The bestselling author of "Devil in the White City" turns his hand to a remarkable story set during Hitler's rise to power. The time is 1933, the place, Berlin, when William E. Dodd becomes America's first ambassador to Hitler's Germany in a year that proved to be a turning point in history.
Like Larson’s other books, the story is presented via alternating threads -- one following Dodd, a quiet history professor and writer who was Roosevelt’s nth choice as ambassador; the other following Dodd’s 24-year-old daughter Martha, whose appetite for parties and romance put her in the milieu of top German officials. Dodd’s frugal, intellectual personality made him uniquely unsuited to the lavish, schmoozing life of a diplomat, and his State Department colleagues’ disrespect for him led them to largely ignore his growing concerns about Hitler. Combine that with the Germans’ own frank disbelief; America’s desire for isolationism after WWI and its desire to not anger Germany before their war debt was paid; and the Depression’s damper on immigration (including Jews trying to flee Germany) and a picture develops about why Hitler’s growing menace was ignored until too late.
Larson provides excellent information, extracted from historical documents and primary sources (letters, diaries, memoirs), including close-ups that show the complexity of top Nazis and several one-on-ones with Hitler. He meticulously includes those excerpts directly in the text rather than in endnotes, which saves the reader having to flip back and forth and seems like a good idea. But, comprising perhaps a fourth of the entire text, the quotes become what is nearly a fatal flaw for the narrative; I have not read a more tedious book. Larson’s pattern is to open a paragraph in his own words, then splice in a supporting quote. At first it seemed riveting; by page 100 it seemed gossipy; thereafter it grew unbearably tiresome, like thousands of research notes on index cards that were printed in chronological order rather than smoothed into a narrative. My rating: a conflicted “recommended.”
(Review based on an advance reading copy provided by the publisher.)
When he was offered the ambassadorship, William had been looking forward to having extra time to spend on his farm in Illinois and to work on a book he was writing. Instead, he and his family were transported to Germany, totally unaware that this was a new Germany, not the same place it was when William lived there years before. Gradually, so gradually it was maddening, he came to wonder if everyone there had gone mad, how there could be all around him such a "strange indifference to atrocity."
After the Dodds' first year (1933 to 1934) in Germany, William was struck by the "willingness of the populace and the moderate elements in the government to accept each new oppressive decree, each new act of violence, without protest. It was as if he had entered the dark forest of a fairy tale where all the rules of right and wrong were upended."
Martha was also slow to accept that she was witnessing evil. Long after she should have known better, she was happy to see that Germany was only trying to better itself. So she enjoyed herself: as a 24-year-old divorcé, she partied often and had affairs with several men, one the head of the Gestapo, another an official from the Soviet Union.
In the meantime, William, new to government work, came to be disliked by many other American government officials and representatives, in large part for his frugality and his criticism of their lack of it. At a time when most Americans were living with or just getting over the Depression, the American representatives in Germany had servants, cooks, chauffeurs, mansions, and new clothes for every occasion. Of course, they shot back with their own criticism that William’s frugality was possible at the expense of the Jewish man who owned the home the Dodd’s were renting so cheaply.
And once he took off his own blinders about the state of affairs in Hitler’s Germany, William also came to be critical of America for being so unwilling to acknowledge what so many witnesses were reporting, so unwilling to criticize the new Germany.
Larson, himself, poses this question when it was still 1934:". . . why were the State Department and President Roosevelt so hesitant to express in frank terms how they really felt about Hitler at a time when such expressions clearly could have had a powerful effect on his prestige in the world?"
So many books have been written about Nazi Germany, I wouldn’t have been anxious to read this one if not for its author. Larson is a master at getting it right and making it readable. Again, with IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS, he’s a historian who wrote not a history book but a book of history that was a page turner.
This is particularly true after William and Martha see Germany as a mere visitor there could not.
But this book of history was, as all history books are, significant because history repeats itself. Or we learn from it and avoid the same mistakes.
This review is of an advanced reader's copy of IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS that I received from Random House through goodreads.com.
