on June 24, 2011
I dragged this heavy tome on a recent business trip and found myself utterly engrossed. I could not put it down. This is Larson's best so far. Written in an engaging narrative style, this non-fiction work traces Hitler's rise from Chancellor of Germany to dictator through the eyes of an American history professor and his daughter.
Appointed ambassador to Germany in 1933, Dodd, his wife and two adult children are initially enamoured with the changes and energy they find in Germany (Dodd had studied there in his youth). His daughter Martha, willful, self-absorbed, bright and naive is especially enthralled and counts Nazi officials among her beaus. Over time their enthusiasm for the regime wanes as it implements increasingly draconian measures against its own people.
Ambassador Dodd finds himself a Cassandra-like figure, warning the American administration of Germany's rearmament to no avail.
While readers may be familiar with this period of history, Larson brings a fresh perspective. Reading in the Garden of Beasts is liking watching history unfold before your eyes. It's a cautionary tale of apathy and denial that bears remembering.
What made the Nazi regime happen? How could the mass extermination of specific groups of people be possible? We can vilify the Hitler and the Nazi Party and the German people who supported them however this doesn't help us understand how it happened. William Dodd, a history professor at the University of Chicago was an unlikely candidate to be the U.S. ambassador to Berlin in 1933. Franklin D. Roosevelt had already asked a number of potential candidates and they'd all turned him down. Dodd knew the city of Berlin well and spoke German fluently and had a friend close to the president who recommended him. Tired of teaching classes and wanting to spend more time on his book, "The Rise and Fall of the Old South," Dodd took the job with the idea that it would give him just that. On July 5, 1933, he and his family boarded a ship for Hamburg.
Unlike other career diplomats, Dodd was not born into privilege nor did he respect it. He thought that during the trying times of the 1930s, diplomats should live modestly and not in the extravagant fashion their wealth afforded. As an historian, he could place the events that were occurring in Berlin at the time in an historical context. In a speech given to the American Chamber of Commerce in Berlin in October of 1933, he compared the behaviour of Hitler and the Nazi party to that of the despotic rulers of Rome under Caesar and France under Louis XIV. As his ambassadorship proceeds, Dodd becomes more and more despondent Germany and the fact that he can't awaken the world to the dangers and atrocities perpetrated by Hitler. His actions become less and less acceptable to the U.S. State Department. They believe he should be neutral to the events and atrocities happening at the time. After being relieved of his position, he tours the United States proclaiming the dangers of the Nazi regime, it's ruthless illegitimacy proven by the Night of the Long Knives the took place in early July of 1934.
Some understanding of the sympathy given to the Nazi Party is provided by his daughter Martha who was beautiful and so attracted the attention of men of high rank both in the diplomatic service and in the Nazi Party. She is sympathetic to the party and its cause when the family first arrives in Berlin. Gradually, she becomes more and more disillusioned with the death of her friends and falls in love with a Soviet diplomat. Her love for Boris and her innate idealism, draws her to the communist doctrine and so tours the Soviet Union in 1934. Her perspective is unique and personal and helps balance William Dodd's official one. The book provides an insight into an organization both evil and pernicious and yet able to take hold of the imagination of a country.
on March 25, 2012
This book was recommended to me by a friend who was born, as I was , during WW II, but she was born in Germany and I was born in England. We both felt we learned a great deal that we hadn't previously known about the years leading up to the war: startling revelations about attitudes in the US at that time. I have since bought the book for my husband, my son, one of my sons-in-law and one of my daughters: they have all been fascinated and have passed the book on or recommended it to others. I think a book like this, so thoroughly researched and yet so easy to read, can teach us a great deal about a conflict we should not forget. I grew up in the aftermath of WW II and it was constantly spoken of , but for my children and grandchildren it is just another piece of history.
Whenever I read the history of the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party during World War II, I come back to the same questions, "How could the people living in Germany allow this to happen? Didn't they realize how evil Hitler was?" Erik Larson, in his book, "In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin" does a good job of describing the politics and the mood beginning in 1933, when William E. Dodd brought his wife, and two grown children, Martha and Bill, Jr. to Germany with him to begin his ambassadorship in Germany. The book centers mostly around Dodd and his daughter Martha who was 22 at the time and was married, but separated from her husband.
Dodd was a history professor prior to receiving the post and was actually not one of Roosevelt's first choices. Many in the State Department weren't supportive of him and he had to defend himself at every turn. The fact that he wasn't rich and refused to live beyond his salary was a source of annoyance for other statesmen. For example, he brought his old Chevrolet and drove that around Berlin, a sign of just how frugal he was. He also had his own opinions and wasn't always in agreement with other members of the government.
At first Dodd and his family was very enthusiastic about the post and about Germany, especially his daughter, Martha who loved the party scene and dating all sorts of different men. In fact, she was one of the last members of the family to change her opinion about the Nazi party and all that it entailed. Dodd saw what was going on, but believed that once in solid control of the country that Hitler would settle to a more moderate way of governing. Of course, that didn't happen.
