In the Garden of Beasts
Being a United States’ Ambassador to Germany obviously is an honor with tremendous expectations. Can anyone imagine what it would have been like to be in this position prior to World War II just when Adolf Hitler became the leader of the Nazi party?
William E. Dodd was an unlikely choice for an ambassador appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. His only qualifications were spending time in Germany twenty years previously and knowing history, but obviously not understanding it. Many wealthy and experienced politicians had turned it down so it was a surprise for a university professor to accept this. Dodd started in this position with the idea that it would allow him time to write his book, Old South. He had no realistic expectations of his situation nor how he was perceived by our politicians and the German leaders.
To begin with, Dodd decided to live within the means of his salary for all entertaining and expenditures. This would include the elaborate parties with the German leaders. Then he insisted on transporting his old Chevrolet to Germany. With the Nazi leaders either having a chauffeur or driving long flashy vehicles, this didn’t successfully maintain any dignity.
Also with him came his wife, his adult son and daughter. His son planned to continue his studies while in Germany and to learn the language. His daughter, Martha, found this to be the opportunity for adventure. She divorced her husband who was a New York banker and partied her way through the younger Nazi leadership developing a longtime relationship with the head of the Gestapo and a Soviet spy.
There were numerous challenges for Ambassador Dodd at this time, especially with Americans in Berlin. When the Nazi’s marched past, everyone was expected to salute and to show respect. Those, even Americans, who did not, were frequently beaten. The situation was even more difficult if the visitors were American and Jewish.
Erik Larson is known for writing factual books that read like fiction. He continues to succeed with In the Garden of Beasts. The other novels he has written are Thunderstruck, The Devil in the White City, and Isaac’s Storm.
Though factual, this novel is quickly read even with the footnotes which were enriching to read along with each chapter. The information was extremely easy to understand and helped in filling history prior to the war that is usually not considered but made the Nazi movement more understandable. Also wonderfully written is the aspect of the global impact of the situations surrounding the Ambassador and his family. Written as real people, the style was easy and similar to fiction which made the events realistic to the reader. Knowing the situation and the after events, the reader realizes the danger and the impact of these decisions and situations.
To read In the Garden of the Beasts is to truly transport yourself to another time and place that few of us have and will ever experience except through the eyes of Erik Larson.