty. The country had an elaborate constitution that guided the operation of every arm of the country’s government. The rise of Hitler enjoyed a constitutional backing thereby validating the authority of the Nazis government and its inherent atrocities. Germany had elaborate laws guiding the election process. According to Germany’s electoral laws at the time, a presidential candidate who garnered more than 50% of the votes cast in the first round of voting became the president (Leitz, 2004). However, if no candidate received the majority votes, the country would go to the second round of voting in which a president who receives majority votes became the president. With such elaborate laws, the country was ready to go to the elections in 1932. Adolf Hitler was a contender in the elections.

While Adolf Hitler lost the presidential elections in 1932, his party won a majority of the seats. With a majority of seats in the German parliament, the Nazis formulated a raft of laws including the Enabling Act of 1933, which led to the subsequent appointment of Adolf Hitler as the country’s chancellor on January 30, 1933 (Lee, 2013). Hitler continued to enjoy immense popularity and used the majority of enjoyed by his party to manipulate the governance structures. On February 27, 1933, the Hindenburg created a conducive environment for a dictatorship to thrive in the country. The Reichstag Fire Decree made on that day nullified civil liberties thus setting the stage for Hitler’s dictatorship to thrive. Despite the rise of totalitarianism in Germany, Hitler respected the sovereignty of the country and used the legal and constitutional structures of the country to change the system.

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The United States did not have any reason to invade Germany before 1939 when it had numerous reasons validating its decision to join the war against Germany. Soon after the First World War, the United States launched a massive diplomatic campaign in Europe designed to increase the country’s market. The United States was therefore friendly to Germany and Britain alike as it attempted to grow its market. The decision to send William E. Dodd as American ambassador in German arose from the desire to have diplomatic ties with the country and foster a mutually beneficial relationship between the two countries. Involvement in the First World War proved a costly affair to the United States. As such, the American government adopted a policy of neutrality in which it would not intervene in the affairs of other countries and would not take part in global wars as well.

The responsibility of the American government thus became to protect the interests of the American people. The government concentrated on developing elaborate policies to protect Americans and create opportunities. The comprehensive diplomatic campaigns that resulted in the development of an American embassy in Berlin were in pursuit of American interest. The quest of self-interests limited American involvement with the affairs of others countries. The United States did not commit to the newly formed League of Nations that followed the end of the First World War. Without a commitment to such an international organization, the United States lacked any right or responsibility to intervene on Germany. The United States followed with a series of treaties with various countries including the Kellogg–Briand Pact of 1928 in which both countries outlawed wars. Such development demonstrated American disinterest in global politics and conflicts. The United States decided to intervene in Germany in 1941 by entering the war following a structured process backed by legislation and support of the American people.

Before entering the Second World War, the United States adopted a policy of non-interventionism. Non-interventionism or isolationism is a foreign diplomatic policy in which a country avoids an alliance with other nations as a strategy of avoiding the temptation of being dragged into wars that do not relate directly to its defense (May, 2009). The United States enjoyed a strategic geographical location far drawn from Europe and its bickering. The country thus believed that by isolating itself it would avoid taking part in the war. Consequently, it hoped to develop cordial and equally productive relationships with both parties in the war unfolding in Europe. After all, the United States had peaceful and profitable diplomatic with her immediate neighbors which include Mexico and Canada among others.

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As conflicts escalated and Europe moved closer to war in the early and late 1930s, the American Congress maintained that the country should remain neutral thereby not siding with any party in the war that was threatening to break out. Between 1936 and 1937, the Congress initiated a debate that culminated in the passage of the Neutrality Act much to the dismay of President Roosevelt. The Neutrality Act was a response to the country’s involvement in the First World War, which was costly to the American people. The act was, therefore, a response to the escalating turmoil in Europe and sought to make clear the United States’ position in case of any global conflict. Key among the provisions of the act stipulated that America would not trade arms with any of the warring factions. Furthermore, the act demanded that Americans do not sail on ships that flew the flags of any belligerent nation.

With the Neutrality Act, the American Congress stipulated the position of the American people. The Act served as a notice to President Roosevelt, who had expressed a desire to intervene in the goings on in Germany. On September 1, 1939, France and Britain declared war on Germany after Hitler led German forces invaded Poland. The declaration of the war marked the beginning of the Second World War. President Roosevelt struggled to convince the American people that he would involve the country in the war and developments in Europe. In an address to the nation, he said that his government would do anything possible to keep the country out of the war. However, he also hinted at his true goals when he stated, “When peace has been broken anywhere, the peace of all countries everywhere is in danger” (Etzold, 1972). The statement showed that the president would most likely involve the country despite the elaborate legislation preventing the nation from concerning itself with the affairs of other countries.