The thing that makes this book so unique is that it reads like a novel even though almost everything in it is taken from actual quotes in documents such as diaries, correspondence, reports and other historical documents. I felt like I was right there, viewing some of the same things that they were, but with the knowledge of where it was going and the final outcome. It's a chilling history and I couldn't help the feelings of foreboding as I was reading. Larson does and excellent job of answering some of the questions I've had about how this could happen.
on August 14, 2011
I found In the Garden of the Beasts one of the most intriguing books I have read in recent times. I am a great history and bio fan and this fit both bills and it brought me back to the post war years in particular because I was too young to remember to know of 1933 events. During the post war so much info was then put out that had been hidden from children's eyes. The ensuing years brought out the horror that really happened in all those murderous terrifying times. As an elderly reader the question I frequently ask myself is how much of this recent history is being taught and studied in the high schools today. If we do not know our history we are doomed to fail when we ignore the lessons of life.
Do know this book is also a true story of one family and the humour and love within their lives. Very interesting and an easy wonderful read.
on January 15, 2012
The book is a wonderful presentation of the real attitude of the American societytoward the Hitler regime. The American public in the best case was totally indifferent for the fate of the Jews in the Hitler regime.
The description in the book is excellent. You have to know a great deel of WWII history to understand the description of the heros of the story.
It is an excellent book.
on January 5, 2014
This book was part of our Book Club reading this year. It was recommended by a member after it 'got her through' a hugely difficult week in her life as her son underwent surgery for a cancerous brain tumor. I dreaded reading it - not 'my kind' of story. It was an incredibly wonderful read! Every page pulled me onward! I often regretted that I had to put it down. The story is true, the events are real, the perspective is historical - giving the reader room to view the events through time, limiting 'horror', while not erasing the facts of the events. The story is beautifully crafted and balanced, moving from family issues of American Ambassador Dodd (Berlin), to group gatherings including the Berlin Politico, Dodd's very busy, young daughter who is infatuated with the Nazis, and Nazi 'power movers' - all in the same room in social events. Treachery abounds - even from the State Department at home and in Berlin! Be sure to read the author's sources and acknowledgements at the end - rich indeed! This book re-awakened my interest in history! It is a superb read!
on November 16, 2012
In the Garden of Beasts.....is a book that will remain with me forever; I have already re-read it and am just as mesmerized as the first time. The opportunity to live the early days of Nazi Germany through the eyes of American Ambassador Dodd and his daughter Martha as if we were there with them is chilling, hypnotic and terrifying. Through their real-life diaries as brilliantly interpreted by Erik Larson, we see the eerie progression of the increasingly barbaric behaviour of senior German officials and their subordinates as all opposition is tortured and murdered. And the indifference of the American population and administration to what is happening there is an eye-opener. A must-read.
on February 20, 2012
The years prior to WWII must be a lesson to the modern world. It can happen again. This book does an excellent job of depicting the subtle developments in prewar Germany. Even though people protested the treatment of Jews, there was a silent hope that the injustices would go away without protest and disruption to the daily routines. This book brings clarity to the present day events which must be resisted lest history repeat itself. A cliche but nevertheless true. Anyone who has an interest in history will surely enjoy this sobering story.
on November 1, 2015
I lived in Berlin for seven years and have travelled there many times on other occasions. It is a city I love, but until now I have avoided spending much time on its Nazi past. I've visited very few of its WW2 museums or famous sites and, being Jewish, I have always found it tiresome that any mention of Germany or Berlin, immediately conjures up the Holocaust. So, I was actually reluctant to read Eric Larson's book. But, thankfully, I picked it up anyway and was pleasantly surprised to find that this book is quite interesting.
It has two very good things going for it. First, it is an honest look at how real people viewed the rise of Adolph Hitler. And it is an honest look at how anti-Semitism played a huge part in those views. However, Larson doesn't condemn the characters for not protesting enough, or for their anti-Semitic beliefs, or even for openly accepting and admiring Hitler's government. Nor does he praise them in the end, when they finally realize how bad the situation really is. Rather he tries to understand their thoughts, feelings, and actions from their own vantage point and give us a good feeling of what it would have been like if we were there. It's a refreshing, more objective view of history and one I thoroughly enjoy.
The second wonderful part of this book is the feeling of walking the streets of Berlin. Larson has a good flair for narration and the reader is transported to those streets, and can feel, see, smell, and almost touch the sights and sounds of the end days of the Weimar Republic. I hope on my next trip to try and find some of those sights. The book had deepened my love and interest in the city and has opened my eyes to a part of its history I had thought to ignore.
As for history books, this is less a conventional history, and more a personal insight. There is a general overview of the events that led to Hitler's seizure of power, but if you are looking for a deeper reading, than Larson's book is not for you. This book is unlike his others and I don't think his intention was to write just narrative history, but rather to try and experience a historical moment from the eyes of its witnesses. Fascinating. Definitely worth five stars. I read it in less than 48 hours.
Comment Comment | Permalink