A Review of In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

I like reading about World War II, especially in the form of non-fiction. Erik Larson’s account of the American ambassador to Germany in the 1930’s was both enlightening and sad. William E. Dodd was appointed by Franklin D. Roosevelt to go to Berlin in 1933. It seemed he was doomed from the start.

Dodd was not well liked by the State Department of the United States. He was a professor at the University of Chicago and researched early Southern history, but also owned his family’s farm in Round Hill, Virginia. It really was the place where he felt most at home. The fact was, being appointed ambassador to Germany was not a coveted position in 1933. Dodd brought his family: wife Martha (Mattie) and his two children with him. His daughter, Martha and son William Jr. were both in their twenties. Dodd lived a frugal lifestyle and brought his beat up Chevrolet along with him. He soon would be scorned by the Germans and the American government that sent him.

Talk about being between a rock and a hard place. Dodd sensed something terrible was brewing in Germany, but no one in America seemed to take his warnings seriously. Furthermore, his daughter, Martha became known for her affairs with both Germans and a Russian spy. The family lived in what Dodd requested: “modest quarters in a modest hotel” near the “Tiergarten” of Berlin. Larson described the Tiergarten as Berlin’s equivalent of Central Park. The name literally meant the “garden of the beasts.” It once had served as a hunting preserve for royalty. Ironically, other “beasts” prowled, ruthlessly tyrannizing Germany during the time of Dodd’s stay.

Dodd became increasingly convinced that the Nazi regime was the prelude to something terrible stirring in Europe, but his cries seemed mostly to fall on deaf ears. He remained a farmer at heart, and would sometimes be able to go home to his farm for some times of rest and relaxation. Dodd and his family were in Germany on the Night of the Long Knives, a time of purging within the Party itself. It happened in the summer of 1934.Eighty five people died and more than a thousand political opponents were arrested.

A few days later, his daughter left to tour the Soviet Union while Dodd stood amazed that the purge had not caused anger among the citizens of Germany. About a week later, he wrote that he had a sense of horror looking at Hitler, and began to wonder if he should resign. Things did not improve as time went on, and finally by the end of 1937, Dodd was recalled from his position.

Larson paints a portrait of tragedy for William Dodd, but also a man who stood by his principles when it was not politically expedient to do so. He ended up paying a high cost. Larson writes anecdotes to accompany his notes section and actually made them interesting to read! I will probably try to read some of his other works: bestselling The Devil in the White City, and Isaac’s Storm seem especially appealing.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in learning a mostly unknown part of America’s role before World War II actually broke out in Europe, and anyone who would like to observe a profile of courage in most dangerous times.

Incidentally, the book shows a picture 100_1230of the “Tiergarten” which was seen from the Dodd’s hotel where they lived in Berlin: bombed out by the Russians, a desolation after the war.


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Filed under learn from lessons of history, non fiction, World War II history

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