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

“In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin” by Erik Larson (2011) – 448 pages

 I usually don’t read much non-fiction.  There are at least two reasons why not.

  1.  Frequently the prose in non-fiction is kind of wooden.
  2.  A lot of non-fiction, while claiming to be factual, is actually self-serving.  Political memoirs are a complete loss in this respect, but even in history and other subjects, the author might be shaping the facts to promote his or her own view.  Ironically, I find fiction to be more honest and trustworthy than non-fiction in many cases.  Perhaps fiction gives the author the necessary shelter and distance so the author can be more genuine and true.

 

However I’ve heard so many good things about Erik Larson’s book ‘The Devil in the White City’ I decided to read his latest, ‘In the Garden of Beasts’.  The critics have even come up with a new genre for Erik Larson’s work which is ‘novelistic history’.  While still being history, his books have many of the qualities of fiction. 

   “In the Garden of Beasts” is the story of William Dodd when he became ambassador to Germany in 1933 soon after Adolf Hitler became President of Germany.  Actually the two main characters of this book are William Dodd and his soon-to-be divorced daughter Martha Dodd Stern, both of whom left a large amount of detailed written documentation about their time in Germany.

 As an ambassador William Dodd was kind of a stumblebum.  When Dodd first got to Germany, occasionally a tourist from the United States would get beaten up by over-fervent Nazi party members, because they weren’t paying proper attention to a Nazi rally or did not give the ‘Sieg Heil’ salute.  At first Dodd sought to quiet the news coverage of these so as not to embarrass the German leadership. 

One time radio commentator H. V. Kaltenborn visited Germany and was very impressed with the Nazi government until towards the end of his visit when his own son got severely beaten up for not paying enough attention to a Nazi rally. 

 Ambassador Dodd also complained about the large number of Jews on his embassy staff, because it might look bad to the German government.  Both Dodd and his daughter had the garden variety of United States anti-Semitism common at the time.           

 If William Dodd was a stumblebum as an ambassador, his daughter Martha was a major embarrassment.  She had just separated from her husband, and she was ready to party and date.  She dated and slept with several prominent Nazis including Rudolf Diels, head of the Gestapo.  She also dated a Russian spy.  When she first arrived she was quite excited by the Berlin nightlife and social life. 

 “In the Garden of Beasts”, by showing the less than good side of ambassador Dodd and Martha, achieves a level of veracity it might not otherwise have had.  If these people had been excellent from the beginning, the account would have been questionable.  As it was, these were just plain people dealing with an impossible situation. 

 As the months went by, the Ambassador met many of the Nazi leaders including Goering, Rohm, and Hitler himself.  The rabid vicious contempt these leaders expressed for Jews and the accounts of organized Nazi violence against Jews soon sickened both Ambassador Dodd and Martha.  It got to the point where ambassador Dodd wouldn’t even meet with the German leaders. 

 The climax of the book is the Night of the Long Knives, the night of June 30, 1934 when Ernst Rohm was purged as leader of the “SturmAbteilung”, the Nazi militia also known as the SA.  That night several hundred others within and outside the government were murdered so that Hitler could consolidate his power. 

 This is very readable history.  Erik Larson does bring the qualities of fiction to the history.  Certainly the documentation was extensive, but still certain liberties are taken  At one point the book states that ‘He took hold of Martha’s hand and looked into her eyes.’  There are many of these kinds of descriptions which really didn’t bother me. 

 “In the Garden of Beasts” is probably the best argument for reading history I’ve read in a long time.

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5 responses to this post.

  1. Good review, Tony! What I particularly liked about this book was the fact that it is a different slant on a historical event about which so much has been written. Reading about it from the point of view of an American family in Berlin drew me to the book. I learned a lot from it!

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  2. Hi Jeanie,
    Yes I learned a lot from the book too, and I liked the American slant. I kept thinking that other guy in the embassy, forgot his name, would probably have done a better job as ambassador than Dodd, because he couldn’t be fooled so easily.

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  3. This is just up my street and I will now try to order it from the library (my book budget is spent up at the moment). Fictionalised history is now a burgeoning genre and it works very well much of the time. I enjoy books like this so long as they are well reasearched – as this one appears to be.

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    • Hi Tom,
      I think you will enjoy this book. There have always been historical novels. This is a different beast, a novellized history. Except for lines like ‘He looked into her eyes’., nothing is made up in this book, so I think it does qualify as history, It is all based on the written documentation. I suppose one could say there is a continuum from fiction to non-fiction instead of either/or. Not sure this continuum is a good trend, but I’ve seen too many cases where supposed history has been slanted to advance political goals

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