Book Review: 'In the Garden of Beasts'

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's BerlinIn the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson

Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin is the story of US Ambassador William Dodd and his family in Berlin during Hitler's rise to power and his rampart militarization and "coordination" of Germany.

At the same time Dodd sought to be a beacon of American democracy and reason in Hitler's irrational, paranoid, increasingly brutal Germany, his daughter Martha sought to make a name for herself as a socialite and thinker. The girl got around. Even as she moved through intellectual circles, she found plenty of time to socialize with the head of the Gestapo, Hitler's favorite pianist, a Russian spy, and others.

She was as busy as her father was staid. Slow to react to acts of racist brutality or even call them for what they were lest Germany default on its debts to the US. Father and daughter each piqued the State Department for not quite playing by the rules of the diplomatic game, the primary ones being to keep the money flowing, party often and much, and offend nobody--even if they are ramping up their eugenics, undermining individual liberties, and pounding on your own country's citizens.

In the end, Dodd held his ground and spoke against Hitler and the fellow maniacs he deputized to serve his megalomania. He said too little too late but nevertheless embarrassed the State Department.

It would be easy to dismiss Dodd and the US government for taking so long to take a stand against the Nazis. There was a commonly held belief among many that a strong response from a powerful nation or two might have checked Hitler's rise to absolute power in Germany and his attempt to conquer Europe. However, Larson's depiction of the players involved and that greatest of handicaps--the irrational desire to believe people are good--shows how complicated and convoluted the obvious can become.

The Garden of Beasts of the title refers to the inner city park in Berlin, the Tiergarten, which used to be a game park for German nobility. In Dodd's time, it was the one place in Berlin where diplomats and others could talk without the fear of eavesdroppers. It was also the park around which the Gestapo, the German Army, and other agents of state brutality were based. The image of the Tiergarten captures the atmosphere of the book--when pure evil closed in on every good thing and vanquished it. For a time.

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  1. Great book review and I'm going to look for it as soon as our library opens again -- finances or the lack thereof have caused Seattle to close every one of the libraries for a week! Needless to say, this is discouraging and disgusting. Hope the storms don't actually reach North Carolina!! Holding good thoughts!


  2. sounds like an interesting story of intrigue...


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