In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson
In the Garden of BeastsLove, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin
Berlin, 1933 – Hitler and his Nazi party are on the rise in Germany. President von Hindenburg was dying. Adolph Hitler was chancellor and the next most powerful man in the country. Hermann Göring, Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels, and more were now in place. The men respected strength and power.
The United States needs a new ambassador to Germany. After being turned down by some more obvious candidates, President Franklin Roosevelt turned to William E. Dodd, a quiet, middle class professor who lived in Chicago. Dodd accepted and became the first U.S. Ambassador to Nazi Germany. He took his wife and grown daughter and son. Martha Dodd, his daughter, was flamboyant and outgoing.
Dodd was a staunch Jeffersonian with conservative beliefs. He was not part of the existing wealthy gentlemen’s club that filled most ambassador and consulate posts. Most of the men who worked with him looked down on him or laughed at him behind his back. Yet he continued on following his own beliefs and his promise to Roosevelt to live within the ambassador’s pay. He gave quiet reproofs and often gave speeches that were full of historical references to chastise the Nazis without confronting them directly.
While keeping a dignified profile in Berlin, Martha was busy meeting and dating higher ups in the Nazi Party, a member of the Russian consulate, a member of the French consulate, and more. She was in the midst of a divorce and was a “wild child”. She had numerous lovers and would often pit them against each other.
Erik Larson researched primary and secondary documents from Dodd, his daughter, members of the consulate, Germans, the Russian KGB, and more. He took letters, journals, autobiographies, official documents, documents released years later as governments changed, and unpublished works written by many of the people who were involved in the events of those times.
In the Garden of Beasts focuses on the first year of Dodd’s ambassadorship, from his appointment in June, 1933, through early July, 1934. Larson then finishes the events over the next few years, winding up the stories for the different people involved except the high profile Nazis. It is an important piece of history that shows not only Dodd’s ambassadorship, but the major build up of the Nazi Party to the dictatorship it became.
I knew vaguely of this time period, but have never studied it. In the Garden of Beasts is a fascinating chunk of history for what was happening in Germany at the time Hitler made his final move into power and takeover of Germany. The injust laws and edicts over any group that annoyed those in power are frightening. The main lesson I learned from William Dodd is the old adage of “those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it”.
Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts flows well enough but doesn’t capture the reader’s full attention (see The Devil in the White City where Larson does it very well). At times I got tired of Martha’s shenanigans. Yet the overall historical picture Larson gives the reader is invaluable. In the Garden of Beasts is a portrait of early Nazi German that can reach the every man (like me) who doesn’t study history.