Book Review: In The Garden Of Beasts

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, & an American Family in Hitler's Berlin

How do you keep the reader engaged in a story when they already know how it ends?

This is the challenge that author, Erik Larson had to overcome in his newest / best-selling book, “In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin.”

Synopsis from the author’s website:

  • With this new book, I invite you to journey to Berlin during Hitler’s first year in power, 1933, in the company of a real-life father and daughter from Chicago who suddenly found themselves transported to the heart of the city. They had no conception of the harrowing days that lay ahead. At the time, nothing was certain—Hitler did not yet possess absolute power, and few outsiders expected his government to survive. The family encountered a city suffused with energy and optimism, with some of the most striking, avant-garde buildings in the world. Its theaters, concert halls, and cafés were jammed; the streets teemed with well-dressed attractive people. But my two protagonists were about to begin an education that would change them forever, with ultimately tragic consequences.

    The father was William E. Dodd, a mild-mannered professor who, much to his surprise and everyone else’s, was picked by President Roosevelt to be America’s first ambassador to Nazi Germany. His daughter, Martha, was 24 years old, and chose to come along for the adventure, and to escape a dead marriage to a New York banker. They and the rest of their family settled in a grand old house on the city’s central park, the Tiergarten—in literal translation, the Garden of Beasts.

    Dodd expected to encounter the same warm citizenry he had known three decades earlier while a graduate student in Leipzig; he hoped to use reason and quiet persuasion to temper Hitler’s government. Martha found the “New Germany” utterly enthralling, totally unlike the horrific realm depicted in newspapers back home. For her, as for many other foreign visitors at the time, the transformation of Germany was thrilling and not at all frightening. Not yet.

    As that first year unfolded they experienced days full of energy, intrigue, and romance—and, ultimately, terror, on a scale they could never have imagined. Their experience tells volumes about why the world took so long to recognize the grave threat posed by Hitler.

I was originally turned-on to Larson’s writing, when I read and reviewed the outstanding, “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America.” I especially appreciated Larson’s attention to detail and exhaustive research, of which he also brought to, “In The Garden Of Beasts.”

Suspension of Historical Hindsight

The “challenge” that I referenced earlier, is that the reader already knows how this story ends. There is no hero. There is no thwarting of the Hitler regime. Europe and the world are still thrust into WWII and millions of people still die…as do the horrors of the Holocaust.

Rather, what Larson does – which is something I always strive to achieve when reading about historical events – is to place the reader into history, in the present tense, while attempting to suspend the advantage of hindsight and an outcome that is already known.

Therefore, in the preface of the book, Larson does an admirable job of explaining the way that he approached the book…from the perspective of Ambassador Dodd and his family; through their eyes and how they experienced Hitler’s Germany for the first time. It is within this context, that you are placed “into” history and are getting a front-row seat to what it must have been like to be living in Berlin at that time and what you might have seen or encountered.

As a huge WWII buff, I try to get an understanding of what the people of the time might have been thinking, feeling or experiencing at that time…while trying to remove the advantage that I have…which is already knowing what happens and formulating an opinion after the facts are already in. How would I have reacted before knowing what Hitler would eventually do? What must it have been like to live in Germany after WWI and under the burden of the Treaty of Versailles? Would I have fallen victim to the blind Nationalism that gripped the nation? Would I have seen the actions of the young Chancellor (as he and his party rose to power, not after he became Dictator) as a threat? To truly understand history, I think it is paramount to understand these things and how they occurred…and in this case, so that they may never be repeated again in the future.

Ambassador Dodd (center) and family. With Martha (left).

An American Family in Berlin

As the author’s synopsis mentioned, William Dobb was an unlikely candidate – and not the first choice – to be America’s first Ambassador to Hitler’s Germany. Ambassadorships were usually cushy jobs that were reserved for personal friends of the President, large donors or those from the elite class of “old money.” At that time, it was a lot of pomp, circumstance, endless diplomatic parties and hand-shaking. The handful of candidates that were offered the job, simply turned it down.

