Saturday, May 21, 2011

REVIEW: In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

The year is 1933 and with Adolph Hitler the newly appointed Chancellor in Germany, the situation in the country is starting to heat up. President Franklin D. Roosevelt needs a man on the ground as Ambassador in Germany who can handle the delicate situation that is starting to unfold there. The problem? No one wants the job. After rejections from multiple candidates, Roosevelt settles on William E. Dodd, a history professor for the University of Chicago. Dodd accepts the position in the hopes he will have more time for writing his novel than his current grueling schedule at the University allows. Dodd, his wife, son, and his daughter Martha set off for Berlin and for the next five years find themselves occupying a front row seat to the rise of Nazi Germany and the injustices committed as Hitler seeks ultimate power. Larson's In the Garden of Beasts is a fascinating eye-witness account of the rise of Nazi Germany as seen through the experiences of Ambassador Dodd and his daughter Martha.

Before picking up this book, I had never heard of Ambassador William Dodd but through him and his family Larson does an excellent job of answering the questions: What was it like in Germany during Hitler's rise to power? and Why didn't the US react to the events that were unfolding there sooner? Here we get an insider view of the main players during this time in history: Gestapo chief Rudolf Diels (who seems to have been one of the few in the Nazi party with a conscience), Hitler's henchmen Goebbels and Goring, head of the SS Heinrich Himler, Ernst Rohm-head of the SA (the brown shirts), and the Fuhrer himself. We see why Dodd had such a challenging job-he didn't fit the mold of a typical Ambassador which caused others to dislike him, he took Hitler's assurances that violence against the Jews and Americans in Germany would cease at face value which would prove to be a mistake, and he faced opposition at home from the Harvard educated good old boys club that made up the state department-a group he wasn't a part of.

We also get an insider look at the volatile situation in Germany through Dodd's daughter Martha. At first she is enchanted with the Nazi party and the idea of a new Germany but over the course of time as she realizes the seriousness of the events unfolding around her, and comes to see the Nazi regime for what it is. Martha is a social butterfly who entertains many suitors throughout the course of the book, from Diels to Boris Winogradov, a Russian who worked as a spy for the Soviets. Martha had a very active personal life which gave her access to Ambassadors for foreign embassies and influential members of the Nazi party. Truthfully, I didn't care for Martha with her many lovers (and a husband back home!). She came off as very naive but her side of the story proved to be quite fascinating.

As with Devil in the White City which I read a few years ago and loved, this book is very detailed and well written. Through this book I have come away with a clear picture of the dangers of living in Berlin during the rise of Hitler and of the failure on the part of the US to act with their approach to the situation being the equivalent of an ostrich with it's head in the sand-if I do not see the threat it isn't there. I really felt for Dodd and the seemingly insurmountable task he was up against. I recommend this book to anyone interested in this time period, the events leading up to WWII, the US point view, and the rise of the Nazi party.

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review


  1. Nice review! I'm on the hold list for our library's copies and can't wait! :)

  2. I didn't read your review (I have this one for review myself), but I DID look at your star rating, which lets me know that I am in for a treat!

  3. I love Erik Larson - loved The Devil in the White City and I can't wait to pick up this one!

  4. Erik Larson really knows how to tell a story. This is a true story of our ambassador to Germany stationed in Berlin right before World War ll and how the Nazis came to power.If you enjoy history, don't miss this story.
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  5. 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.

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