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

by Erik Larson

Hardcover, 2011

Call number

943.086 LAR



Crown (2011), Edition: 1st, 464 pages


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.

Media reviews

William E. Dodd was an academic historian, living a quiet life in Chicago, when Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him United States ambassador to Germany. It was 1933, Hitler had recently been appointed chancellor, the world was about to change. Had Dodd gone to Berlin by himself, his reports of events, his diary entries, his quarrels with the State Department, his conversations with Roosevelt would be source material for specialists. But the general reader is in luck on two counts: First, Dodd took his family to Berlin, including his young, beautiful and sexually adventurous daughter, Martha; second, the book that recounts this story, “In the Garden of Beasts,” is by Erik Larson, the author of “The Devil in the White City.” Larson has meticulously researched the Dodds’ intimate witness to Hitler’s ascendancy and created an edifying narrative of this historical byway that has all the pleasures of a political thriller: innocents abroad, the gathering storm. . . .

User reviews

LibraryThing member detailmuse
In the Garden of Beasts documents William Dodd’s term as U.S. ambassador to Germany -- primarily his first year, beginning July 1933, and primarily as it relates to Hitler’s ascent from newly appointed chancellor under President Hindenburg to leader of the Nazi regime.

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.)
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LibraryThing member techeditor
IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS by Erik Larson, author of DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, is the nonfiction story of the Dodd family in Germany, pre-World War II, beginning after Hitler came to power there. The Dodds are Americans, William, the ambassador to Germany, with his wife and two adult children. The accountings are largely taken from or based on the writings of William and his daughter, Martha; Larson also adds background so the reader is aware of of what the Dodds’ wittness.

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
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LibraryThing member CasualFriday
Erik Larson is king of the "nonfiction for fiction lovers" genre. Who didn't like The Devil in the White City? His latest book, about the first American ambassador to Nazi Germany, is more serious in intent, but just as much of a page-turner.

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?
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LibraryThing member TooBusyReading
(nonfiction) William Dodd just wanted some quiet time so that he could finish his planned multi-volume work about the Old South. He thought that a position as the US Ambassador to Germany in the relative calm of post-Great War Germany would allow him plenty of time to write. What he didn't know is that Roosevelt had asked several men before him to fill the position, and all had refused. And he didn't know how much power the new chancellor, Hilter, was gaining in Germany.

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.
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LibraryThing member TheJeanette
Be prepared to stay up reading into the wee hours once you get your hands on this book. It held my interest better than any novel, and it filled in all the gaps in my understanding of how Hitler was able to gain so much power so quickly, with so little opposition. Erik Larson used the detailed diaries of William E. Dodd and his daughter Martha to reconstruct "a year in the life" for Americans in Berlin from 1933 to 1934.

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.
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LibraryThing member brenzi
This is a biography really of a man who just happened to fumble his way into the ambassadorship to Germany in 1933. He didn’t want to be there, nobody in the State Dept. thought he was doing a very good job, and, coincidentally, neither did Hitler nor his henchman. Rather, William E. Dodd wished to be home in North Carolina, working on his epic history of the South. But Roosevelt tapped him and he accepted the position and moved to Berlin with his wife and two grown children, Martha and Bill. Bill is a cypher but Margaret, waiting for her divorce to finalize, utilizes her position to attract several men in the German hierarchy, as well as a Russian, and solidifies her reputation as a harlot with the Germans she comes in contact with.

Conditions in Germany deteriorate over the next four years as Hitler rises and the march toward war and the total elimination of the Jewish population continues. Hitler eventually decides certain men in the upper ranks are plotting against him and the purge is on. It became known as The Night of the Long Knives, where several hundred (no firm number known) people were slaughtered by Hitler’s men. Dodd, who had failed to actually speak up about “the Jewish problem” in all this time knows that he can no longer hold his tongue. The enemies he’s made in the State Department want him gone though and manage to oust him.

I really enjoyed the audio along with the book I had on my shelf. The combination worked really well. I was already in the right frame of mind for the Nazi tales as this book came on the heels of [The Mitford Sisters]. I kept waiting for Unity or Dianna to pop up at one of the many social events described in the book but sadly, they never did. Still, the book was very informative and detailed how the goings on in the 1930s led to war and the Holocaust. The German society, who could certainly see what was happening, didn’t seem to know how to react. And it’s unfortunate that we had such a weak ambassador, who did little to get the information out. Great stuff. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member akreese
In the Garden of Beasts presented the unusual opportunity to learn what life was like for diplomats in Germany during the rise of Hitler’s third Reich.

