The year is 1933, and William E. Dodd has been appointed American ambassador to Hitler’s Germany by President Roosevelt. Before setting sail for Berlin, Dodd takes Roosevelt’s instructions to heart: to uphold American values. Thus, in the face of the economic hardships crippling the U.S., Dodd decides he and his family will live on his regular salary of just over 17,000 dollars – much to the chagrin of the State Department and the “Pretty Good Club” of independently wealthy Harvard graduates that made up the bulk of consular service. Dodd makes a fascinating ambassador: he is either completely inept, or totally brilliant. The truth is not always clear; however, he does his very best to carry out the task he believes Roosevelt set him, even in the face of an ever-strengthening Third Reich. Dodd’s daughter, Martha, is the second central figure. She has a brilliant social life, rubbing shoulders with members of the foreign press and important Nazi officials – even the surprisingly moral and upright chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels.
It is an unsettling read in many ways. First and foremost, In the Garden of Beasts (by Erik Larson) is a work of non-fiction. There are quotes throughout which illuminate some truths from that era: for example, the tide of anti-Semitism throughout the United States – including many prominent members of the federal government. Perhaps the most unsettling thing is reading about how Hitler was able to rise to such extreme power without anyone stepping in from outside to stop him. The signs were there, though carefully concealed behind a thin veneer of “normalcy” experienced by American visitors to Germany during the early 1930s. Even Martha Dodd is originally seduced by the apparent loveliness of Germany and the Nazi party’s efforts to create a “better Germany.” Only after many months living in Berlin does the truth become evident to Martha and the rest of the Dodds: that Germany is gearing up for war. And even then, Dodd’s reports to the State Department – and, indeed, to Roosevelt himself – are ignored or dismissed as overly dramatic, based on the reports of short-term visitors to Germany. Amid the Americans’ strong isolationist bent, the truth about Hitler and Germany was suppressed or ignored in order to keep the country out of “European squabbles.” It seems incredible that the leaders of the 1930s truly believed that appeasement – just giving Hitler what he wanted – could solve the “Jewish problem,” as the growing persecution of Jewish people was known.
Both terrifying and fascinating, In the Garden of Beasts offers a real-life narrative of life in Berlin as Hitler rose to power, peopled not only with the Dodds and their friends and colleagues, but also with those such as Goring, Goebbels, Himmler, and Hitler himself. Fear, uncertainty and paranoia permeate the events of the book, instilling in the reader a faint semblance of what life was like during Hitler’s rise.