Saturday, March 3, 2012

In the Garden of Beasts

History professor William E. Dodd of Chicago has no idea what he’s getting his wife, son, and daughter into when he accepts the  United States ambassadorship to Germany in 1933. Happy to leave the bogged down feeling he had of academia and seeking to recapture the nostalgia of a early time he spent in Germany as a student, Dodd finds himself and his family on the cusp of a “New Germany,” one fraught with signs of the horrors and persecution yet to come.

Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts “narrative nonfiction” of this time uses Dodd’s own notes, historical references, Martha Dodd’s letters and journals to recapture the harrowing days set during Hitler’s rise to power.

Excited to be in Berlin, the Dodd family settled into their role as diplomatic, American family and embraced the German government in place. Martha Dodd, a promiscuous young woman and recently separated from her husband, used the current “enthusiasm for restoring German” to immerse herself into the social scene where she enjoyed many parties courtesy of her position as diplomat’s daughter.  William Dodd, stodgy and frugal, found the climate of Germany unsettling and the expensive entertaining that went along with being an ambassador a hard adjustment. 

During that first year in Berlin, the Dodds experiences ran the gamut -- excitement for their company to be held in high esteem but also horrified as they watched the changes in Germany, part of Hitler’s new regime and its politics, unfold into an atmosphere of secrecy, tension, and murder.

The Dodds had relationships with historical figures who would later be significant in Germany’s spiral  downward.  From sharing conversation and meals at polite diplomatic gatherings in various places in Berlin, the Dodds knew intimately men who would eventually be killed by Hitler or who would carry out Hitler's orders to kill.

Not used to playing the games of diplomatic protocol and horrified by what he heard, Dodd attempted through telegrams and letters to let the State Department back home know of the changes in Berlin. Due to pettiness and jealousies and internal strife in that area of our government [perhaps a little more complicated than that], the State Department seemed to offer up little help and an indifference, that borders on lack of human compassion, to the atrocities of Germany -- this both angered and puzzled Dodd.

The two Dodds involvement with these men and women of Hitler’s regime gives a first-hand account of an American inside that country in one of its most volatile times. 


  1. Yet another book you have reviewed that I have read or at least wanted to read.....that makes about 5 now! We must have similar tastes! I picked this one up at Costco quite awhile back and almost bought it. I am heading to my library now to see if it is in yet. Thank you! Lori

  2. Sounds intriguing. I have "Bonhoeffer" on my bookshelf and my 8-year old son is armpit deep in WWII history books and novels. Thanks for the review.


  3. This book was pretty brilliant- like other books by Larson, it was a little difficult to stay with at times. However, I found the historical background quite fascinating as well as the perspective from which it was told.

  4. i would so love to sit with you and drink tea and learn from you, friend.

  5. In The Garden of Beasts is Larson's best effort yet. His books are labeled as novelistic history and although that is a mouthful, the description is apt. Using the Dodds and their observations, perspectives and mounting concerns as a guide to the early days of Nazi Germany is a twist of literary genius. Included in this story are also plenty of engaging sub-plots. For instance the insipid, juvenile antics of the self-named "Pretty Good Club", a group of wealthy, narrow minded, immature men employed by the State Department; who with their back-biting, condescension and gossip made Dodds' job unnecessarily more difficult. On the other side of the Atlantic, the sheer buffoonery of Hermann Goering, Hitler's right-hand (fat) man, captured here, is also worth noting.