Having recently read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, it was impossible to pass up this new release during a visit to my local Barnes and Noble. In the Garden of Beasts refers to the Tiergarten, the large central park of Berlin, but of course also refers to the human beasts who were coming to power in Germany at the time. Like Erik Larson’s other books, this is not fiction, but rather carefully reconstructed history, told from the very personal view point of one American family who arrived in Berlin in 1933. Hitler had just been appointed Reich Chancellor by President Hindenburg, and the Nazis were rising in power. The story of the Dodd family concentrates on the father, William, and daughter Martha. William was appointed ambassador to Germany in 1933, and was somewhat of an ill fit to the job. An academic whose frugality was mocked by other diplomats who lived lavishly, Dodd soon found himself over his head in dealing with the devils in charge of Germany. Daughter Martha can only be described as a “playgirl,” romantically involved with various Americans, Germans, and Russians, including Rudolf Diels, the head of the Gestapo, and Boris, a Russian spy. At first Martha in particular is enamoured of the “New Germany,” and disturbing incidents (beatings of Jews and even Americans who did not salute passing Stormtroopers) are considered to be aberrations, not condoned by the government. As time goes on, and the horror increases, it becomes clear to the Dodds that the Nazi threat to civilization is real, though trying to convince the State Department back home that this is the case proves to be remarkably difficult. The US government at the time seemed to be most interested in persuading Germany to pay off its debt, and was willing to sweep a few atrocities under the rug. There was fear in some quarters that protesting the treatment of the Jews in Germany would be countered by pointing out that the blacks in our country were treated just as badly. Isolationism was strong in the US at the time, and Dodd, when he finally retired from his post in Berlin four years later, spent the rest of his life trying to persuade Americans that the Nazis were indeed evil. Dodd and his daughter were both in their own ways ahead of their time.
I enjoyed the book as a inside look at what life was like at that pivotal point in history. The Nazi Era is repellent but also fascinating. It is a reminder that civilization is just a thin veneer over barbarism.