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Wednesday, April 24, 2013


If Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City captivated you, then grab In the Garden of Beasts, his non-fiction-that-reads-as-fiction account of 1930s Germany as Hitler consolidates his power over the country while the United States’ government parades in blinders unable or unwilling to anticipate the coming storm.

In his research, Larson delves into every historical record of Ambassador William Dodd’s four year tenure in Germany, the first in the Third Reich, fleshing out details that give everyone involved a three-dimensional quality.

A 64 year old University of Chicago history professor, Dodd initially sees the ambassadorship as a sleeper opportunity where he will have the time to finish his own life’s work—a history of the antebellum South.  Because Dodd is neither rich nor socially worldly, he is shunned by the elitist corps at the U.S. State Department, a group of wealthy, basically isolationist, and essentially anti-Semitic men.  His work in Germany means nothing to them.  They don’t like him, and they work against him.  They are concerned only with receiving Germany's reparation money and turn a blind eye to everything else.

Dodd’s family accompanies him to Germany, and his daughter, Martha, a carefree, sexually liberated young woman sleeps with everyone from Thomas Wolfe to higher ups in the Nazi party.  She twitters like a schoolgirl when Hitler kisses her hand though in private Hitler disparages her and abhors her father.  

To save money, Dodd rents an elegant home across from the Tiergarten (literally Garden of Beasts) from a Jewish man whose family has fled the country.  The man believes that having an American in residence is a safeguard for him as Jewish persecution escalates.  He eventually brings his family back, and they occupy the upper floors.  Dodd is so ambivalent that he is annoyed at the man and considers instituting a landlord/tenant dispute.

Martha’s goal to become a journalist induces her to document her own life in detail, providing Erik Larson with a sweeping social view of the decadent and increasingly frightening world Germany became as Hitler and his cohorts consolidated their power and began their persecution not only of Jews but also of anyone who did not demonstrate support for him.  Germany mutates into a terrifying world, but Martha remains oblivious.

Martha and her father actually share a basic dislike for the Jews and concur with many of the stereotypes.  Hitler ratchets up his persecution, and it is not until well into his ambassadorship that Dodd finally awakens to the reality of the situation.  Dodd begins to recognize the horror primarily because Hitler’s henchmen attack Americans who do not give the “sieg heil” salute during parades.  As ambassador, Dodd is forced to intervene and deal directly with Hitler.  Made aware of Hitler’s persecution and intimidation, Dodd begins to notice more and more aggressive actions that belie Hitler’s talk of peace. 

With the course of history behind us, we know that the contemporary United States’ view of the Nazi world as a passing fad of adolescent antics headed by Hitler with his funny mustache, Goering with his enormous girth and outlandish costumes, and Himmler, transitioned from a poultry farmer to the SS commander and main architect of the Holocaust, seems impossible. But that is exactly how this gang was viewed until it was too late to stop them.  By then Dodd was exhausted and sick, disliked by the State Department, and not trusted by an unsympathetic President Roosevelt who would do nothing to jeopardize his New Deal.

Erik Larson’s saga is fascinating, heartbreaking, unemotional, and mystifying.  It reads like the political thriller that was Germany in the 1930s and demonstrates how quickly and completely a people can be influenced by the combination of a charismatic leader and intimidation by force.  It is a real life horror story that should not be missed.

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