In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson is an illuminating book. I learned so much with the narrow focus or window that Mr. Larson provided via the Dodd family. William Dodd becomes ambassador to Germany in Berlin in 1933, and brings his family, along with their Chevrolet with him; his wife Mattie, his son Bill Jr., and daughter Martha.
The reader is given a variety of viewpoints of the changes occurring in Berlin as Hitler becomes more and more powerful as the President’s, Paul von Hindenburg health declines. The viewpoint of the ambassador is very interesting; Mr. Dodd is a scholar and professor, slightly out of his element, but determined to do a good job for his country. Mrs. Dodd does her best in diplomatic society, somewhat restrained by her husband’s determination to live within their salary. Most diplomats of this era seem to have a wealthy background, and living within means is not an issue for them. Bill Jr. remains primarily in the background of this book. Martha, on the other hand, embraces the diplomatic circle of parties, and becomes involved with a variety of men, including a Russian spy, and is even introduced to Adolf Hitler as a possible way to get to her father.
There is so much revealed in this book of the day-to-day darkening of Berlin, and therefore Germany, as Hitler becomes more and more powerful. President Roosevelt does not seem to see the problems that Hitler presents as a leader. The “Jewish question” or “problem”, depending on what country it is being discussed, seems to be something that governments outside of Germany seem to want to approach, and Germany continues its restrictions and eventual persecutions that began before the Dodds arrived in Berlin. (Note: these are my understandings of what I read; any historical mistakes in this paragraph or review are mine).
I found this to be a somewhat frightening read, as the world knows the result of these beginnings in Berlin. What is also scary to me is that different, yet equally evil, situations have evolved in the world since World War II.
I highly recommend In the Garden of Beasts as the viewpoints of one family is a different approach to history.
(who feels that signing off “Happy Reading” would be inappropriate in the case of this book)