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.
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LibraryThing member etxgardener
In 1933, William E. Dodd, an unassuming history professor from the University of Chicago, and certainly not FDR's first (or even 5th) choice, was named Ambassador to Germany. He packed up his family (his wife, his under-achieving son, and his promiscuous daughter) and his battered family Chevrolet and headed to Hitler's Germany. At first he thinks that he can reason with the Nazi officials he encounters, just as his daughter thinks she can romance them much as she did the boys back home. Both assumptions are horribly incorrect. As Dodd becomes more familiar with the horrors of the Nazi regime, he tried to warn the President and a mostly disinterested State Department, both of whom were more concerned about collecting Germany's war debt than addressing the shredding of civil rights in that country. His daughter, Martha, also becomes disenchanted with her Nazi lovers and veers to the other side of the political spectrum with an affair with a Soviet diplomat who was also an NKVD functionary.

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.
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LibraryThing member jwhenderson
Almost since the day it was published I received recommendations from friends that I should read The Devil in the White City. After all, I live in Chicago and I am a reader. But perhaps it is because I am a serious reader that I did not rush to read that book, in fact I have yet to read it. I have seen the author speak on CSPAN's BookTV about his book on Marconi's creation of radio, Thunderstruck, and that book sounded interesting as well. But here I am, in 2012 and instead of those books I have just read his latest, In the Garden of Beasts, primarily because my book group is reading it.
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.
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LibraryThing member krazy4katz
I did not enjoy this book. The history is fascinating. Most of what I know about Hitler and Nazi Germany is from the perspective of its victims during WWII. Seeing the build up of the Third Reich through the eyes of Mr. Dodd -- the plain-spoken, southern historian who served as ambassador to Germany in the 1930s -- and his socialite daughter Martha -- is quite unique. The narrative provided insights into the infighting, paranoia and truly vicious propaganda machine from people who knew the members of Hitler's cabinet personally. Yet, the writing seemed choppy and awkward. Going back and forth between Dodd's official life, his problems with the State Department and Martha's love life, encompassing everyone from journalists to Nazis to communists to who knows what was disconcerting. I wished I had liked it better. The subject matter was well worth the effort.… (more)
LibraryThing member fyrefly98
Summary: In the Garden of Beasts tells the story of the build-up to World War II from the point of view of people who experienced it first hand: the American ambassador to Germany in the 1930s, and his family. William Dodd was a history professor by training, not a diplomat, and may have seemed an unlikely choice for the representative of U.S. interests in Germany during such a pivotal time. Arriving in Germany a few months after Hitler was appointed chancellor in 1933, Dodd and his family, particularly his lively socialite daughter Martha, had a front-row view of the building popularity of the Nazi party... and the growing climate of suspicion and fear that was slowly co-opting the glorious vision of "New Germany."

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.
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LibraryThing member creynolds
While I learned quite a bit about the build-up of Hitler's power prior to the beginning of WWII, I have lingering reservations about the book in general. My theory is that Ambassador Dodd and his daughter Martha were avid journalers, so he had lots to include about them in this book. The other two in his family have virtually no personalities, as far as the reader can tell. Also, I think there's a little too much emphasis on Martha's sexual exploits, While interesting, it almost feels more titillating than truly valuable to the story of prewar Germany. Finally, I don't think that the overwhelming disapproval of Dodd by the State Department is fully explained.
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.
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LibraryThing member Doondeck
One of Larson's best. He weaves a great tale out of the life of an obscure ambassador during the rise of Hitler. Some questions unanswered: Why no mention of the 1936 Olympics when Hitler was upstaged by Jesse Owens? What happened to the Jewish family living in Dodd's Berlin residence?
LibraryThing member kp9949
Not a huge fan on non-fiction; however, if the subject is one I'm extremely interested in, I will read such a book. WWII and Hitler interest me very much. After reading a glowing review, I felt that this was a book I would tackle. It was worth my time. Ambassador Dodd and his family arrive in Berlin before the war actually begins so they really have in insiders view of the changes in early-Hitler Germany. His daughter is really an insider -- not only does she make friends everywhere she goes but she takes on a series of lovers some of whom are Nazi officers. A very interesting read.… (more)
LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
Eh. A quick pop-history look at the early years of the Third Reich. Lots of interesting characters are kept in the background, and only shown in little bits. Journalists, Reichsministers, and tyrants all shown too briefly. At least the book got me interested in finding out more about these ancillary figures.

