Book Review Thursday: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin


Erik Larson’s books have never disappointed me and this was one was a fascinating “behind-the-scenes” look at what was really going on in Hitler’s Germany through the eyes of history professor, turned diplomat, Ambassador William Dodd.  Dodd, who grew up in the South as the son of a poor North Carolina farmer, disdained the elitism of the State Department’s diplomatic corps, and managed quite often to get his digs in — which of course rankled his bosses at State.

The Dodd family had been in Germany about a year before the ambassador suspected something sinister was afoot, perhaps a coup to overthrow Hitler’s regime.  Ambassador Dodd simply believed that Hitler’s brutal regime could not last … how wrong he was.  On June 30, 1934, the so-called “Night of the Long Knives” was Hitler’s answer to any coup plot, real or imagined, as he ordered the systematic execution of hundreds of his detractors.

The ambassador’s daughter Martha seemed oblivious as to what was happening, at least at first, as she had fling after fling with Nazi officers and Russian Communists (while still not officially divorced from the estranged husband she left behind in America).  Her most serious romance with a member of the Russian diplomatic team in Berlin wasn’t the smartest move either, given the Nazi’s disdain for the Russians.

Dodd continued to write dispatches to State, repeatedly warning of them of Hitler’s true ambitions.  He even wrote to Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur, pleading his case.  He often wrote personal letters to President Roosevelt, who at times encouraged Dodd to continue the practice, but one must assume in looking back at history these were likely being ignored or set aside.

Roosevelt may have shared Dodd’s views but was reluctant to act and involve the United States in another European war.  As Larson wrote, “Dodd resigned himself to what he called ‘the delicate work of watching and carefully doing nothing.’”  Thereafter, Dodd withdrew from any engagement with Hitler’s Third Reich, magnifying State Department officials’ disdain for him.

After Dodd was unexpectedly relieved of his duties and told to leave Germany by the end of 1937, he continued to make speeches warning of the dangers.  His replacement, however, concentrated on highlighting the positive aspects of Nazi Germany – in a word, appeasement.

The book’s sources included various historical accounts of those years covering the rise of Hitler’s Third Reich.  Two other sources, Dodd’s personal diary and Martha’s memoirs, were noted as works not entirely trustworthy, however.  In his closing remarks, Larson noted how his research brought a darkness which infiltrated his own soul.  Still, he pieced together an intriguing story about a volatile time in world history.  Anyone interested in World War II and/or the rise of Hitler and his murderous regime will find it a fascinating read.

Rating:  ★★★★★

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2015.


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