Continuing my fascination with books about World War II, I recently read “In the Garden of Beasts”, a work of non-fiction that describes what life was like for Americans living in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. If the pages of notes and sources in the back of the book are any indication, this book was meticulously researched by Erik Larson. At times I had to remind myself I was reading non-fiction as the book is a mesmerizing tale of an American family plunged into the brewing cauldron of Berlin as the Third Reich’s grip grew tighter.
In 1933, William E. Dodd, a mild-mannered University of Chicago professor, was appointed by President Roosevelt as America’s first ambassador to Nazi Germany. In addition to his wife and son, Dodd is accompanied by his 24-year-old daughter, Martha, who goes along for adventure and to escape a failed marriage. Martha definitely finds adventure in the arms of numerous and often dubious lovers, including Rudolf Diels, first chief of the Gestapo. The Dodds live on the lower two levels of a grand old house across from the Tiergarten – which translates to the garden of beasts. The owner of the house, a Jewish banker, and his family occupy the top floor, reasoning — as Dodd later discerns — that the family is safe living with the American ambassador. Dodd expected to encounter the same warm citizenry he had known three decades earlier while a graduate student in Leipzig, Germany. He knew of Hitler’s rising government, but hoped to use reason and quiet persuasion to temper that rise. As attacks on American visitors and German Jews increase, Dodd tries to convince Roosevelt and the U.S. State Department of the growing menace and threat to world peace. American leaders want Dodd to secure payments from the German government for World War I debts still owed to U.S. banks and investors. Tourists who fail to salute Hitler, Storm Troopers and the Gestapo are routinely beaten and bullied and seek protection from the American Embassy. German Jews are summarily being mistreated and forced to close their businesses. The French ambassador fears for his life, he tells Dodd. They, along with the British ambassador, meet in the park to talk to avoid bugged rooms and telephones. Still, the German people and the world do not recognize the horror and chaos that are to come. The Dodds’ experiences tell volumes about why the world took so long to see what was coming – unfortunately too late. It’s a fascinating read, even if you don’t like history.
The author used scores of diaries, letters, published manuscripts, and official U.S. State Department documents, along with research in Germany, to assure the historical accuracy of “In the Garden of Beasts.”