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

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson. Crown Books. 448 pages.

I picked this book up while Shelly and I were on a weekend in Texas Hill Country, started reading it and couldn’t put it down. It’s the true story of the family of William E. Dodd, the history professor from the University of Chicago who was chosen by Franklin D. Roosevelt to serve as ambassador to Hitler’s Germany in 1933. Most of the story focuses on Dodd and his 23-year-old daughter Martha, who was beautiful, a flirt, and had many love affairs with men from all walks of life while she was over there. A writer, she dated the head of the Gestapo at the same time as she was dating a secretary from the embassy to the Soviet Union.

Two things I found fascinating about the book. First was the new perspective it gave me on how Hitler came to power. In 1933 Hitler was still just Chancellor in a government that included a vice-chancellor (Papen) and a president (Hindenberg) that didn’t share his views, and in fact only about ten percent of the population considered themselves Nazis. At one point, Papen did a public speech denouncing what was happening in the country, and was roundly praised. But then the book goes on to explain what happened to change all that, leading up to the putsch in 1934 known historically as The Night of Long Knives when the Nazis finally took over.

Second, I couldn’t help myself from comparing what I was reading to what is going on in contemporary politics. At one point, Martha Dodd looks at Adolf Hitler and says, “How can anyone take such a man seriously?” There are countless references that are bone-chilling as we think of what conceivably could happen in our own lifetimes, if we are not careful.

It was an eye-opening book, and I highly recommend it. Five stars.