In 1933, William Dodd, a Chicago academic, is appointed the first American ambassador to Hitler’s Germany. He enters this cauldron accompanied by his family, most particularly by his very modern daughter, Martha. Larson shows us the quickly changing Germany of 1933 through their eyes. Eric Larsen has a talent for taking a big event, like the Galveston flood of 1900 (Isaac’s Storm), the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 (The Devil in the White City) , or the implementation of the transatlantic cable (Thunderstruck) and combining it with a compelling individual’s story. He uses the broader context of historical events and personalizes it, so that, in effect, the parts become greater than the sum of the whole.
Dodd took a job that no one else wanted. FDR had been trying for months to find a new ambassador to Germany. Finally, when Dodd’s name was suggested, FDR offered him the job. In many ways, Dodd was an odd choice as ambassador: although he had studied in Leipzig as a student and was at least literate in German, Dodd had no old family money, no political connections, and loathed double-dealing and pretense of any sort. He was a plain-spoken fellow who had worked his way up from humble beginnings as a farm boy to assuming a professorship at the University of Chicago.
Once the family arrived in Berlin, they had to find housing. After some weeks of searching, they took a lease on an imposing house at Tiergartenstrasse 27A. The house was the home of a Jewish private banker and his family, who continued to occupy the attic. Meanwhile, the Dodds had the run of the bottom three floors of the lushly appointed home, which included a ballroom, a library, and a sufficient number of other rooms to see to the needs of an ambassador’s family.
Unbeknownst to Dodd at the time of his arrival, his new home was also within “brick throwing distance” from the headquarters of the SS, and barely removed from the facility codenamed “Aktion (Action) T4,” for its address, Tiergartenstrasse 4. In the SS building, people were being imprisoned, tortured and killed. Two blocks away in T4, the Nazis began murdering mentally and physically impaired people, as well as beginning research on methods of mass killing that would end with the introduction of Zyklon-B gas into the concentration camps.
I grabbed In the Garden of Beasts at the airport bookstore, riveted at it for two hours at the United Lounge and another hour and a half on the flight. It’s an addictive read and I had only put it aside because the plane was touching down in Las Vegas where I’ll spend the 4th of July long weekend. I’ll most likely pick it back up by the pool.