Thursday, October 25, 2012

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson (2011)

A while ago (like before we bought our house), my lovely friend Corie lent me a copy of In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson (2011), and I lamely have just gotten around to reading it. I really like history books, and I've been interested in reading Larson for quite some time. In fact, I might be one of the only people in the world who hasn't read The Devil in the White City yet (but I will someday soon, I swear!).

In the Garden of Beasts covers the Dodd family's time in Berlin in the mid-1930s, right at the start of Hitler's chancellorship and the increasing power of the Nazi party. William Dodd was a history professor at the University of Chicago who thought an ambassadorship would be a good way to get a break from the hectic academic lifestyle so that he could focus on his multi-volume history of the South. Through an odd series of events, including the fact that no one else wanted it, he was assigned by Roosevelt to be the Ambassador to Germany and he and his wife and two adult children, Martha and Bill, packed up house and moved to Berlin.

As you might expect, he got very little time to work on his book.

The Nazi's already had quite a bit of power in Germany at the time and reports of attacks on Jews and other groups of people, including American citizens, were rampant. The US was feeling very isolationist after WW1, and didn't want to get involved, plus they were pretty sure that Germany would eventually pay all the debt they owed the US as long as we didn't poke them too hard about the Nazi issue. Dodd, a man with no diplomatic experience, and who didn't fit the wealthy, well-traveled, high society ambassadorial model, was an interesting choice for the job.

Dodd vows to live within his salary in solidarity with his fellow Depression-era Americans, and quickly rubbed his ambassadorial staff the wrong way with his penny pinching ways. He hated state dinners, mandatory cocktail parties, and the complicated rituals of calling on members of the Nazi party and foreign dignitaries.

Dodd's daughter, Martha, on the other hand, loved the social life in Berlin and quickly became the talk of the town. Martha was in her 20s, had had several passionate affairs, and had recently been secretly married. When the break-up of her marriage and her father's appointment to Berlin coincided, she easily made the decision to go with him. Once there she embraced every part of the Berlin social scene, including all those blond, handsome Nazis.

Both William and Martha were initially charmed by Berlin and believed that the reports of violence and oppression were exaggerated. Naziism to them seemed like a mix of good health, love of country, and comradery. As the family became more involved in day-to-day life in Germany, however, the attractive facade quickly faded.

This book is well written and nicely researched, and it draws extensively on archival collections of correspondence as well as Martha's published and unpublished memoirs. The first chunk of the book moves more quickly than the last third or so, where things start to run out of steam, but overall the pacing is good. Having learned so much about WWII and the Holocaust, it was interesting to read a close study of the early years of Hitler's rule. Definitely worth a read. And don't skip the footnotes!


I just discovered that a film version of the book is in pre-production starring Tom Hanks and (possibly) Natalie Portman. With the French guy who directed The Artist directing! Very interesting....


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One of Martha’s good friends was Mildred Fish-Harnack, the only American sentenced to death by Hitler. In 1943 she was beheaded. Of course, by 1943 anyone in Germany who spoke out against the Reich was in mortal danger. I remember watching an excellent documentary about Mildred Fish-Harnack. (You can find it at the Wisconsin Public Television site.)

An excellent historical read, made so interesting because of the author’s access to so many letters written by the parties.

Marlene Detierro said...

Well written, well documented and a "can't-put-it-down read"! I enjoyed it from start to finish and was impressed with the photos which were one that have not been in every story about the era! An excellent author again writes a great book!

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