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Monday, October 31, 2011

"In the Garden of Beasts" by Erik Larson is a Fascinating Account of Both the U.S. and Germany in the 1930s.

Instead of being stretched out on the couch reading, with a restorative beverage near at hand, I've recently spent many hours driving the highways and byways, attending to matters in far flung places that require attending.  Fortunately, at the start of this intense travel period I snagged an audio copy of In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson.

In the Garden of Beasts is a non-fiction account of the experiences of U.S. Ambassador to Germany William E. Dodd and his family while living in Berlin in 1933-37.  Dodd, born in North Carolina just eight years after the conclusion of the Civil War, was appointed Ambassador by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.  At the time of his appointment Dodd was 63-years old and a professor of American history at the University of Chicago.  He moved from Chicago to Berlin with his wife and two adult children, Bill and Martha.

Three points make this book an exceptional read. First, and if you've read the excellent Devil in the White City you know this, Erik Larson is very good writer.  In this book he again pulls together historical facts and events and assembles a bright, compelling, and engrossing story.

Second, although much has already been written and said about World War II, Larson's book brings sharp perspective to ideas that don't typically get play.  For example, Larson describes the politics behind Dodd's appointment as ambassador and in the workings of the foreign service.  Dodd was an outsider to this community and at odds with with it, which became an added burden to him.  In addition to the infighting on the U.S. side of the equation, Larson tells us about the infighting, often deadly and violent infighting, among organizations in Hitler's Germany, including the Sturmabteilung (SA) and the Schutzstaffel (SS), and the old guard loyal to President Hindenburg and the new fanatical Nazi Party.  These are but two examples of interesting elements in a book rich with information.

Third, there is the perspective on events in Germany offered by 25-year old Martha Dodd, the Ambassador's daughter.  Oh, that Martha.  She is enthralled with the Nazi regime, forging friendships with Party leaders and insiders.  Martha has a very . . . active romantic life.  Many times throughout the course of the book I thought, 'Martha, you foolish twit.'  Nonetheless, her story is engaging and adds another layer to the picture of what is happening in Berlin.

In the Garden of Beasts is loaded with compelling facts, stories, and analysis as well as drama.  It is a pleasure to read, or listen to while on the road traveling.


  1. Erik Larson is a master researcher and story teller. Here in the Garden of Beasts we experience the birth of Nazism as seen by the Dodd family while William Dodd served an ambassadorship in 1933 Berlin. An unassuming and unlikely candidate , Dodd entered into a Berlin where dramatic change was underway. We can actually experience with him the unbelievable turn that Germany was about to take. At first quite sure that Hitler could not prevail, we, along with Dodd , have our eyes opened to the insidious birth of horror. The realization that things might have played out differently had a stronger stand been taken sooner is a sad pill to swallow. The reader progresses as does Dodd to come to the full realization that Germany has succumbed to the "Coordination". It is now a Germany of suspicion and fear where neighbors are encouraged to turn in neighbors for the slightest infraction.Through Dodd's daughter's eyes we see a Berlin of gay parties, teas, and social outings morph into a place where trust is gone and everyone becomes a potential enemy.We are all aware of the historical facts about Hitler's rise to power but Larson makes us see it happen as it evolves, piece by piece. He has an uncanny ability to take us back as though the rest of history has not yet been written and see the evil as it begins to take root before our innocent eyes.

  2. Thanks for your analysis, Sverige.