Sunday, January 8, 2012


IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin
Erik Larson
Crown Publishing Group, 2011

Erik Larson made a name for himself as a first-rate historical writer with ISAAC'S STORM, an then with the bestselling THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY. Now he tackles 1930s Berlin, with an astonishing story of William E. Dodd who becomes America’s ambassador to Germany just as Adolph Hitler is close to completing his climb to Absolute Ruler.

Being the US ambassador in Berlin in 1933 was a job that was very hard to fill. It seemed as if nobody wanted the job, with good reason. It was at at time when Hitler was first chancellor and when the Storm Troopers were starting to flex their muscles and Jews were being harassed and stripped of their rights. William E Dodd was not Roosevelt's first choice, in fact, he was at the end of a line of people that Roosevelt asked to take the job. A mild-mannered professor from Chicago, Dodd was the last person some people wanted in the position. He was earnest, idealistic and not the country club type that had filled the shoes before him.

But Dodd took the job, and sailed to Germany with his wife, son, and daughter, Martha. The history of Dodd's amabassadorship during this tense period in Europe is enough to make this book a page turner in itself, even though each page brings a growing sense of dread because, of course, we all know in a general sense what is going to happen. As evidence of Jewish persecution mounts, confirmed by chilling first-person testimony, Dodd 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. Almost exactly a year after Dodd arrived in Germany, "The Night of the Long Knives" occurred, the first of many purges in Nazi Germany in which many of Hitler's so-called "foes" -whether real or imagined - were butchered.

But it's Martha's story that conjures up the saying "truth is stranger than fiction." Martha, who was twenty-four and had already been married and separated, was a woman who was flamboyant and, for lack of a better word, "wild." While in Berlin, she would end up having several suitors, two of which would end up being serious relationships. One of them was with Rudolph Diels, who was head of the Gestapo and actually a man of curious integrity in Hitler's brutal regime. He would be head until he was usurped by a power struggle between Goring and Himmler. Another lover, Boris Winogradov, would end up being a deep love of Martha. Unbeknownst to her, at least in the beginning, Boris was a Russian who was suspected of being an operative for Soviet intelligence, the NKVD, precursor to the KGB.

Martha was so popular and so well known around circles in Berlin that her reputation as a party girl sometimes put her in situations that embarrassed her father and other times threatened to put her in bizarre situations. At one point, before relations between American and Germany broke completely apart, Martha was even set up to meet none other than Hitler himself to see if she had the potential to be his "girlfriend." Like I said, nobody could make this stuff up.

Larson is an extremely gifted writer who, I think, is one of the best of modern history writers. This book is an absolute must for anyone who is interested in this time period and for anyone who appreciates a polished, well-written and thoroughly researched historical account. I just finished it two days ago, and I already want to read it again.

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Barry Traylor said...

I enjoyed "Isaac's Storm" very much and "Devil in the White City" was also excellent (although difficult to read) anyone that has read it weill understand.
I shall have to give this a read as it it is time period that is fascinating.
Reading "A World Lit Only By Fire" The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance by William Manchester right now. Also quite interesting.

Barry Traylor said...

Egad! I really should proof read what I type before I hit the transmit key.

Cap'n Bob said...

Have you read MARCH VIOLETS, by Philip Kerr? It's fiction, but its portrayal of life in Hitler's Germany rings true.

Deka Black said...

I'm without words. Working as the top diplomar of any country in Germany in those years... If the person filling the job had a bit of heart, well, in my country we have plenty of sayings regarding courage. And too bad mannered to say here.

Melissa Marsh said...

This was an excellent book. It read more like a novel than a history book, which is how history should be read! It is more entertaining than fiction most of the time. :-)

Luxembourg said...

Erik Larson's "In the Garden of Beasts" tells the story of William E. Dodd, the American ambassador to Germany from 1933 to 1938. It focuses on Dodd's realization of the Nazi evil, his promiscuous daughter Martha, and how Hitler was able to control the German people and lead them to war.

Dodd was a history professor at the University of Chicago in 1933 when President Roosevelt called to ask him to be his ambassador to Germany. At the time, Dodd was trying to write a three volume history of the Old South. He accepted the offer, thinking that as an ambassador he could devote more time to his book. This would turn out to be a very bad assumption.