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In the Garden of Beasts

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In the Garden of Beasts
Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin
By Erik Larson
Crown, 1st edition (2011)
ISBN: 978-0307408846

Reviewed by Herbert White - June 6, 2011

1933 was a year of problems for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR). It would turn out to be one of many to come. Not only was he dealing with the effects of the depression on the American economy and psyche, but there were growing tensions in Europe. Hitler's power was on the rise, and thousands of people, including a number of American citizens had, and were, being arrested, tortured, and even murdered by Hitler's Storm Troopers and members of the Gestapo. Not the least of his problems was finding an ambassador to take over the vacancy in Germany, a job that no one seemed to want. In short order, Roosevelt went through his list of candidates. They all turned him down, so he asked William E. Dodd, who had let it be known that he would be willing to take a job as ambassador in some quiet little place in the world, namely so that he could finish work on his four-volume history of the Old South, while still making enough money to support his family. Germany was not his idea of a quiet place, and he knew that there he had little opportunity to work on his book, but it was a singular honor for a rather unremarkable history professor from the University of Chicago whose only claim to fame was that he'd written a biography of President Woodrow Wilson, a man with whom he had become friends. After a couple of hours of consideration, Dodd accepted the post and within days, Dodd, his wife Mattie, their twenty-eight-year-old son Bill, and twenty-four-year-old daughter Martha, where in Berlin. In the year that followed they were to witness some of the pivotal moments of World War II, and to meet, and socialize, with many of the infamous Nazis who would lead Germany including Adolf Hitler, Hermann Göring, and Joseph Goebbels. These were men who were quickly leading the world into war, and who would be responsible for orchestrating the outright slaughter of millions.

In In the Garden of the Beast, a work of narrative nonfiction, Erik Larson provides a birds-eye view of this pivotal year as seen through the eyes of Dodd's family. The narrative is interspersed with quotes from other books, journals, and letters, allowing the historical figures in this book to speak for themselves. While you see the developments through the eyes of all four family members, most of the narrative is told from the viewpoint of Dodd, and his daughter Martha. Had she been a man, Martha may well have been labeled a womanizer. For, according to Larson, Martha seemed to flit from man to another, often being engaged to one while dating another, a tack that she continued to follow even after she married. Often she used her affairs to taunt her husband, who quickly realized that their marriage was a mistake. When Martha went to Germany with her father, she was still, at least technically, married. This, however, did not stop her from hanging about, and having affairs with several Nazi officials, including the likes of Gestapo chief Rudolf Diels. Her perspectives on events are perhaps most telling, for in the beginning, like most of the world, she did not think that the Nazis were really anything more than a flash in the pan. The consensus seemed to have been that while the Nazis were sinister at times, they were not really a threat, at least not to anyone outside of Germany. However, as time passed, even Martha began to understand that something horrible was brewing, and that the nice young men that she liked to play around with, really were not all that nice when the facade was drawn aside and you looked at the evil that the Nazi party was spewing, and backing up with real world evils.

Dodd was not the best choice for this job. He was a quiet scholar who had a habit of saying what he felt no matter the circumstances - not the best quality in an ambassador who should be circumspect. But he was a keen observer, and he ably documented Germany's slide in madness and war. However Dodd's warnings, as with the warnings from George Messersmith were ignored by those in Washington. Messersmith, who was the Consul General of the Berlin embassy, was one of the first staff members at the embassy to understand the dangers posed by the Nazi regime. Dodd's job was further complicated by the fact that although the United States was well aware of the systematic persecution of Jews, the U.S. did not want to really do anything about it. Even the Jewish community in the United States was divided. On the one side there were those that advocated for a strong response to Nazi outrages against the Jews, while others thought that such a response would only make it worse for German Jews. As events transpired, keeping quite (the American policy) was ineffective and the treatment of Jews in Germany, and later all locations under Nazi control went from outrages to outright murder. In addition, the U.S. state department had an anti-semitic bent, with several key players in the department openly hostile to Jews.

In the Garden of Beasts is a powerful book that brings home the danger of doing nothing in the face of evil, in the vain hope that if you ignore it, it will go away. It never happens. It simply ferments and grows, until it becomes a nearly unstoppable force that could well devour everything, and anyone, unfortunate enough to cross its path, as happened in Nazi Germany. Larson writes with the skill and grace of a novelist, while remaining faithful to the historical facts. You will find this to be an eye opening book if you are unfamiliar with this period in history. For those that are already well grounded in the history of this period, you will find that this book brings pre-war Berlin to life and provides a unique glimpse into the lives and thoughts of one American family who stood as eyewitnesses to the unfolding drama. This is an excellent book for scholars, general readers, and book groups.

Related Reviews:

A Concise History of the Third Reich, by Wolfgang Benz.
A brief and academically authoritative, yet eminently readable account of the entire twelve-year existence of the Third Reich that covers political, social, cultural, and military aspects of this period.

The Nazi Germany Sourcebook: An Anthology of Texts, by Roderick Stackelberg and Sally A. Winkle
This anthology contains 148 primary texts that offer readers a general overview of the origins and consequences of Nazism.

The Third Reich: Politics and Propaganda, by David Welch
This work offers an in-depth analysis of the role that propaganda played in Nazi Germany.

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