William Dodd is a dry, plain, somewhat puritanical man and his daughter Martha is a free-spirited adventurer temporarily infatuted with all the beautiful Aryan men surrounding her. Dodd grows to be one of the early voices warning against Hitler, when the U.S. mood is isolationist and the State Department includes its share of outright Nazi sympathizers. Dodd is not particularly well-liked or successful in his job. Martha affronts the stodgy diplomatic community with her series of affairs. The book deals glancingly with the oppression of Jews; it goes in more depth about the internecine battles among German officials, including a harrowing account of the Night of Long Knives.
I didn't particularly like either Dodd or his daughter. Dodd was portrayed as a fussy bureaucrat whose abhorence of Nazism was sometimes overshadowed by his petulant dislike of other diplomats, but compared to his successor, and others in the State Department, he was prescient and a man of conscience. As for Martha - I have nothing against her promiscuity, it just seemed that she was somewhat vacuous and unserious. Is this true, or just or just Larson's sexism showing?
The author, bizarrely enough, focuses on some of the most boring and unsympathetic characters possible, a stuffy diplomat and his ... promiscuous daughter. How tiresome. Why on earth didn't Larson focus on any of the more interesting figures? He clearly found a lot.
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out --
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out --
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out --
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me -- and there was no one left to speak for me.
With the full knowledge of time this is a horror story. Thinking that so much of the Nazi's evil deeds were ignored and the destruction it eventually brought about is a horror!
Dodd was actually Roosevelt's third choice for the job of US ambassador to Germany in 1933,the dawn of the Hitler reign. He was an intellectual,a Jeffersonian Democrat,a southern gentle man and a patriot in my opinion.
In addition to having to battle the insanity of the Nazis he also had a constant battle with our State Department and various cabinet members in our country. They all also seem to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to what was happening in Germany and made little of Dodd's information relayed to them. The arrogance of these white,social register,ivy league educated men in astounding. They say people do not change but knowing what both my grandfather's from this generation were like and watching Life With father,the old movie, I think some men have actually improved somewhat!
Much of the book is written about Dodd's attractive flirty daughter,Martha. At first she thinks the new Germany is grand but after living there for about a year and seeing some things with her own eyes this opinion eventually changes. Martha had many relationships while in Germany that include high ranking Germans and a communist.
The family experienced the terror of living under scrutiny for most of Dodd's service. In scene after scene in the book it did not make a bit of difference even if you were an American citizen during these years.
When this was over it seemed all the family did not have such a wonderful life in the years to come.
Larson succeeded in making me love the Dodds and their impossible mission in pre-WWII Berlin. Martha was a lively, jazz aged young woman, hell bent on having a good time and throughout not spending too, too much time thinking. She begins by admiring the Germans and this "new" government, and she ends up hating them, and flirting with communism as a kind of antidote, I think.
There is way too much story here for me to summarize it so I'll just state that I recommend it to readers who enjoy history written in a lively, but accurate, manner.
William Dodd had no idea what he was saying yes to when President Roosevelt offered him the position of ambassador to Germany in 1933. Dodd had fond memories of the Germany of 40 years before, when he'd attended college in Leipzig. Upon arrival in Berlin, he and his family discovered a Germany already in the grip of terror, a mere six months after Hitler had been appointed chancellor. Storm Troopers were attacking people in the streets. Communists and liberals were already being sent to concentration camps without due process.
As ambassador, Dodd found he was required to attend diplomatic functions and rub shoulders with the monsters of the new regime. As the horrors worsened, he found this increasingly repugnant, and tried doggedly to convince those in Washington that intervention was necessary. His entreaties fell mostly on deaf ears. Dodd's bosses were more concerned about getting Germany to pay off their huge debt to America, while maintaining an isolationist position with regard to foreign conflicts.
While Dodd struggled with his diplomatic duties, his young daughter Martha was treating her time in Berlin as a lark. She dated and consorted with highly placed Nazis, including some of the most abominable of Hitler's minions. At first, she enthusiastically endorsed the Nazi agenda and its effect on the "New Germany." By the winter of 1933-34, however, she too was living in terror. This didn't seem to put much of a damper on her dating life, though, and she gained a reputation as quite a round-heeled girl.