Despite President Roosevelt’s intent of neutrality as the official American position, the president echoed the dangers of the United States remaining neutral in the war and failing to intervene. The debate split the country into two as non-interventionists engaged their interventionist counterparts in a debate on the possible pros and cons of each approach. President Roosevelt argued for the security of the nation claiming that the neutrality approach would expose the country to serious security threats depending on the progress of the war. In the summer of 1940, France, one of the major British allies in the war suffered a resounding defeat by Germans thereby leaving Britain as the only remaining Democratic enemy of the Germans. In his address to the nation in 1940, President Roosevelt stated that the country’s continued silence was isolating the country. American neutrality was permitting the philosophy of force propagated by Germany to dominate the world. Such a philosophy threatened the position of free and democratic countries like the United States.

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The president’s position on the war in Europe initiated a raft of changes in the country’s foreign policy as the public opinion continued to shift in support of intervention. By 1941, the president had made it clear that the United States would join the war. The shift in policy took a two-pronged approach beginning with the passage of the Fourth Neutrality Act in 1939. The new neutrality act allowed the United States to sell arms to belligerent nations provided they paid in cash and came to the United States to retrieve the arms. The second policy was the Lend-Lease Act of 1941 (Etzold, 1972). The new act permitted the president to sell, lease, lend or barter food, ammunition, arms, and information to the government of any country the president would desire. However, the president would have to prove that selling, leasing or even bartering the arms and information with the government of the country would enhance the security of the United States.

The change in policies pointed to an underlying shift in public opinion as an increasing number of Americans supported intervention. In 1941, the predictions of President Roosevelt materialized in the sinking of the USS Reuben James (DD-245). The sinking of the ship showed that Americans were no longer safe with the growing dominance and arrogance of the Nazi’s policy of militarism. 72% of Americans supported the country’s entry into the war to defeat the Germans following the sinking of the ship (Sobel, Furia & Barratt, 2012). Defeating the Nazis thus became a priority to the President Roosevelt’s regime. It became evident that defeating Germans was more important than staying out of the war. The Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941, was the final warning the United States needed to enter the war. The attack showed America’s vulnerability in the face of a growing policy of force.

The two demonstrations of aggression on a country that had remained neutral throughout the war shifted the country’s public opinion as ever American including staunch non-interventionists supported the country’s entry into the war. Iconic figures like Herbert Hoover and Charles Lindbergh who were stanch non-interventionists shifted their opinion and announced their support for the war. Sons of isolationists fought in the war alongside their colleagues who had supported the war.


The brief discussion above shows that the United States lacked legitimacy to intervene in Germany before 1939. The country did not have any reason whatsoever to intervene in the affairs of another sovereign state. First, the country had a raft of legislation that prevented it from intervening in Germany. The Neutrality Act made it clear that the United States would remain neutral and attempt to foster diplomatic relations with both parties in the war including Germany. The laws thus prevented the president from expanding the policy of interventionism to Germany.

Secondly, the United States did not have any conflict with Germany. The geographic distance between the two countries led to non-aggression. For a long time, German military did not interfere with American ships in the seas. As such, the United States did not have any reason to intervene in the affairs of Germany. The United gained legitimacy to intervene by entering the war when Germans sank its ship in 1941. Any form of military intervention in the affairs of Germany before 1939 would have become illegitimate and lacked any legal backing. A legitimate intervention requires the support of the Congress, which maintained a policy of neutrality before 1939. Such a response would also require the support of the public. For a long time, Americans supported the policy of neutrality since they believed that the affairs of Germany did not pose any threat to their security and safety. The sinking of the ship and the attack on Pearl Harbor changed the public opinions thereby legitimizing the country’s entry into the war in 1941.

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Did you like this sample?
  1. Etzold, T. H. (1972). Fair play: American principles and practice in relations with Germany, 1933-1939. Yale: Yale University Press.
  2. Kershaw, I. (2001). The “Hitler myth”: Image and reality in the Third Reich. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  3. Larson, E. (2011). In the garden of beasts: Love and terror in Hitler’s Berlin. London: Doubleday.
  4. Lee, S. (2013). Hitler and Nazi Germany. New York: Routledge.
  5. Leitz, C. (2004). Nazi Foreign Policy, 1933-1941: The Road to Global War. Paris: Routledge.
  6. May, E. (2009). American Intervention: 1917 and 1941. New York: Wildside Press LLC.
  7. Rosenbaum, R. A. (2010). Waking to danger: Americans and Nazi Germany, 1933-1941. Santa Barbara, Calif: Praeger.
  8. Šafîr, S. (1999). Ambiguous relations: The American Jewish community and Germany since 1945. Detroit, Mich: Wayne State Univ. Press.
  9. Sobel, R., Furia, P. A., & Barratt, B. (2012). Public opinion & international intervention: Lessons from the Iraq War. Washington, D.C: Potomac Books.
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