In The Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

in the garden of beasts

I had read Larson’s The Devil in the White City a few months ago for another book group and I liked his style so I chose this for the Las Vegas Non-Fiction book group, which I organise. According to the subtitle this book is about “Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin.” The head of the family in question is William Dodd, who becomes America’s first ambassador to Germany in 1933. He takes his wife and two grown up children with him.

I lived in Germany for two years and almost every town I visited had a holocaust museum. Each time I visited one I felt that the question of how all this had happened had gone unanswered. I thought this story, told mostly through the diaries of William Dodd and his daughter Martha, might shed a little light on this. I had always assumed that it was because people could never have imagined what was going to happen in the future, but the Dodd family certainly witnessed some appalling events that did not bode well for the future of Germany, even if the execution of millions of people was probably impossible to predict for the average sane person.

Mr Dodd was not first choice for the job of ambassador, and it was not a job that he was particularly committed to or interested in. He was in Germany because he had fond memories from his youth and because he thought it would be a nice cushy environment for him to finish the book he was writing. All the same, he saw violence against and persecution of Jews, and seemed to do very little else but write the odd letter about it.

Martha mixed with the young and trendy people of Berlin, and she met with many high-up Nazi officers, including Hitler. She led a leisurely existence of attending parties and meeting with her lovers. Of whom there were rather a lot, even by today’s standards. Martha also witnessed first-hand violence towards Jews but in one example she said that she “tried to justify the action of the Nazis, to insist that we should not condemn without knowing the whole story.” She makes several anti-semitic comments and it seems very much as though she doesn’t have any sympathy for the German Jews. She seems to me to be a daft young girl, thinking only of herself and motivated mostly by lust.

So, I am still asking the same question about how all this happened, although I am aware that I have the luxury of hindsight. There were several commentators who suggested in the mid-1930s that the allies could have stopped the Third Reich very early on. Certainly, William Dodd knew that something terrible was about to happen. But, it was not going to happen to him, he was shipped out before the war began. All in all a very chilling and disheartening story.

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2 Responses to In The Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

  1. This book has been on my “to read” list for a while, despite the daunting subject matter. Sadly, I think the position of the Dodd’s in Germany is not unique. Too often those in power turn a blind eye to atrocities going on right in front of them, continuing to lead elitist lifestyles while those they perceive as “other” are being slaughtered in a genocide. I just might have to push myself to read this book.

    • Claire Ady says:

      yes, and I suppose we are all guilty of it to some extent. I was told at book group that Dodd did stand up to the Nazis quite a lot after the war begun (which this book doesn’t cover), of course too little, too late. Martha comes across as an awful person, though.

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