Book Review: In the Garden of Beasts

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

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My 51st and last book for 2011 🙂

William E. Dodd was an unassuming university professor appointed as the Ambassador to Berlin in 1933 during Hitler’s ascent to power. He looked forward to the commission, welcoming the escape from the hectic university life to have time to finish writing his book “The Old South.” This is the story of how he, his wife, son and the utterly modern Martha grew in turns, charmed, defensive, skeptical, disillusioned then deathly afraid of, life in Berlin.

The first part of the book was a bit of a bore to read, cycling through embassy politics! Martha has an affair! Charming Nazis! Martha has another affair!. Yes, there were episodes of Nazi violence against Americans and Jews but like the characters, they were too few, too infrequent and too horrific to ever think it was more than propaganda. The one scene where Martha and friends saw a German woman beaten and humiliated on the streets for marrying a Jew as so chilling that I cannot blame the characters for dismissing the event as part of a nightmare, so unreal were the actions of the mob.

The latter half to the book picked up the pace a bit and successfully painted a city gripped in tension. The events leading to the Operation Hummingbird/Night of the Long Knives were written well and had the feel of a real thriller. All the charming Nazi’s ceased to be delightful and were either killed or killing others by the end of the book.

I probably would not read this book again but I rated it four stars because it spurred me to open up a few history websites and read up on 1930s German politics and World War 2. I learned a few things. (I now know the difference between SA, SS, Gestapo and why they hate each other so!).

Now, as to the question whether William Dodd was a fool or not. He was an eccentric for sure, and slow to pick up the truth re Nazi discrimination. But when Dodd turned, he kept doggedly fast to his ideals and campaigned tirelessly re the impending German storm despite America’s indifference.

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