In The Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

Mussolini (left) and Hitler sent their armies ...
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Anyone interested in history, and particularly World War II, will enjoy reading this book. Written in a very accessible way, the book tells the story of America’s first ambassador to Germany when Hitler comes into power. It is a true story and gives an outsider’s point of view of the changes happening in Germany at that time and the rise of Hitler.

No one wanted the job of ambassador to Germany in June 1933. As newly elected president, Roosevelt had to fill the position of the ambassador to a country going through a brutal revolutionary change. Eventually, he chose mild-mannered professor from Chicago, William E Dodd, who at 64 was ready for a change from his professorial life. His main ambition at that stage was to finish the book he was writing about the history of the Old South. He was looking for a job that was ‘not too demanding, yet would provide stature and a living wage and, most important, leave him plenty of time to write.’ And so he accepted the ambassadorship when Roosevelt phoned to offer him the position.

He left for Germany with his wife, son and flamboyant daughter, Martha. From then on, the book focusses on Dodd and his daughter and very little is written about the wife (also called Martha) and the son. The family were initially housed in an opulent hotel, which went against Dodd’s desire to live ‘most inconspicuously and modesty’ but he understood that the German officials would expect his standard of living to be worthy of his position. On their first night in Berlin, they saw no soldiers nor police and, as they walked through the Tiergarten (the large park in Berlin), Martha reflected:

I felt the press had badly maligned the country and I wanted to proclaim the warmth and friendliness of the people, the soft summer night with its fragrance of trees and flowers, the serenity of the streets.”

Once the family was in their official residence, so began the protocol of diplomatic entertainment, which Dodd abhorred. He was overwhelmed by the number of people and the vast cost. Protocol would have it that senior German officials were invited, so many Nazis visited their house, most of whom the Dodds found charming. For example, Dodd found Goebbels to be ‘one of the few men with a sense of humour in Germany’. Goring (I don’t know how to do the umlaut on top of the o) was considered likeable.

Someone who especially found many of the Nazis attractive was Martha. As a character, Martha is astonishing. She was considered beautiful and she was a woman who enjoyed her sexuality. She seemed to sleep with countless men and flirt with even more. Often she saw two or more men at the same time, none of whom seemed to mind. She found the Nazis attractive and this flavoured her view of Germany, in which she saw much good in what was happening. I am astounded that her parents didn’t try to curb her behaviour, but she seemed to be able to do what she wanted with whoever she wanted and became part of Berlin society.

Throughout the book, we are exposed to this dichotomy where many people thought that Germany was on a new path being led to better things, and the others who recognised the anti-Semitism that grew by the day. Dodd was unsettled by the attacks upon Americans, all of whom were Jewish. In his first meeting with Hitler, Dodd complained about the attacks, to which Hitler ‘was cordial and apologetic’.

Though the session had been difficult and strange, Dodd nonetheless left the chancellery feeling convinced that Hitler was sincere about wanting peace.

Yet Dodd soon wavered in this belief, feeling a foreboding that the path Germany was on was violent and discriminatory. Dodd made himself unpopular amongst his staff, many of whom felt he was on the wrong track with his opinion of Hitler and the Nazi party.

It would be an extremely long review were I to go through the trials and tribulations that Dodd encountered in his position as ambassador, so I will leave it to the reader, suffice to say that by 1937 the stress of the job caused Dodd to deteriorate health-wise and resign. Roosevelt was reluctant for him to leave and persuaded him to stay on six months longer. Once back in America, Dodd embarked on a campaign to raise the alarm about Hitler and his plans, and to combat the increasing drift in America towards isolationism.  He warned that ‘Hitler would be free to pursue his ambitions without armed resistance from other European democracies‘.

Dodds Presents Award to Normandy Veteran
Dodds Presents Award to Normandy Veteran (Photo credit: DUP Photos)

You know the dreadful outcome of that warning. It seemed as though Dodd had not taken a strong enough stand to help prevent the events from happening, yet the book concludes with the sentence:

‘In the end, Dodd proved to be exactly what Roosevelt had wanted, a lone beacon of American freedom and hope in  a land of gathering darkness’.

Hitler, however, must have felt he was a threat. Years after the war, old documents were discovered in which conversations between Hitler and his men came to light. In one of them, Hitler berates his colleagues by saying, “To think that there was nobody in all this ministry who could get his clutches on the daughter of that American ambassador, Dodd – and yet she wasn’t difficult to approach.’

I would whole heartedly recommend this book for anyone interested in history.


Author: Nella

Constant reader, sometime writer, school resource manager. I can't imagine a life without books, nor my children, my cats, my dog, my family, my friends. I belong to two book clubs, and I don't mind whether I read a paper book or an electronic one - as long as I read.

5 thoughts on “In The Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson”

  1. As I was reading your review, I was wondering if this will be made into a film, it seems to be a popular thing currently to take certain hisorical figures and show something of their lives, it’s the alternative history lesson sadly, in a age where fewer people pick up the book.

    I do hope you read ‘The Snow Child’, I think it would be an excellent choice for a book club too.

  2. It appears that there is a film being made with Tom Hanks in it. I don’t like Tom Hanks in general, but it probably will be worth seeing. Unfortunately, a lot of children learn about history through watching films nowadays, but I suppose it’s better than not learning about it.

  3. Our book club is reading In the Garden of the Beast this month and I am just about to start it. So glad that you say it is written in an accessible way. I was a little bit concerned that it would read like a history book!.

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