In late June of 1934 came "The Night of the Long Knives," in which Hitler orchestrated the rapid execution of hundreds of Storm Troopers and other "enemies," some seemingly at random. That August, President Hindenburg died. Hitler quickly took control and achieved absolute power. William Dodd remained in his position as ambassador for three more years, during which American leaders continued to refuse his requests for intervention in Nazi Germany.
This book has already earned a permanent place in my home library. I can't recommend it highly enough. Great care has been taken to provide all the little things that prevent confusion and make a book easier to read and understand. I would give it six stars if I could.
Who doesn't want to start the year with a book about pre-WW II Nazi Germany? I mean, what better way to ease into an attempted double cannonball?
Despite the subject matter, this book is not a challenging read. I read Mr. Larson's book about the Chicago World's Fair (Devil in the White City) either last year or the year before and found it to be good but tough to get through. This book flowed better, although it didn't really end. I mean, obviously, it did, but it felt more like I was reading a very long and exquisitely researched magazine article than a book with a narrative arc.
In the Garden of Beasts follows the U.S. Ambassador to Germany from 1933-1934. William Dodd was a history professor in Chicago when he was asked by President Roosevelt to serve; he brought his wife and two adult children with him to Berlin. The story follows Mr. Dodd and his daughter Martha as they navigate Nazi German, when Hitler was Chancellor and there was still a President who was ostensibly in charge.
The main point of the book is that Dodd wasn't the typical old boys club rich kid ambassador and as such was a bit less interested in the economic issues that the U.S. State Department wanted to address and was more concerned with what was going on with Hitler, the SS, the SA and all the players who we now know were instrumental in WW II and the Holocaust. I have not read a book on WW II or the Holocaust since Diary of Anne Frank, so I can't claim that everything in the book is wholly accurate, but Mr. Larson is known for writing truthful and well-researched historical non-fiction by telling the stories of the people involved, so I assume it is mostly correct.
I'm not sure if I really learned much new by reading the book. I suppose I learned that the U.S. government was primarily concerned with getting back money from Germany as opposed to the oppression and murder of German residents. But I wasn't surprised to learn that. It sort of matches the priorities the political elite have always had: money first, then people – maybe, eventually, if there is time.
If you like history, and are interested in Germany just before WW II, I'm certain you could do worse than this book. Just don't expect a real beginning, middle and end. And be prepared, if you get the non-kindle-version, to mark out the swastikas on the cover. I get not burying that reality, but damn. I don't want to give people a heart attack while reading a book walking down the street that has a few scattered Nazi symbols on it.
This is a fascinating look at a dangerous time in world history when the Western powers could have stopped Hitler, but instead did nothing. Eric Larson, best known for The Devil in the White City has once again proved that reading non-as fiction can be just as engrossing reading a novel.
Review: Once again, Larson proves himself to be a writer with an eye for the untold stories of history, and the skill to bring those untold facets of the past to vivid life. So many pages have been written on World War II, both fiction and non-fiction, that it's hard to imagine each new author finding a new perspective to write about, but Larson does it, and does it with style. Perhaps it's because he reaches further back in history, focusing on the rise of the Third Reich and the slow build to war, rather than on the war itself. And by focusing his story on a family who was themselves out of place in Hitler's Germany, he gives the readers easy access to the unfamiliar parts of his tale. I was engaged and fascinated throughout, even though political history writ large has never really been my thing, perhaps because by blending the history with a biography of William and Martha Dodd, everything seemed much more immediate and alive. I did enjoy Martha's sections more than William's (despite not particularly liking Martha as a person), as they're more personal and lively, whereas some of the diplomatic politicking in William's story got a little tedious, even in Larson's hands.
There were a few places I had problems, though. First, Larson's trick of building dramatic tension by ending every chapter with vague but ominous pronouncements about characters or events (ominous pronouncements that, more often than not, were not brought up again until they were resolved in the epilogue) got very tiresome by about halfway through. It's an effective tactic for driving your reader onwards, but it's overused, and I thought the story had enough drama on its own merits without needing to artificially create more.
