Book Review: Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts

In the Garden of Beasts: Erik Larson’s novel of Americans witnessing the rise of Nazism

Author Erik Larson: “a master of narrative non-fiction” | Photo: Benjamin Benschneider/Crown

Innocents Abroad

Berlin 1933. Adolf Hitler has just become chancellor. Anti-Semitic violence is on the rise. Like the rest of the country, Germany’s freewheeling capital is rapidly learning to dance to the rhythm of rattling sabers and jackboots on the march.

This is the diabolical backdrop for Erik Larson’s latest work of narrative non-fiction, In the Garden of Beasts, which recounts the experiences of the U.S. ambassador to Germany and his daughter in the early days of the Nazi reign of terror.

In 1933, William E. Dodd was a 64-year-old professor who wanted more time to work on his history of the antebellum South. A diplomatic post in some quiet backwater seemed like the perfect solution, so he lobbied the Roosevelt Administration for an ambassadorship. FDR appointed him to Berlin, a post several others had already declined. Despite misgivings, Dodd accepted.

U.S. relations with Germany were increasingly fraught after Hitler came to power. It was the height of the Great Depression, and Washington feared the new Nazi government would default on Germany’s considerable debts to American banks. Meanwhile, American Jewish organizations were pressuring Roosevelt to confront Hitler about Nazi policies excluding Jews (1 per cent of Germany’s population) from most professions and constricting their participation in public life.

Dodd arrived in Germany in July 1933 accompanied by his wife and adult children. Determined to serve his country well, Dodd brought good intentions, an open mind and fond memories of his student days in Leipzig. His 24-year-old daughter, Martha, was eager to escape a failed marriage and embark on a new life in Berlin.

In the Garden of Beasts alternates between Amb. Dodd’s diplomatic challenges and Martha Dodd’s sexual escapades. Drawing heavily on Dodd’s Diary (1941), edited by his children, and Through Embassy Eyes (1939) by Martha Dodd, Larson lets the ambassador and his daughter speak for themselves, giving voice to their naïveté, prejudices and what often seems like willful ignorance of events in Germany.

Dodd was largely unprepared for the changes that were rapidly reshaping the Germany he had known decades earlier, a land of Gemütlichkeit, high culture and liberal thinking. On the surface, life for most Germans seemed normal. Attacks on Jews were largely dismissed as regrettable exceptions. But gradually, his views began to change.

The Nazis had introduced Gleichschaltung (translated here as “coordination”) “to bring citizens, government ministries, universities, and cultural and social institutions in line with National Socialist beliefs and attitudes.” This policy was astonishingly successful, in part because of voluntary adaptation by the fearful, rule-accustomed populace, who believed they could avoid trouble if they fell into line.

Thousands of Jews fled Germany in 1933 (though most remained, believing the Nazis could not possibly hold onto power). The Dodds didn’t understand why there were so many fully furnished luxury villas available in Berlin, and negotiated  a low rent for a mansion opposite the Tiergarten, the city’s vast central park, in exchange for allowing the Jewish owners to occupy the top floor – to ensure their own safety.

Dodd prided himself on his frugality and simple virtues. In solidarity with Americans enduring the Depression, he insisted on paying for official entertainment from his embassy salary and riding in his own Chevrolet instead of a limousine. His approach violated diplomatic traditions of protocol, alienating both his underlings and superiors, as well as the Germans, which ultimately undermined his authority and fed a disregard for his abilities and efforts.

In his first meeting with Hitler, Dodd believed the new chancellor truly wanted peace. In time, however, he saw things differently. The turning-point was the Night of the Long Knives, the bloody 1934 purge that decimated the ranks of the Nazi Sturmabteilung, or S.A. Dodd was repulsed by the viciousness of these political murders, and expected they would produce a popular uprising and government overthrow. Instead, Germans largely accepted Hitler’s explanation that the summary execution of traitors was necessary to stave off a Putsch.

