In In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, Erik Larson recounts the career of the American Ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, particularly the years 1933 to 1937 when he and his family, including his daughter Martha, lived in Berlin. The book draws out the tension and intrigue of place and period well, including the romances of Martha.
Similar in appeal to the writing of Michael Lewis (see my recent review of The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds), Larson focused on individual people in drawing out a bigger sense of the core subject matter. Unlike Lewis’ accomplishments that lacked a sense of place but had a clear sense of people, In the Garden of Beasts succeeded on both accounts. Place and people were seen in full color in their humanity.
William Dodd earned his Ph.D. in Leipzig many, many years in advance of his ambassadorship. While Dodd clearly hoped to influence Germany’s new Nazi government to take a comparatively more moderate path than it did, the truth is that he saw firsthand persecution of Jews during his stay; he took no effective steps to foment opposition to that persecution during his stay. Some have argued that Dodd was a bit too fond of his youthful memories from Leipzig, which in turn played a hand in his inability to see clear warning signs of impending peril earlier.
Martha, separated from her husband and in the process of divorce, became caught up in the glamor and excitement of Berlin’s social scene. Her romantic affairs were front and center, including a relationship with Soviet attaché and secret agent Boris Vinogradov. She defended the Soviet regime to her skeptical friends. After William Dodd returned to America and took ill with the condition that would take his life early during World War Two, it was Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels who would use this and other romantic endeavors by Martha to attack the service of her father.
The assessments of Dodd’s effectiveness during the build-up of the Nazi war machine are largely poor. Larson takes largely this view in sharing this story and level-setting early on that Dodd was no hero in the larger affairs. U.S. Consul to Berlin alongside Dodd seeks to take some of the sting out of the valid criticism leveled at the former ambassador; that he is compared unfavorably to similar ambassadors to Germany from France and England, while not explicitly stated by Larson, is clearly implied by the tone of this book.
In demonstrating the feel and time of Berlin from 1933 to 1937 so well, my sense is that Larson did well to demonstrate how basically no one believed that Adolf Hitler would last long as a German leader. The relative ease with which he gained that leadership and reformed the form of Germany’s government with the tacit approval of the German populace is skillfully done. That the first maybe forty percent of the book is used to lay the groundwork of a very human telling to one family’s perspective on the Nazi buildup may be off putting for some readers. My recommendation is to stick with the book.
My recommendation is to read this book; I further feel that readers under the age of 30, especially if not married or not parents, would be less inclined to enjoy this book than some one that fits one or both descriptions. My rating is 4-stars out of five.
Matt – Thursday, January 12, 2017