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.… (more)
LibraryThing member lindapanzo
This is a tremendous book by the author of The Devil in the White City. It tells of the years spent in Berlin by an American professor of history from the University of Chicago, William Dodd, who served as our ambassador to Germany, and his family. At a time when seemingly no one wanted the job, Dodd agreed because he thought it'd give him plenty of time to complete his magnum opus on the history of the American South. Instead, he found himself wrapped up in the early days of Hitler's rule as an ambassador, a job ffor which he was thoroughly unsuited.

Written with a liveliness and an ease that made this book read almost like a novel, it is fascinating in several different ways, first for its glimpse of everyday life and life among the upper echelons in 1930s Germany (the book focuses mainly on the first year of Dodd's ambassadorship, 1933-1934). Secondly, the insights into the life of an ambassador were extremely interesting, particularly when that ambassador met Hitler and other Nazi leaders.

Now this might all sound a bit dull but I assure you, it was not. Dodd chose to take his family with him. His daughter, Martha, a 20-something seemed to have numerous affairs. Before the family moved to Berlin, Martha had an affair with poet, Carl Sandburg. She was a good friend of Thornton Wilder and, in fact, kept a photo of Wilder in her locket.

Once in Germany, she had an affair with Nazi who was the head of the Gestapo. In fact, incredibly, with all the political infighting and constant danger surrounding high level officials, that Gestapo head wanted to be seen with Martha because it afforded him more protection. Martha also had an affair with a Russian man from the embassy who was encouraging her interest in all things Soviet. For me, the parts involving Martha and all the events swirling around here were the most interesting part of the book. I'd love to track down a book entirely about her.

Highly, highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member Kasthu
I’ve read Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City twice, and also Thunderstruck; so when this book was offered on Amazon Vine, I jumped at the chance to read it. Devil in the White City and Thunderstruck are books that deal with crime; In the Garden of Beasts is a little bit different. In this one, Larson traces the story of the Nazis’ rise to power, from the point of view of an American diplomat and his daughter. William Dodd spent four years in Berlin, but this book focuses on the first year. In reality, the whole family went over to Berlin; but it’s the stories of William and Martha Dodd that are much more interesting.

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.
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LibraryThing member jvassar
This is an example of a set of historical events which are woven together in a masterful way that captivates and then holds the reader until the story ends. This book is set in Pre-World War II Germany, primarily in Berlin from 1933 until the end of 1937. The story is an account of a family’s time during this tumultuous period in Germany primarily through the eyes of a newly appointed diplomat (William E. Dodd) and his high-spirited daughter Martha. Martha's escapades in German social life are a significant and exciting part of this story. Without the intimate details of her romantic intrigues with German and Russian men, we would have missed much of what was on in Germany at this time. For example, we would not have known about the high-placed German who tried to fix Hitler up with Martha—as it turned out, Martha only met Hitler briefly with the only exciting thing that happened was a kiss of her hand by the Furher. Ambassador Dodd is portrayed as an “outsider” who receives this Berlin post because FDR found it difficult to find anyone willing to accept this appointment as the war clouds gather over Europe. Professor Dodd is Chairman of the history department at the University of Chicago who desired a diplomatic appointment so that he can complete his goal of writing a book on the history of the old South. His wife and son are also part of his family who were in Germany at this time but only play minor roles in the account. An interesting part of the story is the animosity that is directed to Dodd from the State Department (Secretary Cordell Hull) primarily because he does not subscribe to the cultural norms of the U.S. Diplomatic service. He hadn’t graduated from the “right” university nor received the “proper” diplomatic indoctrination. Dodd is personified as a highly frugal Ambassador who is a “penny-pincher” and drives around Berlin in his Chevrolet rather than a Mercedes-Benz. Hitler “plays” a stalling game with Dodd and the U.S. so that he has more time to militarily prepare for the plans he has for the future. Dodd, however, sees through Hitler façade and is constantly warning FDR that Hitler and his henchmen are bad guys. There are several times that Larson states that if Hitler had been dealt with in a firm and proactive way that he would not have been able to accumulate and exert his military power and perhaps might not have been able to put together such a powerful war-machine. In retrospect, Larson portrays Dodd as a “light” in a forest of darkness in regard to understanding Hitler and his true nature. Isolationism and a pacifistic bent are subthemes in the story and are pictured as part of the cultural norms of the Department of State and diplomatic service . A latent anti-Semitic mood also seems to pervade throughout Europe as well as elements of the U.S. government. History does not have to be boring and this book is an example of an account of historical events that reads like an action-packed fictional novel!!! If all historical studies could be as exciting as this account we would probably have an over abundance of historians!!!… (more)
LibraryThing member msf59
Yes, we have another apocalypse building, but this one was does not involve zombies or vampires but an equally terrifying threat: the Nazi party.
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.
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LibraryThing member JeffV
After Larson's superb Devil in the White City, I was greatly looking forward to In the Garden of Beasts. Largely following the American ambassador to Germany during Hitler's rise, up to about the start of World War II, it is written in the style of his other books: that is, in the form of a novel, yet completely non-fiction. The problem is, ambassador William Dodd himself is not a terribly dynamic character. He took the post out of a sense of obligation, but never relished it. His response to growing violence and all around nuttiness by Hitler, Goering, Himmler, and the rest of the fun bunch was to basically avoid them when at all possible. There are some attempts to explain policies of appeasement, but they are half-hearted, and not make any substantive indictments. The parallel story of Dodd's daughter's romantic saga disinterested me completely.