I also found the pacing strange, especially near the end. The bulk of the book is spent on the Dodds' first year in Berlin, told in occasionally day-by-day detail. Then, very abruptly, Larson starts covering large swaths of time in single paragraphs, so that Dodd's remaining three years as ambassador take about as many pages as a week or two from the early part of the book. While I can understand why Larson chose to condense time the way he did, I still found that it pulled me out of the story, and took me a while to get settled back into the rhythm of the storytelling again. 4 out of 5 stars.
Recommendation: World War II history buffs will enjoy this one, for sure, but Larson's also a great historian for non-history readers, since he's very good at finding stories and presenting them in such a way that will draw in even the most inveterate fiction readers.
Early in 1933, William Dodd was perfectly content, working as a history professor in Chicago, leading a quiet and humble life. This all changes, when he is chosen to be the new ambassador to Germany. He accepts and soon relocates to Berlin, along with his wife and his son and daughter, both in their early 20s.
This places the family smack in the middle of a dark and rising evil. Anti-Semitism is running rampant. Fear and terror become an everyday occurrence. After a few months, Dodd begins to realize Hitler’s scary objectives and starts to sound the warning, but no one seems to be listening…
Larson is one of our finest non-fiction writers and he has broached another interesting subject. The narrative is a bit dry at times and it doesn’t quite pack the punch of his earlier work, but it’s still strong enough to recommend.
Dodd was an odd choice for the role of Ambassador; a former college professor, he was more interested in American history and getting his book written than in foreign policy. He wasn’t even Roosevelt’s first choice for the job! But Dodd was a very quiet, unassuming man, and his humility is what makes him so likeable. On the other hand, you have Martha, who, apparently, was quite promiscuous; a good chunk of the book deals with her romances with various men—not to mention the fact that she had a husband at home! There’s a tone of disapproval when Larson talks about her affairs, especially since many of them were with various members of the Nazi party. I think Martha was simply looking for affection and attention anywhere she could get it; and when a woman (or man) sleeps around the way that Martha did, there’s usually a deep-seated reason for it. It would have been interesting if Larson had explored that subject more, including the relationship between Dodd and his daughter.
However, the main focus of the book is the Nazi rise to power, as seen through the eyes of someone who was actually there. Larson bit off a lot when tackling his subject matter, especially since it’s still so controversial, and he tells his story is great detail, which is impressive. I learned a lot about 1933 Berlin that I didn’t know. It’s an informative book, but I wasn’t quite as attached to the main players in the story as I might have been.
This is one of countless books about this dark period in time, and some have questioned if another one was needed or wanted. What makes one this different is that it focuses on Dodd and his battle as ambassador, and on his daughter, Martha, his adult daughter who also went to Germany with him, along with Dodd's wife and adult son.
What I found surprising and discouraging is that so many basically good people ignored the early warning signs. As their rights were dissolving, they continued to hold hope that the situation was temporary and would lead eventually to a better Germany. Many of them eventually started turning in their neighbors for petty offenses and imagined insults. It was heartbreaking, and so preventable.
I was also surprised to find how common and accepted antisemitism was in the United States. People in the US actually had some sympathy for the German “Jewish problem” because they viewed the US as also having a Jewish problem. And civil rights in the US were still criminally inadequate. It was hard for the US to complain about things that were happening in Germany when atrocities such as lynchings were still happening here. Dodd himself expressed some antisemitism. Dodd was also being actively undermined by political powers in Washington.
I had much less empathy for daughter Martha. She embraced the whole German culture, turned a blind eye to anything that seemed disturbing, and seemed to value her numerous love interests over everything else. She came across as selfish and shallow, a thrill seeker with poor morals and less common sense. She certainly was interesting, though.
