Monday, March 19, 2012

In The Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

In The Garden of Beasts; Love, Terror, and An American Family In Hitler's Germany by Erik Larson
Published May 2011 by Crown Publishing Group
Source: this one was a gift from me to my hubby

I've been trying to write my review of this one for two weeks. But, as I so often do when I'm reading nonfiction, I took a mountain of notes. It's been hard to winnow the details down to what you need to know to understand the story of William E. Dodd's tenure as the U.S. Ambassador to Germany. In In The Garden of Beasts, Erik Larson uses Dodd's time in Germany as a way to highlight activity in Germany leading up to the second World War and failure on the part of the American government to grasp what was happening in time to do anything about it.

Dodd was an unlikely choice for such an important position. A college professor, whose life's ambition was to write the definitive trilogy about the American South, Dodd preferred time on his small farm to any thing else. He did have a deep interest in politics and actively pursued a diplomatic post, but hoped for one with very little actual work. Germany was not on his list of choices, although it was a country he had fallen in love with forty years earlier when he studied there. When Franklin Roosevelt, unable to find anyone else to take the ambassadorship in Germany, approached Dodd about the post, Dodd reluctantly agreed.

He was right to be reluctant. His attempts to live within his salary,  his early view of his ambassadorial role as more of an observer and reporter (Dodd hoped he could exert a "moderating influence" over Hitler's government through reason and example), and the belief of the American people that the U.S. should maintain an isolationist stance all made Dodd's job more difficult.

Rudolf Diels

Dodd's daughter, Martha, added to his troubles. Martha had long been interested in being part of the intellectual set; in the U.S. she counted among her friends Thornton Wild, Carl Sandberg and Thomas Wolf. Her interactions with this same type of set in Berlin, however, raised eyebrows, particularly since many of those people were suspected communists. But it was her easy virtue that really made State Department and Nazi Party officials alike take notice. Among her conquests, Martha counted German officers, Gestapo leader Rudolf Diels (a man who was known as the "Prince of Darkness" and didn't mind it), and Boris Winogradov, officially an attache to the Soviet embassy but in reality a spy. At one point, it was even suggested to Martha that it would be a good political move to seduce Adolf Hitler and she agreed. Nothing, however, came of that.

While there were some who sounded the alarm early on (U.S. Consulate, George Messersmith warned that "something fundamental had changed in Germany" when Hitler became Chancellor), Dodd and his family originally arrived in Germany believing only the best. The U.S. Government preferred to believe only the best as well. Roosevelt's first and foremost concern in the early 1930's was the economy and the hope that Germany might one day repay the massive debt left by the first World War made him loathe to rock the boat. Roosevelt was also reluctant to act on behalf of the German Jews because of his concerns about a backlash from the American public. Even the American Jewish population was divided on how to react.

While the world turned a blind eye, the Nazi party instituted a program, "Coordination,"  to bring citizens, government ministries, universities and cultural and social institutions in line with National Socialist beliefs and attitudes. A central element was the insertion into law of "Aryan clause" which effectively banned Jews from government jobs. Hitler and his cohorts also amped up the production of arms and Hitler withdrew Germany from the League of Nations and from a long-running disarmament conference in Geneva. In the spring of 1934, Hitler finally made his move to fully secure his power and to wipe out those opposed to him. By this time, Dodd was strongly warning the U.S. in regard to Hitler's true ambitions and the danger of continued isolationism. His reward? The U.S. government accepted his resignation after the German government turned him out. As ill-equipped and ill-suited as he was to the job, it's impossible not to think what might have happened if anyone had respected Dodd enough to listen to him.

As many German government buildings and other embassies were, the American Embassy was located across the street from the Tiergarten in Berlin, a name which literally translates to "animal garden" or "garden of beasts," hence the reason Larson chose the title of his book.

Trish of Love, Laughter & A Touch of Insanity and I read this one together. She actually listened to it while I had the book in my hands. This is a surprisingly difficult book to keep track of the players in and Trish found it harder than I did which also made it more difficult for her to become invested in the story. I know we both feel that we learned a lot and that Larson did a fine job of giving Dodd a fair shake. But both of us also felt like this one was a lot of work to read and that, as narrow as the topic already was, Larson might have fared better having chosen a tighter focus. Certainly Martha had the more interesting story line and her life would make a fascinating book in and of itself. But William Dodd was clearly meant to be the linchpin of the story and Trish and I concur that he tended to get lost, poor man.


  1. I agree how disillusioned Dodd must have been. An interesting part of history I haven't heard much about. Amazing, isn't it?

  2. Glad you got the chance to read this book--I loved it when I read it last year. Actually, I listened to it as well, and found it incredibly compelling. I thought it fascinating to examine Germany and the rise of the Nazis through the eyes of an idealistic American historian--he was both naive and insightful, powerless but honorable. I do think it a tragic story, and I agree that Martha would be a fascinating subject of a biography.

  3. Thanks for reviewing this one. I wanted to read it after having read his first book about the murderer and the world fair, but I have tended to avoid it because I can only take so much about Nazi Germany and needed a time to read it when I could devote my attention to it.

  4. I saw too many negative reviews of this to read it, but I still think Larson is an interesting author...

  5. I've been wanting to read this one for awhile now. Fascinating. I never know which notes to take, I mark a ton of stuff and then go back but I find that doesn't allow me to retain why I marked something since I didn't write it down. I'll have to try that with my next non-fiction book.

  6. Poor Dodd indeed. You've summed up my thoughts perfectly in the last paragraph--so much so that I feel off the hook for discussing this one. I'm still thinking about tossing it in amongst other mini-reviews, but I do wish that I had read this one rather than listened. It was too easy for me to get lost in the story (stories) and the players.

    Wonderful summary of this one Lisa. Hindsight is 20/20 right? Such an incredible story.

  7. I have a few friends who read this one and said that they just couldn't get into it. I think you state the problem very well. There is just so much information, and so many players for the story to seem streamlined. I am not sure I would read this one, but I do really appreciate your fair and balanced review on it. I liked the style in which you wrote about the book. It felt very detailed, but not confusing.

  8. Loved your review and there is a lot of information in that book by the sounds of it. Having just visited the Holocaust Museum in D.C. I often wondered what would have happened if the U.S. had stepped in earlier. Too bad that Dodd took a backseat in this book.....

  9. Still can't decide whether to invest my time in this book or not. I listened to The Devil in the White City and liked it well enough, but knowing Trish wished she'd taken the print route is enough to convince me to read rather than listen. We'll see...

  10. This sounds like such an interesting book! I bought a copy a few months ago, but haven't had time to read it yet. Good idea to take notes!

  11. Dodd definitely got lost in the story. I would've been happy with just Martha, and her time in Berlin.

  12. It has been observed that for evil to win all that needs happen is for good men to do nothing. That was what the United States government did, at least officially, for much of the lead-up to World War II. Too often chances to speak out and try to stop the madness that was engulfing Germany were ignored. Too frequently the atrocities were overlooked. Too many times our response to the crisis over there was nothing, nothing, nothing...

    But there were exceptions. George Messersmith, who worked at the Berlin embassy, was one of those who tried, often in vain, to bring about some change in the US policies, though he was often ignored as having too vivid of an imagination. So, too, were various Jewish groups in the USA, though they were often ignored for being Jewish. And, eventually, so did William Dodd, the United States ambassador to Germany, though he was ignored because, frankly, too many people didn't want to believe any of what was happening in Berlin.