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[586] In the Garden of Beasts – Erik Larson

beast

” The thing that weighed on hm most, however, was the irrationality of the world in which he now found himself. To some extent he was a prisoner of his own training. As a historian, he had come to view the world as the product of historical forces and the decisions of more or less rational people, and he expected the men around him to behave in a civil and coherent manner. But Hitler’s government was neither civil nor coherent, and the nation lurched from one inexlicable moment to another. ” (Ch.16, p.133-134)

In the Garden of Beasts captures a year that proved to be the turning point in history. In 1933, Adolf Hitler was the chancellor of Germany, but he was eying for the president post, seeking absolute power over the country and its military forces. At the dawn of a very dark time, many candidates for ambassadorship in Berlin had already shown their reluctance to take the post even before Hitler’s ascent to tyranny in an increasingly menacing Germany.

As Erik Larson has pointed out, the mild-mannered, unassuming William Dodd was not even on the list of candidacy. Roosevelt was supposedly to offer the job to a Yale law professor named Walter F. Dodd but made a mistake looking up the name. Unlike many of his wealthy, socially connected Ivy League fellow diplomats, Dodd was a relatively impecunious historian, chairman of the department at the University of Chicago, who dreaded the obligations an ambassadorship shall entail. But toward a retirement age, he felt compelled to complete his writing project on the antebellum American South. So he did not arrive in Germany predisposed to an insidious regime that mistreated a fraction of its population and deprived of its civil rights. Let alone to realize Germany has emasculated the League of Nations and nullifies the Treaty of Versailles.

As time passed the Dodds found themselves confronting an amorphous anxiety that infiltrated their days and gradually altered the way they led their lives. The change came about slowly, arriving like a pale mist that slipped into every crevice. It was something everyone who lived in Berlin seemed to experience. (Ch.31, p.225)

In the Garden of Beasts has the clarity of purpose to see Germany in the gathering dark of Hitler’s rule, through the eyes of a uniquely well-positioned American family. The book takes a small instant of modern history and gives it specific weight, depth, and meaning, with intersecting stories, and individual accounts that personalize oppression and terror. It also makes every aspect of the Dodds’ domestic lives reflect the larger changes around them. The mansion let from a Jewish banker on Tiergartenstrasse is just down the street from a mansion where the Nazi euthanized people with severe mental and physical disabilities. Although Dodd is not made for high diplomacy, and never rose to become a great statesman, the book appreciates his inherent backbone, the mounting, tense provocations that he faced, and the inevitable meeting with Hitler. Through the toughest years, in what might be the worst job ever, he had clung to dignity and modesty, with also a sense of history, because his office recognized the US Government’s reluctance to condemn Germany’s barbarous despotism and Jewish persecution. His dealings with the Nazis were relatively few, so much less than his flirtatious daughter, who inserted herself into the Berlin social fabric and involved romantically with even ranked Germans. Equally shocking is the antisemiticism on the part of our State Department.

448 pp. Broadway Paperbacks. Paper. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

7 Responses

  1. I loved this book – I was fascinated by the seemingly first hand accounts that this family was able to provide. Larsen does a wonderful job talking about this part of history.

  2. I loved this book very much. I was shocked that so many people in the US did not even believe Dodd’s accounts of what was taking place in Germany

  3. Great review, Matthew! Reminded me that I still have this on the TBR pile. I need to get to it.

  4. This book was so fascinating. I had no idea just how much antisemitism there was in the US at that time. Really great look at the start of the war.

  5. I listened to this one on audio, and honestly I was counting the minutes until it was over. I blame the narrator completely. It was just a disappointment after I found his “Devil in the White City” to be one of my favorite books of all time. I was fascinated with this story though…an interesting perspective on WWII and Hitler.

  6. I listened to the audiobook too, and I agree the narrator sounded pretty bored by the whole thing… Brilliant story though, with a wonderfully unassuming and unlikely hero; I’m looking forwards to getting stuck into a paper copy.

  7. I have this one set aside to read on my vacation in September. I’m glad to see you think so highly of it.

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