Review of “In the Garden of Beasts” by Erik Larson

The non-fiction history In the Garden of Beasts describes the changes in Germany in the early 1930’s after Hitler came to power, through the eyes of the Dodd family, all four of whom traveled together to Berlin in 1933.

William Dodd had been appointed German Ambassador in 1933 by President Roosevelt after four others had turned down the position. Ambassador Dodd, who rose to prominence by virtue of his academic achievements rather than wealth or position, retained his poverty-mindset as an adult, and moreover was rather stuffy and a bit of a party-pooper. His 24-year-old daughter Martha, however, more than compensated for his stick-in-the-mud qualities. In addition, she kept a diary and later published a memoir, Through Embassy Eyes, from which Larson drew heavily. Thus Larson recounts Martha’s many affairs with anyone and everyone in Berlin, including an early head of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels.

In 1933, Hitler was not considered a serious entrant on the world’s political stage. Nevertheless, he was able to put into effect a remarkable number of outrageously appalling laws and practices with hardly a dissenting voice anywhere. In fact, the campaign known as Gleichschaltung to bring all citizens and organizations in line with Nazi beliefs and policies came to be known as Selbstgleichschaltung, or self-coordination, because of how Germans so willingly “placed themselves under the sway of Nazi rule.” New rules included a number of punitive measures against Jews, as well as censorship and restrictions on criticism. One result was the infamous “Night of Long Knives” in June 1934 when Hitler had any and all dissenting voices permanently silenced. Interestingly, after Hitler’s purge (one SS officer claimed some five hundred had been killed and 15,000 arrested), the country breathed a sigh of relief: it was assumed that now the violence and fear of reprisals would be over. Instead, of course, it was only the beginning. They should have gotten the hint: three days later, Hitler’s cabinet made all the murders legal, justified as actions taken “in emergency defense of the state.”

What was the U.S. doing all this time? Above all, the State Department, recruited mainly from a wealthy, homogenous, and by-and-large anti-Semitic elite, was much more concerned with Germany’s failure to repay its debts to American creditors than its behavior toward Jews. Indeed, some of them were sympathetic to the anti-Jewish measures, as were the Dodds – at first anyway.

The Dodd Family: from l to rt: Bill Jr., Dodd’s wife Mattie, vampy Martha, and stuffy Dodd

But there was another problem with the U.S. speaking out. As R. Walton Moore, Assistant Secretary of State, explained to Dodd in a memorandum, if Roosevelt were to speak out against what the German Reich was doing to the Jews, he would be in a double bind:

“If he declined to comply with the request, he would be subjected to considerable criticism. On the other hand, if he complied with it he would not only incur the resentment of the German Government, but might be involved in a very acrimonious discussion with that Government which conceivably might, for example, ask him to explain why the negroes of this country do not fully enjoy the right of suffrage; why the lynching of negroes…is not prevented or severely punished; and how the anti-Semitic feeling in the United States, which unfortunately seems to be growing, is not checked.”

Ah! Hypocrisy! There was the rub!

Eventually, Dodd became horrified by the German government, and it destroyed his health along with his desire to stay. The State Department was no less dissatisfied with him, since he tended to criticize their extravagence, and was not vigilant enough about getting loans repaid. (Dodd, who could see the German build-up of armaments, knew that Germany would absolutely not allocate any funds to paying off Americans.) He was finally recalled at the end of 1937.

By that time, Martha too had become disillusioned with the people she had once thought to be thrilling and even noble. She even went so far as to become a Soviet spy. As she left with her family in 1937, she wrote:

“I had had enough of blood and terror to last me for the rest of my life.”

Martha in a glam pose

Evaluation: Having read a zillion books on the Holocaust, I appreciated that this one provided a fresh approach, one that not only began its coverage of Hitler’s Germany from very early on, but one that focused on Americans and the reaction of Americans on the scene. I also liked finding out about the Nazis’ reactions to and interactions with the American and international press and diplomatic communities. Yes, it’s a niche book, but a niche book is just what is needed in a subject area that is already very heavily populated with histories. And yes there are a lot of names and details, but for those familiar with the history of the Nazi regime and WWII, these are all already quite well-known. I thought it a welcome addition to the many books about the Third Reich.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., 2011


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26 Responses to Review of “In the Garden of Beasts” by Erik Larson

  1. I have this one on my iPod, but lately I have not been able to read books about the Holocaust /wars etc. Maybe some day, but for now after reading your review, I don’t feel like there is any sense of urgency. Nice job with this one Jill; Thanks

  2. Sandy says:

    Devil in the White City is on my top 10 list ever. I love books that take an event or a true story and dig in, and because of my love for all things WWII, I figured this was a sure thing. Not. On audio, I was bored out of my freaking mind. It was everything I could do to finish it. Plus I was less than impressed with any of these people. And this Martha! You’d think she looked like Marilyn Monroe, based on how many men were falling all over her. I don’t get it!