What I wanted to hear about was personal stories about interactions with principal figures of the Nazi regime, and there was tantalizingly few. Dodd observed the transformation of unlikely political leaders into the monsters they became, but when the killing starts, him and his German friends do their best to fade into the background and not call attention to themselves. A wise decision, and many of these associates lived long lives.

In his book, The Devil in the White City, Larson follows the story of a serial killer operating parallel to an also interesting story involving a World's Fair. This book needed a similar thread; perhaps following the rise of one Hitler's evil minions, or possibly a lesser-known villain form the ranks of the SS. Larson's cast of characters, and the time he spends with each, simply do not create as compelling of a story in this book.
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LibraryThing member queencersei
In the 1930’s William Dodd lived a comfortable, though professionally frustrated life as a professor at the University of Chicago. In 1933 he accepted an appointment by FDR as America’s first ambassador to Germany under the Hitler regime. Accompanying Dodd were his wife and two children, including his vivacious 24 year old daughter, Martha. At first the Dodd family, particularly Martha, is beguiled by Germany. Risen from the ashes of WWI, this Germany seems a model of friendliness and well-ordered, industriousness. Hobnobbing with the likes of Goebbels and Goering and other Nazi leaders the Dodd’s at first are unable to grasp the true intentions of their new acquaintances.

But as harsh anti-Semitic laws are passed and unprovoked random street attacks occur on Jewish and American civilians the Dodd’s glossy image of the Nazi rule is slowly stripped away. Eventually none of the Dodd’s is able to ignore or explain away the menace that Hitler and his regime represents. Tragically, a complacent people, both inside and outside of Germany refuse to acknowledge the murderous rampage that Hitler unleashed in 1934 with the Knight of the Long Knives was merely the prelude to the Nazi's horrific main act.
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LibraryThing member Renzomalo
With “In The Garden Of Beast,” Erik Larson once more immerses his readers in the lives and times of his focal characters, Ambassador William Dodd and family, as they make their way from their peaceful, academic life in Chicago to the emerging caldron of pre-Nazi Berlin. Living within walking distance of the Reichstag, Ambassador Dodd is witness to Hitler’s manic drive to power and among the first to recognize his ultimate goal. He is also the first among many to be ignored as “the new Germany” frantically rearms and prepares to dominate Europe.
Like David McCullough, Larson writes living history in which the reader is absorbed into the facts and the feel of the events unfolding on the pages. Rife with details and personal accounts, “In The Garden Of Beasts” has the literary flow and drive of a well-crafted political thriller. A wonderful read in which the reader, while generally knowing how things evolved, keeps hoping the ending will somehow change; that the “night of the long knives,” Dachau, or Auschwitz won’t happen. But they do happen, and this time, the reader is witness as the atrocities, large and small, take root.
Four and a half stars from this old fart. And, as with his other offerings, a few more pictures of the described events would have completed the immersion and earned Mr. Larson that illusive extra half point. I’m sure he’s wringing his hands even as we speak, wondering why he didn’t. Maybe next time.
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LibraryThing member ASKelmore
Three Stars

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.
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LibraryThing member arielfl
This book has been making the rounds of the must read lists including Oprah's summer reading list. I am already a fan of Erik Larson having read The Devil in the White City which contains the single most haunting scene I've ever read when he describes the outline of a poor murdered girls footprint on the locked door of the room she was gassed to death in. Thinking of that scene still gives me chills. I knew I would enjoy his latest effort.

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.
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LibraryThing member reannon
This book was my introduction to Larson, and what a great introduction it is! Larson writes non-fiction with the tautness and suspense of a thriller. The book is about William Dodd, a history professor who by an odd set of circumstances became the U.S. ambassador to Germany less than a year after Hitler became chancellor. Dodd took his wife, and adult son and daughter, to Germany with him, where they resided for about four years. Daughter Martha is as much a part of the story as her father, as they are the two who left the most documentary evidence of their life in Germany, writing diaries or memoirs.

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.
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