Book 20: A non-fiction book: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson
Erik Larson has a talent for taking historical facts and framing them within a compelling narrative that keeps the reader riveted until the last page. In the Garden of Beasts does not fail to achieve this feat as in his other novels. Through the use of letters, diaries, published accounts, and a variety of other source material, Larson craftily paints a vivid picture of Hitler’s rise to power in Berlin through the experiences of an American Diplomat and his family.
In 1933, Chicago Scholar William Dodd is asked by President Roosevelt to assume the US Ambassador position in Berlin, a task that the President has had great difficulty filling due to reports of violence and political tension throughout Germany. Roosevelt approaches Dodd, an unlikely candidate for ambassadorship, as a last resort. Dodd has dreams of finding a quiet governmental post to complete writing his book, Old South, and accepts the position hoping it might grant him more time to devote to his writing. Although like many Americans, Dodd had uneasy feelings about the reports of violence in Germany, he believed that Hitler would be able to control these outbursts and restore peace in the country. This belief that the Nazi party would not be able to sustain itself kept many people, Americans and Germans alike, from acting until it would be tragically too late to intervene. Dodd and his family accepted the post and sailed to Germany, confident that he would be able to play a vital role in building and keeping the peace.
Through the eyes of Dodd and his family, we as readers watch helplessly as the Nazi party and Hitler’s ascension to power build. It is frustrating to watch the naiveté of Germans and Americans alike as they continue to brush off vicious attacks against Jews as “one offs” and the increasing violence against Americans and anyone who spoke out against the Nazi party. Many kept hope alive that the Nazi party would crumble as their violence increased, believing the lies Hitler spouted about wanting peace and doing his best to reign in these “isolated” attacks. It is hard to believe that so many people could so vastly underestimate the insidiousness of the Nazi regime, but when looking back to a post World War I world that was craving peace, it is frighteningly evident how powerful denial can be.
Dodd increasingly understands the dangers of Hitler and his regime and tries to alert the US government to take action, but to no avail; so many Americans wish to remain isolationist to world issues after the Great War, but as we know, this lack of intervention eventually led to one of History’s greatest nightmares. Dodd also tries to raise protest to Germans, only to be rebuffed by German and US governments alike. Many scholars believe that had the United States intervened sooner, the world could have avoided one of its greatest tragedies, and Larsen’s account seems to agree. If only men like Dodd had spoken louder and taken more seriously, the course of history may have been altered.
Spliced in with the historical accounts, amazingly in depth personal accounts of various hideous men, including Himmler, Goebbels, and others, Larson treats readers to the cultural climate of Germany and the US during this era. He also takes readers on a flight of adventure through the narrative of Dodd’s daughter, Martha, a woman fascinated by intrigue and espionage and paramour to many of the famous leading men of this time. Readers may be annoyed by Martha’s escapades, Dodd’s frugal nature that led him to become an object of ridicule in the diplomatic community, and some of the other side stories throughout Larson’s account. I found these forays an enjoyable inclusion that served to paint an even richer description of life in Germany leading up to the Second World War. I recommend this book to anyone interested in Historical scholarship of this dark yet intriguing era in World History.