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

I wasn’t a huge fan of the first Erik Larson book I read, the immensely popular The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the man considered to be America’s “first serial killer,” H. H. Holmes. Larson is a fastidious historian and he’d clearly done his research, but I still felt at times like I was reading a textbook. That said, his slightly plodding writing style didn’t deter me from picking up his latest effort, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. I treated it as thesis research :-).

Again, Larson has done his homework. Every single sentence between quotation marks comes from actual public-record documents. No detail is too small to be ignored—what people wore, their personal proclivities, the interiors of the Berlin restaurants they frequented—and it is this astonishing commitment to accuracy and to the verisimilitude of the expatriate life in 1930s Berlin that makes In the Garden of Beasts read like a novel. You can’t wait to relive what happens next. 

The book follows William Dodd—President Franklin Roosevelt’s appointment as US Ambassador to Germany in 1933—and his family (most importantly, his beautiful 24-year-old daughter Martha, who later became a Soviet spy) as they navigate the turbid waters of personal and political diplomacy in the early stages of the Third Reich. Dodd, formerly a University of Chicago historian, arrives in Berlin when the Sturmabteilung (SA, or Storm Troopers) are harassing foreigners for failing to return Hitler salutes, and leaves in 1937, before the Anschluss or the annexation of Czechoslovakia or Kristallnacht or any of the “major” events that foreshadowed the Second World War and the Jewish Holocaust, back when most world leaders still naively assumed they could contain Hitler. In five years, Dodd morphs from a reluctant diplomat (he views the Berlin post as a sinecure that will allow him to research and write his planned academic tome on the American South and seems to spend the majority of his first year in Berlin railing against the extravagant lifestyles of foreign service members, all while harboring his own anti-Semitic prejudices) into a veritable Cassandra, warning the US State Department of Hitler’s imminent threat to world stability and peace. Needless to say, nobody listens. Dodd, in fact, wrote to Roosevelt after the German invasion of Poland to say I told you so: “Now it is too late.” Dodd died in 1940, more than a year before the US would enter the war.

In the summer of 1933, Berlin was still buoyed by the cultural vibrancy of Weimar, and the Dodds, especially Martha, were enchanted. Germany finally seemed to be casting off the shackles of Versailles and re-embracing Bismarckian notions of national greatness; after the raw deal the Germans had received after World War I, Dodd figured, why shouldn’t the country be allowed to “try its schemes”? The historical debate over what exactly lay the groundwork for the rise of Hitler, the Second World War and the Holocaust will endure, of course, and In the Garden of Beasts doesn’t attempt to answer that question, but Larson does implicitly marvel at the fact that Hitler was so (relatively) easily able to convince the world he wanted peace, even as he stealthily rearmed Germany behind their backs. Maybe Europeans were just weary of war and couldn’t bring themselves to believe that a return to such anomie was imminent? Maybe Americans just thought the Nazis exemplified a healthy brand of nationalism that wouldn’t go as far as it did? Maybe they all thought Hitler was basically a clown and couldn’t be taken too seriously? The book concludes with the Night of the Long Knives in the summer of 1934—the purge of the SA—almost immediately after which Hitler used the death of President von Hindenburg to assume total power. It’s an appropriate place for Larson to suspend the narrative, despite the fact that the Dodds would spend three more years in Berlin; when Hitler violated the Weimar Constitution and merged the Chancellorship with the Presidency, Germany’s fate was sealed. The most exhilarating moments of the book occur when Vice-Chancellor von Papen delivers the famous Marburg speech criticizing the tactics of Nazi regime; it could have been a turning point, Larson is saying—there was still a chance that Hitler could have been legitimately removed. That he was not is, of course, one of history’s greatest tragedies, and In the Garden of Beasts makes that tragedy all the more palpable more than 75 years later.

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