In The Garden of Beasts:Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson

This solidly researched account of Germany and the U.S. before World War II reads like a novel full of intigue, love affairs, disloyalty, honor, dishonor, evil, and power. Erik Larson tells the story from the unique perspective of the American ambassador from 1933-1938, William Dodd, and his family. Dodd was a scholar who was looking for an ambassadorship simply because he wanted to finish his three-volume book on the Old South. He ended up in Berlin because nobody else wanted the job—a fact he didnt realize until he was committed to the position.

Dodd was a Jeffersonian Democrat who chose to live on a budget and walk to work instead of being chauffered about in a giant gas guzzler, as was the custom of ambassadors. He remained a misfit during his entire time in Germany because he was not one of the wealthy elites who normally fill such posts. Initially, he argued away the threat of Hitler and the Nazi party, but ultimately he tried to warn the Roosevelt administration of the reality of Hitler’s danger to Germany and to the world. He was deemed an alarmist by his “colleagues” in Washington, and his warnings were dismissed as the work of an academic unqualified for diplomatic work.

Larson demonstrates how America and the German people might have stopped the pure evil that descended on Germany, but they chose to leave it to others, thinking it would get better on its own. Worse, many Americans at the time excused Hitler’s most despicable acts, reasoning that Jews caused their own problems.

Larson researched hundreds of books, artices, and newsreels, but relied heavily on Dodd’s papers and on his and his daughter’s autobiographies. The daughter, Martha Dodd, was a notorious partier who had affairs with Germans, Russians, and anybody in between. She was blindsided by Nazi charm, until their crimes became too obvious for her to ignore. Her story is a juicy counterpoint to her father’s more staid approach.

Larson shows the complexities of the era, creating in Dodd a character who has the guts to publicly decry Nazi policy, but who remains somewhat naive about the political web he’s caught in.  Likewise, Larson makes clear that, while many Germans remained complacent and complicit in Hitler’s evil, some even within the Nazi hierarchy tried to work against Hitler.

After Dodd was replaced as Ambassador, he toured the country, warning Americans of the true evil of Hitler’s regime. Even then, he was often seen as exaggerating.

Pat Prijatel

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