In the Garden of Beasts (review)

To write a non-fictional book that largely focuses on the actions of two people is very difficult. Often those people will have diaries the author can use but those sources are filled with skewed, glossed over, antidotal views of the world. However, when the two people are an American ambassador and his daughter – William E and Martha Dodd, the collaborating evidence from other diplomats, government cables, other journals, and newspapers allows for a much more supportive literary web.  That’s the case with Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts. 

In typical fashion for Larson this story focuses on one aspect of some major event and he magnifies how individuals played a role in significant events and does so in a very welcoming narrative tone.  The story begins in 1933 when William E. Dodd, an academic, is appointed American ambassador to Germany.  He accepts the post with some hope that away from his academic requirements he will be able to finish a book he is writing and to follow Roosevelt’s instructions – be a model American.  Dodd finds that the later and more difficult was all he had time for.

Dodd arrives with his own car, a limited budget and a mindset towards keeping the embassy and its pursuits pragmatic.  This is an era when ambassadors were often independently wealthy and spent that wealth while they were in their appointments.  Dodd, like an instructor in school cutting down on notes also criticizes embassy officials for sending diplomatic cables that are too long.  He is also there to focus chiefly on one thing, German debt.  Again and again his superiors express that he not anger anyone by focusing on other matters such as the “Jew Problem” until the German’s have repaid their financial debts.

If William E. Dodd is the conservative college professor then his daughter Martha is the hard partying sorority sister.  Martha takes her passions, men and socializing, from Chicago to Berlin without hindrance from language or culture.  She loves a KGB agent who tries to convert her to communism –successfully – and possibly as a spy for Russia – unsuccessfully. Other flings include high ranking members of the German government and even a date with Hitler, though neither reflected positively of the other all while being legally married in New York. 

The book also did a wonderful job of recreating the environment in Berlin and Germany at the time. Events that become major moments of history don’t explode like a firecracker, rather they build up slowly like a pot of boiling water.  Anyone who cooks can tell you that when a pot boils over you can quickly turn down the heat to reduce the boil but also slowly turn it back up without the boiling over problem. This is what Hitler did.  In 1933, six years before Germany invaded Poland the signs were there to those who wanted to look closely that Hitler was dangerous, Germany unstable and Jews in fear for their lives.  But each near boil was delayed by a promise, a respite of harassment, or an act of goodwill and observers, inside and out, thought Germany to be a safe place.  Larson does an excellent job of explaining those boiling increments from the point of view of those in Germany.

For all the boiling upticks though readers also see that there were sympathetic Germans who may have furthered the idea that things wouldn’t rise to the point they did.  Ambassador Dodd counted some as his friends and even welcomed them into his house – a place many people at the time felt was a safe environment to express opinions instead of guard them.

In the notes at the end of the book Larson says that one book he was using had a large picture of Hitler on the cover and eventually he had to turn the book over, laying it cover-side-down, because he couldn’t stand to look at that face.  Larson’s own book avoids this without avoiding what is happening.  It’s a clear, fresh view no matter how difficult to look on.

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