In The Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin is a historical, nonfiction novel of the Ambassador to Germany’s time in Berlin during Hitler’s rise to power. Published in 2011, Erik Larson weaves a compelling narrative of one family’s experience in Nazi Germany.
The Dodd family was a typical American family in 1933. William Dodd was a professor of history at the University of Chicago and together with his wife Martha, had two grown children, Martha and Bill Jr. As a professor, Dodd was fairly well connected in Washington and was close personal friends with President Woodrow Wilson. When FDR became President, he had a helluva time finding an ambassador for Berlin. Every candidate fell through until a friend in the government mentioned Dodd’s name. A well-educated man, humble and a staunch supporter of democratic government, Dodd was offered and accepted the post.
The Dodd family were like most Americans visiting Berlin at the time; they didn’t believe the reports of the violence and oppression of Hitler’s regime. Their initial experiences in the city were nothing but pleasant – sunny, beautiful days, grand parties, getaways to the surrounding countryside. Their daughter Martha, in particular, was enamored of the city and the handsome young Nazis that she met. Martha Dodd is a fascinating character; rebellious, adventurous, sexually curious, intelligent. She made friends quickly and had many lovers, including the first head of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels and a Russian KGB operative.
Ambassador Dodd’s main concern was convincing the German government to pay their debts to American creditors, the Nazis and the “Jewish problem” was not really an issue at the forefront. Initially, the only diplomat to the realize the true, vicious nature of Hitler’s government was the American Consul General. He received almost weekly reports of assaults on American citizens for failing to give the Hitler salute or for looking into the window of a Jewish shop or for giving the wrong look to an SA Officer. The Consul understood that Hitler’s government would stop at nothing to intimidate and hurt people into submission. He also understood the subversive tactics used to suppress the Jewish population – not just the outright violence, which was somehow easily overlooked as individual instances, but the pervasive changes in law making it illegal to hire Jewish citizens, illegal for Jewish business owners to remain open and eventually to stripping the Jewish population of citizenship altogether. The prevailing thought of that time, at least among diplomats, was that there was no way that Hitler would ever truly gain power, and even if he did, it would be impossible for him to keep it. Germany was a major, European power – it was simply inconceivable that a modern government, and population, could act so primitively and remain standing. It was a gross miscalculation that would change the world.
This novel is tirelessly researched and much of the information and interactions come from the Dodd family’s journals and letters. The Dodds eventually saw past the happy veneer of Berlin. In one particularly heart-wrenching passage, Martha, her brother and another American friend are visiting Nuremberg when they come across a parade, or so they thought, and stop to watch. What they see though, is the torture and humiliation of a young woman, dragged and beaten in the streets simply for going on a date with a young Jewish man. The Nazi time period is always fascinating to me and in reading this account it is especially heartbreaking because you realize that there were so many things that could have been done differently in order to slow or even halt Hitler’s advance. It is also incredible to read about meetings and social gatherings attended by Hitler and his Nazi elite. I always think of Hitler as this grandly evil, shadowy, puppet master that no one could get close to, and not as a normal diplomat who met with other ambassadors and politicians on a regular basis.
If you are at all a fan of history, historical fiction or this time period, you should absolutely read In The Garden of Beasts. It reads like a novel and is all the more horrifying and baffling because we know that every act of violence and aggression is true. In The Garden of Beasts is a fascinating account of just how deceptive the Hitler regime was about its true ambitions, and the world’s great failure in discovering the Nazis true nature all too late.