After I finished Erik Larson’s latest book, Dead Wake, I made sure to go out and track down another one. Not since Stephen Ambrose have I enjoyed a historian’s storytelling method, and it was with great delight that I picked up In the Garden of the Beasts, even the subtitle on the cover was enough to garner my attention… Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin.
In 1933, the seemingly most unlikely choice for ambassador to Berlin was made by then President Roosevelt, a professor from Chicago, William E. Dodd, who only longed to finish his planned four volume history on the Old South, was tapped for the job. Much to the ire of some of the elitists who were part of the diplomatic community.
He, and his family, including adventurous daughter, Martha, took up their post in Berlin, agreeing to live within Dodd’s meager salary (when compared to others in the diplomatic corps), and represent the interests of America in a landscape that was changing daily, as Adolph Hitler climbed to power, ruling through violence, terror, and murder.
Going in to the tale, any reader knows how things turn out. But to be put into the mindset of those who were in the time, from the isolationist views of the United States, not to mention the antisemitism that was at play there as well, to an almost average family who were put on the front lines as witnesses to the terrors that began to spill across Germany, it’s a completely different experience.
History books have a way of reciting dates, facts and names that while sharing events, never truly illustrate the human side of them. Larson through careful research, and culling of quotes from memoirs, letters and journals, puts us in the home on Tiergartenstrasse, letting the reader experience the behavior, of those who were in command, the jealousies, the paranoia, and the maneuvering that went on, both there and on American soil.
We get up close and intimate with names that have haunted people for decades, Goering, Himmler, Rohm and even Hitler.
The narrative moves from Dodd and his actions in Berlin, fighting to represent Roosevelt’s interests, to the movement at home by those in the halls of power who didn’t want Dodd in the position he was in and sought to undermine him, and ignore the Nazi threat at the same time, to the many romances and affairs of Dodd’s daughter, Martha, who the Russians even tried to recruit.
I’ve read three of Larson’s books now, and he continues to bring whatever era he writes about to vibrant life, bringing us into the lives of those involved, and making the events a reality that just knowing names and dates would never do.
He’s got a fan in me now, and I will be hunting down the rest of his books to read in short order, and add to the ever-growing pile on my bedside table.
Look him up and pick up one of his brilliant books!