William Dodd, a college professor, was a staunch supporter of FDR and through a few personal connections, was brought to Roosevelt’s attention. At the time, the U.S. was primarily concerned with Germany’s ability to continue to repay their debt to American creditors. Therefore, the Ambassadorship was originally viewed as nothing more than the role of a glorified debt collector, to ensure that Germany continued to make their payments on time.

He was an unlikely candidate, but strove to embody the values of American society, which FDR appreciated. Dodd shocked and appalled the rich (“good old boy”) foreign affairs crowd, when he insisted on a meager salary (enough to simply cover his expenses) and that he be able to bring his old Chevrolet…decidedly, “not befitting of a man of his charge,” according to his critics. His intent was to embody and personify the American people – and to avoid seeming ostentatious – as he did not feel right collecting a large salary or a chauffeured car, especially when many Americans were still reeling from the Great Depression (another reason why America was so concerned with collecting its debt from loans provided to Germany after WWI).

His daughter, Martha Dodd – a precocious 24 year old – found the “New Germany” romantic and exciting. Originally, she viewed the new Nazi Government as the beginning of Germany’s “re-birth” after WWI and along the way engaged in numerous affairs with diplomats and even the first head of the Gestapo, Rudolph Diels. At one point, she was even introduced directly to Hitler by “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, with the intent (unbeknownst to Martha) that if the American woman enchanted the German Chancellor, it might solidify relations with the U.S. Government.

Martha Dodd

As the book progresses – and as one can assume – as Hitler begins to tighten his grip around the German people, both Dodd and Martha become disenfranchised with the new Chancellor and begin to view his actions and motivations as more malicious than originally perceived when they arrived in 1933. There are also some interesting passages from when Dodd meets with Hitler personally, and the author’s details (gleaned from journals, biographies and first-person accounts) relating to each man’s perception of the other.

Unfortunately, many of Dodd’s warnings go ignored…and in many cases, his criticism of the Hitler regime garners him many enemies in the State Department who would like to see him removed. As I mentioned previously, in those initial years, the U.S. was more interested in the collection of Germany’s debt and not in agitating the new Chancellor’s government, especially since most American’s overwhelmingly favored a more isolationist view towards European politics and potential future conflicts.

History, In The Present Tense

Although a little dry at times, “In The Garden of Beasts” is an admirable and very interesting attempt at helping the reader to understand the environment, underlying political currents and culture surrounding Germany as Hitler rose to power. In that regard, I feel that Larson succeeded.

I would not deem it a “page turner” the same way that I did during my review of, “Unbroken,” but for those of you who also like to be placed “into” history – in order to fully understand it – I think that you will enjoy this book.

As I mentioned previously, there is no “happy ending” and no hero that swoops in to save the day at the last minute. Its intent was to give the reader the context and understanding of what it must have been like to be living in Germany during that time in the (then) present tense.

One of the most compelling sections of the book comes closer to the end, when it becomes abundantly clear that Hitler is attempting to consolidate his power during the, “Night of Long Knives.” This is before President Hindenburg dies (the one person in German who could legally check Hitler’s power and unseat him) and is an example of how hindsight is 20/20 and how easy it is to pass judgement with the advantage of hindsight…because, at the time, the event (as horrific as it was) garnered no public condemnation from the World at a point when Hitler’s government could have still been collapsed.

Beyond that, I also found the descriptions and anecdotes about the power struggle and personalities of some of histories greatest villains (i.e. Goebbels, Goring, Himmler etc), to be especially enlightening, revealing them to be nothing more than ego-driven, petty tyrants.

I recommend this book to fellow history buffs, but perhaps not to those with a passing interest in WWII. It is a very detailed account of the Dodd’s experience in Berlin, and I feel it would be appreciated most by those who already have an interest in the subject matter as a whole.

Note: Tom Hanks is in the process of developing, “In The Garden of Beasts” for Universal.

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