Title: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin
Author: Erik Larson
Genre: Narrative nonfiction
Acquired: From the publisher for review/at BEA
One Sentence Summary: In 1933, the first year of Hitler’s reign in Germany, a mild-mannered professor was appointed the American ambassador to Berlin and became one of the first witnesses to the atrocities soon to come in Europe.
Two Sentence Review: I’m drawing a blank right now… In the Garden of Beasts is a good book and I enjoyed reading it. Enough said?
Why I Read It: Erik Larson is one of those big narrative nonfiction writers, so when I saw he was speaking at BEA about his new book, I knew I had to read it.
Long Review: At the very end of In the Garden of Beasts, after the conclusion and notes and even the index, there is a short and eerie epigraph from author Christopher Isherwood, from his1962 book Down There on a Visit. It reads:
I walked across the snowy plain of the Tiergarten — a smashed statue here, a newly planted sapling there; the Brandenburger Tor, with its red flag flapping against the blue winter sky; and on the horizon, the great ribs of a gutted railway station, like the skeleton of a whale. In the morning light it was all as raw and frank as the voice of history which tells you not to fool yourself; this can happen to any city, to anyone, to you.
That is, I think, the central theme of In the Garden of Beasts, which tells the story of the American ambassador to Germany in 1933 and gives an American perspective on Hitler’s rise to power.
William Dodd only wanted to be an ambassador because he thought the job would give him time to pursue his grand passion: a multi-volume history of the American South that he’d been working on for decades. Through a series of political maneuvers and rejections, Dodd was eventually offered the ambassadorship to Germany — mostly because no one else wanted it. He and his family moved to Hitler’s Berlin in 1933, entering a country in a state of flux. The move into a house near Berlin’s central park, Tiergarten, which translates to “the Garden of Beasts.”
Hitler was not entirely in control yet yet, and in fact many people outside the country didn’t think Hitler’s party had a chance to hang on to power. As Dodd’s 24-year-old daughter Martha soon discovered, Germany was a country with a thriving culture and night-life, which she enjoyed unrestricted. However, as politics in Germany began to shift, both Dodd and Martha begin to have misgivings about their new home… but will the realization come too late?
I had the fabulous chance to see Erik Larson speak about this book at BEA this year, which gave me so many things to think about as I read. In the speech, Larson said he wouldn’t have written about Dodd or Martha on their own — neither one is quite big enough to carry a story of this magnitude. But together, this father and daughter pair provide a really beautiful contrast about the ways average people across the globe could be duped into allowing Hitler to rise to power.
Dodd, whom friends and critics alike described as a typical professor, was a reluctant critic of the German regime. He didn’t want to get involved, but as he began to witness more and more violence perpetrated against Americans visiting Germany, he began to reluctantly express his concerns to those in power back in the United States. However, with many enemies within the State Department, Dodd’s warnings went unheeded.
Martha, in contrast, is a flamboyant and fun-loving girl who becomes enchanted with the “New Germany,” going out to parties with the soldiers of the Third Reich and having numerous affairs with men of various political affiliations. She’s blissfully, even deliberately, ignorant of the threat the regime poses and instead is enamoured with the culture and spirit of her new home.
I loved the way that reading about Martha brought a new perspective to some of the “characters” we know so much about in the history of WWII. During her stay, she meets and interacts with people like Hermann Göring and Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels, familiar figures in Nazi history. Martha’s journals and correspondence, which Larson quotes from extensively, paint a wholly different portrait of these men, and others, which was fascinating to read.
By putting this father and daughter next to each other, Larson is able to show the range of attitudes about Hitler’s rise to power — veiled caution to complete disregard — and how those attitudes came about. There’s no real blame to be placed on any one person or even group of people for letting Germany derail so completely, and I felt like Larson was able to make that case through the book.
The only other Larson book I’ve read is Devil in the White City, which was about the the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago and a serial killer in the city. Ultimately, I think In the Garden of Beasts might be a better book — the narrative feels like it has more of a cohesion to it. There aren’t as many moments of obvious violence, but the tension Larson builds through the small acts of terror he writes about build to a terrifying conclusion.
I was enamoured with this book from start to finish and would highly recommend it.
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