In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

GardenOfBeastsFrom Goodreads: The time is 1933, the place, Berlin, when William E. Dodd becomes America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany in a year that proved to be a turning point in history.

A mild-mannered professor from Chicago, Dodd brings along his wife, son, and flamboyant daughter, Martha. At first Martha is entranced by the parties and pomp, and the handsome young men of the Third Reich with their infectious enthusiasm for restoring Germany to a position of world prominence. Enamored of the “New Germany,” she has one affair after another, including with the suprisingly honorable first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels. But as evidence of Jewish persecution mounts, confirmed by chilling first-person testimony, her father telegraphs his concerns to a largely indifferent State Department back home. Dodd watches with alarm as Jews are attacked, the press is censored, and drafts of frightening new laws begin to circulate. As that first year unfolds and the shadows deepen, the Dodds experience days full of excitement, intrigue, romance—and ultimately, horror, when a climactic spasm of violence and murder reveals Hitler’s true character and ruthless ambition.

☺ ☺ ☺ ☺

I had high hopes for this book and was not disappointed. Larson is now one of my must-read non-fiction authors. His writing is interesting and entertaining, and his books are packed with anecdotes that bring history alive. He also has a knack for focusing on events that show how sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. Truly, what would you think if you read a novel in which someone plans for the American ambassador’s daughter to become Hitler’s lover to “mellow him out,” while at the same time, someone else tries to recruit her as a spy for the communists?

I don’t think you need to be a history buff to enjoy this book. While I loved the historical aspect of this book and enjoyed reading about a city I lived in for a while, I found it fascinating mostly because it does such a good job showing Dodd’s slow realization that Germany in 1933 no longer resembled the Germany he visited as a young scholar. With everyone thinking, and hoping, that the “reasonable people” in Germany will eventually put an end to Hitler and his regime, the recognition of how dangerous the Nazis truly are comes slowly. But eventually, Dodd turns from being a man with slight anti-Semitic tendencies himself into one of the most outspoken opponents of the Nazis in the United States in the mid-thirties—though this was when he was no longer ambassador.

The book alternates between talking about Dodd and about his daughter Martha. While Dodd was busy attending diplomatic functions where “nothing interesting was ever said,” his daughter Martha was busy jumping indiscriminately from one affair to another. I didn’t find her very compelling, but I guess you could argue that she livened up the book a little bit. She did meet a number of interesting people during her time in Berlin…

Overall, I am glad that I finally read this book, and it is one more off my TBR Pile challenge list. While that is a small victory, I have added two new books to the pile based on people mentioned in In the Garden of Beasts. One is The Women Who Wrote the War, and the other is Every Man Dies Alone. The latter is written by German author Hans Fallada (born Rudolph Dietzen), one of the few writers who did not go into exile during National Socialism. I hope they are both as good as they sound.

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5 comments

  1. I am a fan of Erik Larson too, and read In the Garden of Beasts a couple of years ago. Fantastic book–Martha Dodd was such an interesting, complex person, and the entire setting was surreal. I found William Dodd to be interesting too, but in such a different way–he knew what was happening but was completely ineffectual at communicating the danger.

    • I think the fact that he had no experience as a diplomat certainly hindered him, but there weren’t many people in the diplomatic corps at the time that were willing or able to do more. I liked the very personal view of the time period that this book conveyed.

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