In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin
Erik Larson
Crown Books, May 2011
ISBN: 978-0-307-40884-6
464 pages
[FTC disclosure: I read an uncorrected proof that I requested from the publisher]

Like millions of other readers out there, I LOVED Larson’s The Devil in the White City. I was fortunate to hear him give a talk about that book and his research for it at Printer’s Row Book Fair in Chicago the year it was released. When I heard Larson was coming out with a book about Nazi Germany, I knew I’d read it. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend any of his events in Chicago this time around.

Although I can’t stomach much reading about the Nazis, I’m draw to understanding how Hitler came to power and what life was like for those who lived in Nazi Germany. By piecing together the story of what life was like in Berlin for American Ambassador Dodd and his family from 1933-1937, Larson shows how Hitler was able to gain power by political maneuvering and the repetition of blatant lies. The fact that none of the major world powers condemned the atrocities he committed against German citizens also enabled his drive to seize power.

As an outsider who lived in Germany, Dodd was able to see and feel the changes happening that casual visitors could not. However, it took a while. Dodd and most educated men of his class and time period were trained to see western humanity as making a steady march toward higher levels of reason. They assumed that men who rise to positions of political power are men of reason, “men you could do business with.” [I am not sure how WWI fits into this line of thinking; perhaps they blamed it on the various monarchies.] Those who were watching the political situation unfold from the distance of America couldn’t see through the propaganda of Goebbels and the lies of Hitler and they weren’t present to sense the level of fear and terror that was growing. To the average traveler, things looked fine in Germany, but they were anything but for those who lived there. Hence there were lots of conflicting reports in America about what was actually going on in Germany: one report says everything is great and another says violence is increasing as rights and respect for human life are decreasing. No one was sure what to believe, but everyone wanted to believe that Hitler was a man of reason, a man they could do business with.

Eventually Dodd starts to see the light, as does his adult daughter Martha, who hob-knobbed with some of the higher ranking men of the Nazi power structure as well as the left leaning literary crowd. It is Martha’s story that brings the most life to Larson’s book. She was a wild child with literary ambitions who had friends (and possibly lovers) that were not only high ranking Nazis, but German Jews and Soviet Communists as well. Socializing with people in these divergent groups and seeing the strain of life under Hitler on all of them allowed Martha to eventually understand the power keg that was set to ignite.

Dodd didn’t have many fans back home in the State Department. For one, he tried to live frugally as an Ambassador out of respect for his fellow Americans suffering during the Great Depression. He was also not impressed with the elitist attitudes and poor work-ethic of his colleagues. These two things did not mesh well with the boys back home in the State Department. Some considered his reports and speculations ridiculous, yet with the benefit of hindsight his concern about Hitler’s true intention (to plunge the world it war) was right on the mark. In many ways, the tradition of diplomacy and the mindset of seeing other men in positions of power as reasonable prevented other world leaders from at least speaking out against Hitler until it was too late. Two of the biggest reasons that the American government didn’t protest against Hitler was that it wanted the money owed by Germany from WWI and there was a strong public desire to remain isolationist, to stay out of other country’s issues. America also had its share of antisemitism and political power games which inhibited official outcry against Hitler’s early violence and oppression.

In the Garden of Beasts is a quick read, a perfect summer history book. We all know how the story ends, but you still feel the tension as you read along. I think it might even be a more engaging read than The Devil in the White City. I highly recommend this book to those interested in the rise of Hitler or in the 1930s in general. This book is just as much about American politics of the 1930s as it is about Hitler’s seizing of power.


  1. The book perfectly captures the insidious evil of Hitler and his minions. Larson makes pre-World War II Berlin nightlife come alive as we watch Dodd's less-than-chaste daughter socialize with half of Fuhrer's posse. Even though you may not be a history buff, this book reads like a novel – pick it up, down load it – read it!

  2. I've seen mixed reviews of this book, but personally, I think it sounds fascinating. Glad to see you “enjoyed” it as well. It's on my shelf, and I must make time for it soon!

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