In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Eric Larson is, in some aspects, not a normal nonfiction book. This book has an underdog, a villain, a chanteuse, and a country coursing toward war. This is the story of William E. Dodd and his family and their often hectic and frustrating stay in Berlin prior to the start of World War II.
William Dodd was not like most U.S. ambassadors. Dodd did not look, dress, talk, or entertain like normal ambassadors at that time. Dodd was a history professor at the University of Chicago, not a man of generational money like most U.S. ambassadors. Many viewed this as a major handicap in doing his job.
When Dodd went to Germany, Hitler’s power was rapidly increasing. Not only were German citizens being arrested, beaten and worse, what complicated matters for the America was that U.S. citizens, whether living in Germany or visiting, were also victims of the regime. The German ambassador would also be expected to keep pressure on Germany to repay reparations from World War I.
Dodd went to Germany with his wife Mattie and his two grown children Bill and Martha who were going for the adventure. To complicate Martha’s life, she was going to Germany as a secretly married woman whose marriage was falling apart, and she had recently begun having an affair with the poet Carl Sandburg.
When they landed in Germany, the Dodd’s did not make a good impression on the rest of the embassy staff. His assistants did not think Dodd was the sort of man who should be ambassador in part because of his lack of money. Dodd was replacing a man who had been rich, and had brought 10 of his own servants to serve him. Dodd, who was determined to perform his duties by using only his salary and not his savings, could only afford one servant.
In Germany, the Dodd’s were witnesses to history. There were many times that American citizens were accosted on the street for not showing the German Storm Troopers proper respect, although no foreigners were supposed to be bothered. Jews were rounded up, and many enemies of the Nazi’s were executed. Dodd rarely felt his reports on these matters were treated seriously enough back home in America.
Also, throughout their time in Berlin Martha took many lovers, and even though her parents were fairly conservative, there is no evidence that they took exception with her activities. A great deal is written about her affairs and the famous Nazis she spent time with, as well as other men. She even had a blind “date” with Hitler.
In the Garden of Beasts is a book about a famous period in European history, but what makes it more interesting is being told from an American perspective. This is a good book for anyone interested in World War II, interested in Hitler, and interested in people who are willing to battle for what is right.