I haven't read the author's other books, although The Devil in the White City is high on my to-read list. This one is well worth reading, a good story wrapped around a fascinating and horrible time in history. The book is very well written. A couple of the metaphors that the author used seemed jarring to me, but that is a minor thing. I prefer footnotes to the end notes that this book had, but that is also relatively minor, a formatting issue. Most importantly, I simultaneously learned from and was captivated by this book.
Thank you to the publisher for providing an advance reader's copy. I had already ordered a hardback copy, and the hardback is the one I read.
The strength of the book was in resisting the temptation to portray anyone as if they should have known more than they could have. These were just people thrust into an unfamiliar situation and trying to make sense of it. The weakness was that the story is just too diffuse; Dodd isn't much of a diplomat (unsurprising, since his background was in academia), so he's ineffectual in his role. Martha comes across as shallow and naive, not wanting the ugly realities to invade her good-time party. There's no one to really root for, and no satisfying ending except that Dodd's instincts were right about the direction the German government was heading.
This book looks at the rise of the Nazi party at the end of World War I through the eyes of the American ambassador to Germany, William Dodd and his daughter Martha. I thought I knew a lot about this topic but I learned so much more. For instance Hitler was vegetarian! The man who would go on to be responsible for the death of millions of people wouldn't hurt animals. In fact the animals of Germany were treated a lot better than the humans. This book did a good job of explaining why America and really the rest of the world turned a blind eye to the atrocities that were occurring in Germany. It turns out that America was more concerned about getting repaid for the war bonds from Germany and was willing to let a lot slide in order not to rock the boat. Before I read this book I knew that the Nazi's were bad but I really had no idea the depth of horror that they inflicted on people. No one dared to stand up to them because by the time they realized what was happening it was too late. Anyone who tried to stand up to them was made an example of as was their family. People were paralyzed with fear.I found it helpful to read further on the internet about the many people, places, and events that were touched upon in this book. For instance Larson briefly touches on Action T4, Germany's plan to euthanize all the people who they felt were undesirable. The headquarters were located in the same neighborhood that Dodd lived in. What I learned about that program gave me nightmares. The cruelty done to innocent ,sick people, especially children made me physically sick. In fact anytime the Nazi's wanted to test something out, they just rounded up children to experiment on. The few people who tried to speak out against the crimes against humanity were either not believed or silenced with murder. The book ends with the Night of long knives in which Hitler ordered the death of anywhere up to a thousand of his former friends. At that point Hitler was free to proceed with his reign of terror without fear of opposition.
This is not a fun beach read. If you fully explore all of the facts in this book you will be sickened and repulsed. It is however extremely fascinating and this book is important so that everyone remembers the horrors of the final solution so the lessons from that time are not lost. I highly recommend this book. It is another excellent non fiction work from Erik Larson.
There's plenty of conflict to be had in the story. Dodd began by making excuses for Nazi actions, as did many Germans - people were unable to believe the nastiness would continue, and hoped it stemmed from some of Hitler's staff and that he would eventually reign them in. It was also not clear at first the extent of the evil.... people were aware of the arrests and concentration camps, but not their extent. Martha was at first enamored of the Nazis and dated several of them, including Rudolph Diels, head of the Gestapo, though under him it was not quite as bad as it became later.
Dodd also encountered a lot of conflict with the diplomatic establishment. He did not fit in and had no desire to do so. The other diplomats and state department officials were an old boy's club of rich and elite men. Ambassadors spent lavishly of their own wealth. Dodd didn't have that kind of money to spend and didn't believe in spending more than was allocated to him as ambassador. One result is that the Nazis, who appreciated wealth and glamour in ambassadors, were not impressed with Dodd. Nor were they happy that, as time went on and he became more aware of Nazi horrors, he tended to speak out against them - obliquely, rather than in a more forthright manner, but it was understood and angered the Germans. Martha, with time and a greater acquaintance with the Nazis, became less enchanted with them, especially after falling in love with a man named Boris attached to the Soviet embassy.
Larson is a terrific writer. In writing the book he absorbed an amazing amount of primary documents, and picked the right events to cover to make an absorbing story without overwhelming the reader with too much detail. The book is highly recommended, even to those who don't think they like history.
