Erik Larson’s newest book, In the Garden of Beasts: Love Terror and the American Family in Hitler’s Berlin provides a new perspective of the early days of Nazi power in Berlin in 1933-34: that of the American ambassador to Germany, William E. Dodd. Using a similar formula as in his prior works, among them The Devil in the White City, Larson focuses on the fastidious Dodd and his brassy daughter Martha and weaves their individual stories together into a seamless narrative that reads almost like fiction.
This tandem might seem more mundane than that of a visionary architect and a murderous psychopath, but the Dodds’ stories are fascinatingly told using a great wealth of historical documentation (ironic, given that Dodd deplored the wordy content of ambassadorial memos; viewing the habit as a waste of time and money). Using this research, Larson forms an intimate picture of Nazi Germany from an outsider’s point of view.
High-ranking Nazi officials such as Hitler and Hermann Göring seem benign and even compelling in the eyes of the Dodds to begin with, but the darkness slowly creeps in as events such as the Reichstag Arson Trial and the Night of the Long Knives unfold.
Perhaps just as disturbing is the reaction of most Americans to Dodd’s escalating concern. A lingering look upon Franklin D. Roosevelt’s cabinet, in particular Secretary of State Cordell Hull as well as Under Secretary of State William Phillips, shows a complete disregard for Dodd and his messages. Due partly to their disdain of Dodd’s lower economic status, their inert reaction was also fueled by the predominant theory in the United States that isolation from world events was the best policy. Others perceived Nazism as being a romantic return to the ideals of chivalry. One may find this viewpoint, crystallized in the form of Martha Dodd, particularly unsettling.
Ultimately, this work is an elaborately conceived version of the age-old question “What if?” for which hindsight can only lend more tragedy to this pivotal year in history. Larson crafts a worthy mixture of wit and pathos: a fluent yet chilling account of the mounting anxiety suffered by the closest American witnesses to the rise of Hitler’s regime.
Want something lighter for your summer reading? Try these new fiction titles:
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt – A cowboy noir written with an eloquent style in this riveting novel about the infamous hired gunmen Charlie and Eli Sisters.
The Ridge by Michael Koryta – In the mountains of eastern Kentucky, a land-locked lighthouse and a big cat game preserve are the center of strange events in this creepy thriller.