Monday, October 10, 2011

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin

By Erik Larson
New York, Crown Publishers, 2011
448 pages     Non-Fiction

The New York Times calls In the Garden of Beasts “novelistic history,” others call it “narrative non-fiction,” but whatever it is called, In the Garden of Beasts is appalling, scary, fascinating, but at the same time, a rousingly exciting story of the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich through the eyes of one American family.

William E. Dodd was a historian and professor of history at the University of Chicago when he was called upon to become the ambassador to Berlin in 1933. He wasn’t the first choice; as a matter of fact, he was about the twentieth choice, but for various reasons, including a call to duty, he agreed to take the post. He took along with him, his wife and their two children, both in their twenties. Bill was a graduate student and Martha, a book editor who was in the process of getting a divorce. One can only imagine the conversation around the dinner table as they discussed the opportunity…”we should all go. It’ll be a great experience!”

The Dodd family upon arrival in Germany, 1933

Both Dodd and Martha were diary keepers and letter writers, so much of what Larson discovered that transpired in their lives during those seminal years, came from those letters and diaries as well as materials from historians, other diplomatic personages, and newspapers. Larson has meticulously researched the family, Berlin in the 1930s, the rise of Hitler and the other leaders of the Reich, as well as people on the periphery of the Dodd’s lives, including Martha’s lovers, both in German and in the United States. The Times reviewer says that Larson has created an “edifying narrative of this historical byway that has all the pleasures of a political thriller: innocents abroad, the gathering storm.”

At first, the family is intrigued with what is happening in Germany; the city of Berlin is as alive and vital as it always has been but with the added dimension of Nazi-ism. Martha, particularly, is buoyed by the vibrant spirit, the young, strapping Aryans marching around everywhere, the fervor, the salons, the clubs. As I was reading of her enthusiasm, I was reminded of the early scenes in the musical, Cabaret. Indeed, Larson took many of his details about the Berlin of 1933 from Christopher Isherwood’s books, which were also the writings used to create the script for Cabaret.

Within the year, however, the entire family is on edge; violence is on the increase; people they know are being arrested or disappear. Dodd tries on numerous occasions to warn the White House that things in Germany are not what they seem, but the State Department turns a deaf ear to what they consider to be his histrionics. America, at that time, was both isolationist and anti-semitic, and everyone was inclined to feel that Hitler should have his own way in Germany. Of course, shortly after Dodd was recalled, and his family left Germany, his predictions were realized by the State Department, but by that time it was too late.

Reading about Martha is like reading about a finely drawn fictional character, but in this case, she is a real. In the states, she had taken several authors as lovers, including Carl Sandburg, Thornton Wilder, and Thomas Wolfe, and in Berlin her liaisons read like a who’s who of Nazi Berlin, including the first head of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels. One could easily imagine her spending her evenings at places like the Kit Kat Klub from Cabaret, eating and drinking with Berlin’s society. She had a long affair with a Russian and following the war, became a Communist and an erstwhile spy.  

Those who have read Devil in the White City, Larson’s book about the Chicago World’s Fair and a serial killer who was operating there at the same time as the fair, know how compelling his writing is. Larson is the master of this style of writing, which.hardly feels like non-fiction because it is so finely tuned. In the Garden of Beasts is all the more gripping because we know how the adventure for this Midwestern family is going to turn out. 

I received a book about a serial killer in Paris during World War II, and the publicity packet from the publisher says, “Erik Larson’s tour de force of narrative nonfiction hasn’t been matched—until now…” I haven’t begun Death in the City of Light yet, so I have yet to see if David King’s writing is a match for Erik Larson. 

My husband and I read this book aloud, a chapter at a time, at the breakfast table. We talked often about the duplicity of the German people, and I commented more than once about how easy it is to be led down the wrong path as a nation. One fellow blogger summed the book up tightly: “History teaches that people at high levels of government, despite their pretenses, don’t know much more about how things will turn out than we do. They aren’t bad people; they aren’t stupid, they just can’t see any further into the future than we can. And sometimes, not as far.”

The blog entry from the Golden State blog:
Erik Larson’s website:

4 comments: said...

Man, sounds like an interesting book. I'll have to check it out on audio. You can find this best seller and more at Pretty good prices and you can download audiobooks too. tool

Italia said...

If you have never read Erik Larson's other books, please do. This was a great leason in history and like Larson's other works, filled with minutia, which some of us LOVE. But unfortunately this one fizzled. I was waiting for a sub plot, or a parallel story as he did in Thunderstruck, ...White City, even Isaac's Storm. But not here. He is quite descriptive and took great effort in his research as usual. But I found myself turning pages waiting for it to pick up speed.

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The events of this period are told in much greater detail in Richard Evans' masterpiece "The Third Reich in Power". However, this book, which reads like a novel, is told from the perspective of an American family. With the insights of the American ambassador it provides another dimension and it helps to explain how the people of Germany and the rest of the world allowed the Nazi beast to be created. said...

"In the Garden of Beasts" chronicles the life of the Dodd family in Germany during the years leading up to WWII, and none of their subsequent lives turned out well. Frankly, it would have been better for them and for the world, had they never left Chicago.