It was during this time, over a period of just over four years, that William Dodd served the government of FDR and moved to Berlin as the United States Ambassador to Germany. He was 64 years old and really wanted to remain in America, retire and complete his memoir, “Old South”, but he felt he owed it to his family and his country to accept. Living in Germany, with his wife, Martha, and two children, an adult son and daughter, both namesakes of their parents, William and Martha Dodd, he tried to warn FDR and the diplomatic staff about what he believed was coming down the pike, but was thwarted at every turn. He lived a humble life, not born with a silver spoon as most diplomats were and was the object of their scorn and ridicule; his attempts to warn the government about the horrors in Germany, were often undermined by the others in the diplomatic corps. His brief sojourn pretty much sucked the life from this well-meaning, but ill-equipped, sincere representative of the government. His prescient remarks, often laughed at, proved to have been correct, and if heeded, might have altered the turn of events and prevented the genocide that occurred as Hitler attempted to rule the world.
From the prologue, the author had me. I had assumed the history of Hitler’s Nazi Germany might be a bit dry, but not so, this book is liquid, fluid, hot lava…igniting my thoughts and my interest. I think the writing style and organization will be less important, in the end, than the information and message delivered, however, both are superb. The book takes place predominantly through the period of 1933-1934, although it does extend in the last few dozen pages into 1937-8 very briefly.
Wiliam Dodd was a mild mannered academic and gentleman who was asked by FDR, to be Ambassador to Germany in 1933, almost as a last resort, because no one else would accept the position in a country many believed was undergoing a radical change, with increasing violence, under the leadership of the new Chancellor, Adolf Hitler. Already, in that early part of the decade of the thirties, the evil and brutality of Hitler and his thugs was well known but kept hidden for political and diplomatic purposes. The leaders of the free world would soon rue their decisions not to challenge him when they had the opportunity.
Dodd was naïve and largely unaware of the daunting task before him, as he set sail on July 5, 1933. He did know, however, that anti-Semitism was commonplace and acceptable in many places in our country, as well as abroad; his instructions were basically to do what he could to alleviate the brutality against them but not to interfere in the overall German policies toward Jews.
William Dodd remained in character: bookish, professorial and also naïve. He was improperly briefed as to what to expect. The evidence of Hitler’s atrocities and madness, were only beginning to show themselves and they were not obvious in the center of major cities but rather in outlying areas. Jews were in small numbers in major cities, but already there were laws governing their activities and employment. The ambassador, in typical liberal academician fashion, sought to allay the fears these demonstrations aroused and to spin the stories so that they were not so unfavorable, but were rather aberrations. He even tried to quell them entirely to keep them from the public eye. He believed that the horror stories he was told about how Jews were treated were grossly exaggerated and also believed that it was not the job of the United States to be involved. He believed diplomacy was the only way to deal with problems. At first, he did not believe in making waves. Eventually, Dodd realized that his misgivings about Germany were growing, and he could no longer dismiss the brutality of Hitler and his henchmen, but it was already, too late; the train had left the station and the Holocaust was inevitable.
As Hitler rose in power, anyone daring to speak out against his regime, risked being arrested, tortured, imprisoned or murdered. They might simply disappear. Programs were enacted to create and enhance an atmosphere of fear, tension, terror. Everyone knew they could be in mortal danger for no apparent reason other than the caprice of a government flunky who might take notice of them. Timing could be everything and the timing of the world in its response to Germany’s Hitler was abysmal. This is a wonderful book and a lesson to humanity that “he, who hesitates, may indeed be lost.”
I recently read The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, and that book did such a marvelous job explaining the Jim Crow south, the black migration to the north, and the resulting turmoil throughout the country that I can't help comparing these two books and wishing In the Garden of Beasts came closer to The Warmth of Other Suns in its analysis of the time and place.
I enjoyed it nonetheless, but not without some misgivings. It is a sort of personal historical narrative that is interesting in the same way as a journalist's report on a current affairs story might be. The exception in Larson's narrative (and it is one that gives an otherwise mundane story all of its narrative kick) is the background events. Indeed, some of his readers may have read other books about the events that form the background for his narrative.
