In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson
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 surprisingly 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 read both Thunderstruck and The Devil in the White City in 2010, which means I became a fan of Erik Larson right before In the Garden of Beasts was published. I probably obtained my used copy in 2011 because the book started to show up in earnest on my TBR list in January of 2012.
But while I wanted to read In the Garden of Beast, I was never in the mood to read it. I waited for the right time, but there’s never a good time for Nazis. Even less so in recent years. In the relative political quiet of a pandemic (and I stress the word “relative” here), I figured it would be perfect for the Unread Shelf Project’s May prompt: a backlist title by an author with a newer book out. (Larson just released The Splendid and the Vile, about Winston Churchill.)
Without knowing much about history, it’s easy to think that someone like Hitler abruptly took power and “boom” Nazi Germany is in place. The reality is much more insidious, that there is a rise to power and the violence and policies against certain groups came about gradually. When Dodd begins his tenure, there is still some optimism that Germany’s new government would become more moderate. We know know that it doesn’t.
I was also unaware of how much in-fighting there was between the higher ups in the Nazi party. Maybe that’s just what happens when a group of individually ambitious men take control. There is a continual grappling for power and loyalty.
Is there a cautionary aspect to reading In the Garden of Beasts? Knowing history is often helpful in avoiding repeats of situations, although these seem to be lessons hard earned and often over-looked. But mostly, there’s never a good time for Nazis.
Published: Crown Publishers, 2011
My Copy: paperback, 2011, probably from Paperback Swap