    • Totally with you on not getting why Martha was such a femme fatale! The funny thing is, I read another book recently, a memoir, in which the author talks about how her father had an affair with Martha! (when she was back in the United States). I marveled …..!!!

    • softdrink says:

      EXACTLY what Sandy said, except I read it. But I was bored, too…too many people to keep track of!

  3. Mystica says:

    Thank you for a honest review. The subject has been dealt with it is true but this is from a totally different angle.

  4. Barbara says:

    I too loved Devil in the White City and will read anything Larson writes so this is on my list for sure. I like the idea of a unique view of the Nazi rise to power. The Dodd’s weren’t the only ones fooled at first.

  5. This sounds fascinating. After reading Sandy’s review, I think I’ll try it in print. I need to find out what was so special about Martha!

  6. Ti says:

    I like Larson’s writing, so I may get to this one at some point. I had it on my list forever but then it dropped off. It’s been so long.

  7. Like Sandy, Devil in the White City is one of my favorites. I have meant to read this for quite some time now, but I read so many WWII books for a while there that I needed to take some time in-between. Definitely sounds like I need to read this one as well, versus the audio. That Martha sounds pretty snappy, wonder why the fascination with her. Will have to check that out.

  8. Thanks for your in-depth review. I enjoyed this book, actually listened to it. here is my review:

  9. bookingmama says:

    I didn’t love this one but I’m far from an expert on the subject matter — unlike you! I learned some things for sure but I wanted more.

  10. This sounds very good. I like the fact that it offers an honest perspective about attitudes in Europe and America at the time — Hitler was not considered a serious threat and there was little concern about anti-Semitism. It’s not exactly as it’s sometimes portrayed in history books. Thanks for a thoughtful and eloquent review. I am adding this book to my list.

  11. Jenners says:

    I listened to his “Devil In The White City” earlier this summer and thought it was great. But I read a lot of negative reviews for this one. Still, it does sound like it covers an important period of history.

  12. I liked this one, and yes it did have a lot of details. I felt for Dodd, for the situation in Germany and the way he was treated by his peers.

  13. ds says:

    I, too, loved Devil in the White City, but that was a different sort of book entirely. This one was an eye-opener in terms of the extreme indifference with which the US State Department treated Dodd and his reports of what was happening in Hitler’s Germany; that Hindenburg, who had the power, did not stop the monster; that anti-Semitism was so rife within this country. (I marked the same passage that you quoted. Sure, we would have been “hoist on our own petard” so to speak. But still…) What is that saying? All that is required for evil to prevail is that good men do nothing? Here is the proof.
    Larson never mentions what happened to the Dodds’ landlord…
    Excellent review, Jill. Thank you.

  14. This one seems to really give the reader an inside look at the attitudes towards Germany, Hitler, and the Jewish people from firsthand accounts. Sounds like a good read.

  15. I loved The Devil in the White City, but have been on the fence about this ever since it was released. You’ve got me slightly more interested but, especially in light of Sandy and Fizzy Jill’s, I doubt I’ll get to it very soon.

  16. Heather says:

    I loved Devil in the White City too (Chicago = awesome) but I was nervous to read this one after seeing what seemed like a lot of negative reviews. You have given me a little hope, though, that maybe I’ll like it.

  17. Trisha says:

    I have this one hiding on the shelves somewhere, and someday I shall find and read it. 🙂

  18. Jenny says:

    I think it’s fascinating to read about the way countries responded to Hitler before he started conquering all of Europe. I have not yet read any Erik Larsen (eek, I know, I am so far behind the blogosphere on this), but this looks like a good one to start with.

  19. Lisa says:

    I had some trouble with this one but it had more to do with focus, than detail. It seemed that on one hand this was supposed to be a story of Dodd’s time in Germany but Martha was so much more often the focus. Still I really learned so much about the cause of the U.S. reluctance to intervene and grew to have an appreciation for Dodd even though he was such a milque toast.

  20. Alex says:

    Like you I’ve also read several books about WW2 and thought this one offered a fresh approach. I think it was the first time I read about life during the Reich’s climb to power from the perspective of the foreign elite in Berlin.

  21. Athira says:

    There is definitely a humongous amount of books in this genre, so much so that choosing which one to read is pretty hard for me nowadays. That said, it is nice to have books approach the subject from different perspectives, giving us yet another insight into the topic that everyone knows a lot about.

  22. zibilee says:

    I have heard that this book is very polarizing, and so I haven’t yet gotten it. Some have raved over the amazing storytelling, and some have been really unimpressed with it. I sort of have a thing about reading WWII novels. I read so very many in my first three years of blogging that I tend to shun them now unless they are really amazing. I am sort of on the fence about this one, at least for now. I loved how you got into the history behind this book though, you did a really great job with this review.

  23. Glad you liked it overall. I bought it awhile back but still haven’t read it. I keep seeing it on my shelf and thinking I need to start it, though. 😉

  24. aartichapati says:

    Hmm, do you think this would work as an audiobook? It’s available at my library, but I feel like a book with a lot of names and dates would be difficult to digest audibly for me.

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