Monday, July 18, 2011

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, Crown Publishing, May 2011

...a totally different view of the time period

Having read many books about WWII and the run up to it I was pleasantly surprised at Erik Larson's contribution to this body of work.  He tells the story of William Dodd, an unlikely choice to be America's ambassador to the new German government formed by Adolf Hitler in 1933.  Dodd, on paper unqualified for the job, comes from an academic background teaching in Chicago.  A self described "Jeffersonian democrat" he responds to Roosevelt's request to fill this position.  He moves his wife and two adult children, Martha and Bill to Berlin.  Martha is recently separated from an older husband and open for adventures of all kinds in Europe.

In retrospect it is easy to see the evil that was Hitler's Reich.  In 1933 as he was coming to power in Germany things were much less clear.  The primary concern of the US government appears to have been getting Germany to repay US loans (the large financial institutions making self serving decisions as usual).  To his credit William Dodd early on recognized the evil aspects of Hitler's regime.  When the career US diplomats were cautioning against any opposition to Hitler, Dodd was making speeches that warned of the lawlessness and arms building occurring in Germany.  In 1933/34 Hitler's power was far from absolute and you can only speculate what might have happened if some governments - US and European - had spoken out as Dodd wanted.

Dodd's daughter Martha had a different take on the new regime.  She had a romantic relationship with at least one military officer in the SS.  While initially enamoured of the energy and charisma of Hitler, she witnesses at least one attack by "brown shirts" and recognized the developing hatred of the regime for the Jews.  She has several affairs while in Germany and develops a lasting relationship with a Russian embassy officer, at least until he is terminated by Stalin.  Her story captures the cosmopolitan atmosphere of Berlin in the 1930s.  She too in the end recognizes the evil in the Nazi government.

Both Dodd and his daughter were faithful diarists enabling the author using the diaries and other sources to reconstruct an almost day by day account of those times.  It is a totally different view of the time period from what you would read in most histories.  It reads almost like gossipy fiction.

My one criticism of the book is that it was remarkably devoid of photos.  I've come to expect them in non fiction stories like this and there were very few throughout the text.


Zibilee said...

This sounds like a fascinating story, and I have heard great things about Larson and his writing. It seems like you really liked this one, aside from the fact that there were no photos. I must add this one to me ever growing list.

Greg Zimmerman said...

Very good point about the lack of photos - didn't even think of that, but it would've saved me the time I spent poking around the Interwebs looking for photos of Dodd and Martha.

Overall, like you, I loved this book. What a rare, valuable glimpse into the rise of an evil regime.

Julie said...

I linked your review up to mine! (I actually like your review better; you gave a great synopsis and feel for the title) :)

Ελλάδα said...

He did walk to a different drum, but now that history has moved on, in my opinion, he was the man for the job. I do believe he was a man of tremendous tact. Frankly, though, his daughter was an embarrassment. Way too many times, she was, purposely, in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong people. It seems like she just didn't get it!