I do have some criticisms of the book: first, Larson is a good writer, but not the master of narrative non-fiction some would claim him to be; second, this story is a straightforward narrative, and with all the background fireworks due to the ascension of Hitler to full-fledged dictator the book is not as exciting as I expected; and, the story is narrowly focused on William Dodd and his daughter Martha. Martha's view of the Nazi's whom she increasingly meets in social situations seems startlingly naive at first, but it evolves as successive realizations impinge upon her psyche:
“The smell of peace is abroad, the air is cold, the skies are brittle, and the leaves have finally fallen. I wear a pony coat with skin like watered silk and muff of lamb. My fingers lie in depths of warmth. I have a jacket of silver sequins and heavy bracelets of rich corals. I wear about my neck a triple thread-like chain of lapis lazulis and pearls. On my face is softness and content like a veil of golden moonlight. And I have never in all my lives been so lonely.”
While their story is interesting, one wonders why Dodd's wife and son were relegated to the background.
From the beginning, Dodd is out of his element as ambassador in spite of his intelligence and his quoted speeches seem stilted while his attitude toward the professional embassy employees appears provincial. From the opening chapters it is clear that he was not Roosevelt's first or second choice -- in fact it is mere chance that he was recommended to Roosevelt at all. It does not take Dodd long find this out for himself. It is to his credit that, even though he would rather be spending his days writing his history of the old South, he perseveres and works hard to do his best as representative of the United States.
I did enjoy the book as a whole, impressed by the connections Dodd made with other countries' ambassador's and how he kept a level head (his "cool" one might say today) while Berlin and much of Germany was in constantly increasing turmoil. The narrative holds the reader's attention and I experienced not a small bit of suspense. It might even serve as a catalyst to further, more detailed and serious, reading about the history of Hitler and The Third Reich. I know it did for me.
Although some of the background information in the beginning of the book is dry, it is essential to understanding the political and social climate of the time. Once that foundation is laid, the author explores the interactions of the Dodd family with the Nazis and other foreign diplomats, showing how they were at first drawn in by the glitz and glamor of the Nazi leaders and how that relationship slowly soured over time.
The biggest surprise for me in this book was learning about the high level of anti-semitism within the United States in the years prior to World War II. It was appalling to me that those attitudes of anti-semitism were not only accepted, but seen as the norm.
In fact, when the US Senate tried to pass a resolution in 1934 that would force Roosevelt to speak against Jewish persecution, it didn’t pass – in part because of the country’s own issues with civil rights.
. . . if he complied with it he would not only incur the resentment of the German Government, but might be involved in a very acrimonious discussion . . . to explain why the negroes of this country do not fully enjoy the right of suffrage; why the lynching of negroes . . . is not prevented or severely punished; and how the anti-Semitic feeling in the United States, which unfortunately seems to be growing, is not checked. Page 241
The author does a wonderful job of showing the ambassador’s humanity and fallibility without laying the blame for his diplomatic failings completely on his shoulders. He explains the difficulties that all of the foreign diplomats in Germany were facing at that time, and leaves it to the reader to decide where the fault lies. While it would have been easy to castigate Dodd and malign his character based solely on the reports of his colleagues; Larson digs deeper to look at the pressures and difficulties he faced while in Germany, to which his stateside colleagues would have been unable to relate.
Larson uses many primary sources, such as diaries, to reconstruct both the social and political lives of the Dodd family. My favorite person to read about was Martha Dodd (the ambassador’s daughter). It was fascinating to see how she was enchanted and taken in by the initial glamor of the Nazi officers with all of their pomp and showmanship. It was equally mesmerizing waiting to see when she would realize the true character of the men with which she had surrounded herself.
The author succeeds in educating the reader about the German leaders and officers; recreating in words an oppressive atmosphere and bringing both the leaders and the Dodds to life on the page – their quirks and faults included.
I highly recommend In the Garden of Beasts to anyone with an interest in World War II Germany.