There began to appear before my romantic eyes…a vast and complicated network of espionage, terror, sadism and hate, from which no one, official or private, could escape.
In the Garden of Beasts : Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin
By Erik Larson
The time is 1933, the place, Berlin, when William E. Dodd becomes America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany in a year that proved to be a turning point in history.
As that first year unfolds and the shadows deepen, the Dodds experience days full of excitement, intrigue, romance—and ultimately, horror, when a climactic spasm of violence and murder reveals Hitler’s true character and ruthless ambition.
Erik Larson has a wonderful way of turning non-fiction subjects into near literary-narratives. He uses excerpts from letters and diaries to create voices for his characters, he blends historical research with narrative flow, and he can make you forget at times that what you are reading is fact rather than fiction.
Unfortunately though, this book was kind of boring. Which says a lot considering its subject matter- pre World War II Berlin.
In the Garden of Beasts is the story of the Dodd family. Appointed ambassador to Germany in 1933, William E. Dodd navigates the political climate during Hitler’s rise to power, encountering several major Nazi players along the way. The issue that I had though, was that none of the information was especially new, especially if you have even the most basic grasp of World War II History.
The central message of the book was that the international community did basically nothing to stop Hitler’s ascension. Jewish persecution was either downplayed or ignored, and violence was brushed off over and over again. The entire narrative was essentially this: bad thing happens to a foreigner or “non-Aryan”, barely anything is said about it internationally, the situation continues, repeat over and over. And we all know what happens in the end. It makes you angry to read about, but at the same time none of the information was particularly new.
A side narrative of the whole thing was Dodd’s daughter Martha and her seemingly endless affairs (including with a Russian agent and Gestapo chief Rudolf Diels). This part of the story was a tad more interesting to me as it was an unknown component. However, it too had a very static arc until the epilogue.
Should You Read This?
When I read non-fiction, a primary goal is to learn something about the topic I’m pouring through. I just didn’t get that here, which is why I’m rating this book as “alright.”
If you have no background knowledge of 1930s Germany, it might be worth picking up. As previously mentioned, the writing is pretty engaging for a non-fiction work. However, if history does happen to be your cup of tea, and you have a good grasp of the era, you can skip this (and read Devil in the White City instead- it was far more interesting!)
Summary from Goodreads