Saturday, 2 February 2013

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larsen

In the Garden of Beasts tells the story of the build-up to World War II from the point of view of people who experienced it first hand: the American ambassador to Germany in the 1930s, and his family. William Dodd was a history professor by training, not a diplomat, and may have seemed an unlikely choice for the representative of U.S. interests in Germany during such a pivotal time. Arriving in Germany a few months after Hitler was appointed chancellor in 1933, Dodd and his family, particularly his lively socialite daughter Martha, had a front-row view of the building popularity of the Nazi party… and the growing climate of suspicion and fear that was slowly co-opting the glorious vision of “New Germany.”

About the Author

 Erik Larson is the author of four New York Times bestsellers, most recently In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, which hit #1 and remained on the printed list for 35 weeks. It was published in Britain, France, Italy, Poland, Australia and a number of other countries and will be published in paperback in the U.S. on May 1, 2012. Movie rights were optioned by Universal Studios and Tom Hanks’ Playtone.  Erik’s book The Devil in the White City remained on the Times‘ hardcover and paperback lists for a combined total of over three years. It won an Edgar Award for nonfiction crime writing and was a finalist for a National Book Award; the option to make a movie of the book was acquired in November 2010 by Leonardo DiCaprio.
Erik’s research has taken him to far-flung locales, and down innumerable strange alleys. For his 2006 bestseller, Thunderstruck, Erik traveled to London, Munich, Rome, Nova Scotia, and Cape Cod, as he sought to chronicle the strange intersection in the careers of Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of wireless, and Hawley Harvey Crippen, England’s second most-famous murderer (after Jack the Ripper). To broaden his understanding of Marconi and his roots, Erik studied Italian; he achieved an elementary grasp of the language while developing an advanced appreciation for Italian red wines.
Erik also wrote Isaac’s Storm, published in September 1999. In addition to becoming an immediate Times bestseller, the book won the American Meteorology Society’s prestigious Louis J. Battan Author’s Award. The Washington Post called it the “‘Jaws’ of hurricane yarns.”
Erik graduated summa cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied Russian history, language and culture. He received a masters in journalism from Columbia University. After a brief stint at the Bucks County Courier Times, Larson became a staff writer for The Wall Street Journal, and later a contributing writer for Time Magazine. He has written articles for The Atlantic, Harper’s, The New Yorker, and other publications.
Larson lives in Seattle with his wife and three daughters. Numerous beloved rodents are buried in his back yard.


The Seattle Times
The New York Times


  1. No book this year has generated as much discussion. In the Garden of Beasts evoked strong emotions by opening up the murky world of diplomacy and the insidious progression of Nazi control in Germany through the 1930s to the reader.
    The character, Martha Dodd, whose writings form the basis for the book, is the most polarizing figure of the group. She was a person people love or love to hate. Martha behaved with reckless disregard for her father’s position as Ambassador to Germany – she took multiple lovers, many concurrent, and she “got away with everything with impunity”. Martha was fascinated with the Nazis and at one time took the married head of the Gestapo as a lover; she explained away the initial acts of the Nazis restricting Jewish freedoms as the growing pains of the new revolution. With her permission a Nazi friend presented her to Hitler as a potential girlfriend; fortunately, Hitler wasn’t interested. In time, she fell in love with a Russian Diplomat (and spy); her trip to the USSR to learn about his homeland was a scandal in diplomatic circles. This “bad girl” returned to the USA unharmed by her experiences in pre-war Germany, however, she had lost much of her naiveté.
    The other truly fascinating character was her father, the Jeffersonian history professor turned ambassador. William Dodd was appointed to the post in Berlin because no one else wanted it. Dodd accepted FDR’s appointment because he was longing to finish his four volume study of The Old South and naively thought he would have more time to write as ambassador. That motivation rankled many of the Readers. Dodd grew and matured throughout his time in Berlin. At the beginning of his term he demonstrated a remarkable ignorance about politics and about how an ambassador was expected to behave. The Pretty Good Club of wealthy men in the diplomatic service were outraged by Dodd’s appointment and by his subsequent behavior, that is, he chose to take his old car to Berlin, he intended to live on his salary alone, and he walked to work. In time The Pretty Good Club undermined Roosevelt’s opinion of Dodd and the President called him home.

  2. In fact, like Churchill, Dodd was Cassandra; his warnings regarding the ambitions of Hitler and the Nazi party were either mocked or ignored and he was vilified. Dodd’s mission, set by FDR was to persuade the German government to repay its debts. The American banks that had lent the money had already profited enormously and there were those in America who felt the repayment was really unnecessary. However, those in influence in diplomacy and business wanted it done. The punitive Treaty of Versailles had humiliated the Germans and destroyed what was left of their economy. Hitler had begun to fan the embers of nationalism and whatever his ambassador or Hitler said, there was no intention of repayment. Also FDR felt that the United States could ill afford to criticize Nazi policies given the country’s history of slavery and prevailing prejudice against the Jews. . At that time the task set was impossible.
    In the Garden of Beasts left us with many questions. We wondered what the common German people were thinking. The author suggests that they too lived in terror of the Nazis. Titles of other sources were requested for further reading. Could the Nazis have been stopped? Europe and North America were still bruised by World War I, the world was in the midst of a massive depression and no one had an appetite for conflict. Politicians persuaded themselves that Hitler could be appeased, and that the problem was Germany’s. Could something like this happen again? Sadly, we believe it could. The 21st century provides many examples of genocide which the world has chosen to ignore. Prejudice against the Jews still exists and we have witnessed the rise of the Neo-Nazi movement.
    We agreed that the book was well researched and well written. While maddening and chilling or because it is, the book is a must read.