Now Dodd tried to raise the alarm in Washington. He argued that Germany’s escalating remilitarization was a sign of coming war and urged America to abandon isolationism. Roosevelt shared his view, but the State Department and the American public did not. In Berlin, Dodd attempted modest forms of protest, like boycotting the Nazi rally in Nuremberg. Eventually, out of moral revulsion – “It is so humiliating to me to shake hands with known and confessed murderers” – Dodd withdrew from active engagement with the German government, resigning himself to “the delicate work of watching and carefully doing nothing.”

Erik Larson proved himself a master of narrative nonfiction with the award-winning Devil in the White City (2003), which intertwines the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair with the true story of a serial killer who used the fair to lure his victims. When history is told in this fashion, the writer brings the past to life using literary techniques like compelling characters and a satisfying narrative arc. It’s meant to be both enlightening and entertaining.

Despite the inherent fascination of prewar Berlin and the Dodds’ unusual perspective, In the Garden of Beasts however falls short, both as history and as a reading experience. Good history demands new insights, but Larson adds little to the existing canon, and as narrative, it is inconsistent and too often seems to lose its way.

The book’s action builds up to the Night of the Long Knives, but then it rapidly draws to a close, even though the horror had just begun.  The Dodds spent another three-and-a-half years in Berlin, surely a tale worth telling. Dodd’s wife and son (without memoires) are mere shadows, and nagging questions remain unanswered, such as the fate of the Dodds’ Jewish landlords.

The business of diplomatic relations with the Nazis and the infighting and anti-Semitism of the prewar State Department are surely of interest, but not unknown, and were the driest parts of the book. Larson attempts to spice things up with Martha Dodd’s liaisons dangereuses. Her numerous Berlin lovers included a German flying ace, the author Thomas Wolfe, a French diplomat, the head of the Gestapo and a Soviet agent. A Nazi friend introduced her to Hitler (thinking he “would be a much more reasonable leader if he only fell in love”), and her Soviet lover recruited her as a spy. But Larson’s breathless account of Martha’s affairs becomes tedious, leaving the impression that she was shallow, self-absorbed and immature.

Despite having studied at the University of Chicago and worked as a journalist, Martha long refused to probe beneath the surface of Nazi propaganda. Indeed, she was enthralled by the Nazis: “The youth are bright faced and hopeful, they sing to the noble ghost of Horst Wessel with shining eyes and unerring tongues,” she wrote to the poet Carl Sandburg, one of her American lovers. Like many American in Europe, she dismissed press reports of repression as exaggerated. She continued to support the Nazis even after witnessing brownshirts chase someone down.

It took the Night of the Long Knives to open Martha’s eyes. Eventually she swung hard to the left, becoming an enthusiastic if inconsequential Soviet spy. During the McCarthy era, Martha and her wealthy American husband (also a spy) fled the United States and lived out their days behind the Iron Curtain, in a 12-room villa in Prague, driving a Mercedes and attended by servants. While Martha’s life story might have made an interesting New Yorker profile, her Berlin follies aren’t enough to carry a book.

As for her father, as U.S. ambassador to Berlin during Germany’s descent into routinized brutality, William Dodd seems simply to have been the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. His efforts to confront the Nazi juggernaut were feeble and ineffective. The Germans isolated him diplomatically, and he also isolated himself. His warnings went unheeded in Washington.

In December 1937, Dodd was officially recalled from his post. Back home, he lectured widely, warning that war in Europe was inevitable, and that the United States could not remain on the sidelines. He chastised American companies for doing business with Germany. He even stated that Hitler’s true intention toward Jews was “to kill them all.” But his attempts to wake up America were futile. His story, at least as Erik Larson tells it, belongs in the footnotes of history.


In the Garden of Beasts
by Eric Larson, Crown Publishing (2010)
available at Shakespeare & Company
1., Sterngasse 2, (01) 535 5053,

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