In The Garden of Beasts

Don’t judge, but I’ve always been completely fascinated by Nazi Germany, Hitler and the Third Reich. I know, totally creepy and weird and not something one admits to in polite company, but there we are.

Let’s be clear here. I’m fascinated by the time and the set of circumstances that allowed a completely deranged, angry little man to throw the world into war and terror and all manner of horrible things. I find the personalities completely fascinating. I’ve managed to read almost the entire biography of Hitler that Ian Kershaw put together (probably the heaviest book I own), I loved Angela Lambert’s The Secret Life of Eva Braun and I constantly have to stop myself from buying biographies of other Nazi notables like Himmler and Goebbels because, let’s face it, people will start to think terrible things about me.

That being said, I didn’t stop myself from picking up In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and An American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson. Having read Larson’s account of America’s first serial killer in The Devil in the White City, I knew that I would love it.

You may have heard of In the Garden of Beasts – it’s been on Bestseller Lists and Top 10s all over the place because it is a masterpiece. Erik Larson is incredibly gifted when it comes to novelistic history.

William E. Dodd was just a history professor in the twilight of his career, hoping for a simple ambassador job somewhere undemanding that would allow him to finish his 4 part series on the American South. He ends up getting sent to Berlin in 1933, just after Hitler has become Chancellor of Germany, but before he has managed to assume complete power. Dodd brings his family – wife Mattie, son Bill Jr., and daughter Martha – and in short order all are comfortably ensconced in the social hierarchy of Nazi Germany.

Mattie and Bill Jr. soon fall away from the story – they make appearances when warranted but the story is mainly about Dodd Sr. and Martha. Dodd Sr. begins to understand that America needs to take a stand against Hitler in the face of all the horrible things that are being done to Jews (despite the fact that Dodd is an anti-Semite himself) but everyone back home is working against him, focused on the fact that Germany has defaulted on payments from the Great War and on keeping America out of any future European conflicts.

Martha, meanwhile, is completely infatuated with Nazism. She believes that its wonderful and just what Germany needs. Until she begins to witness assaults in the street, her friends disappear and some of her romantic conquests fear for their lives.

The book isn’t terribly long. With about 50 pages left to go my heart was hammering in my chest and I was reading while I was walking down the street (dangerous pastime if you know me) because, despite having an idea of how this was going to end, I needed to know.

What’s unique about this book on Nazi Germany is that it really focuses on that one pivotal year, the first year (of nearly 4) that the Dodds were in Germany. They were there when Hindenburg died, during the Night of the Long Knives when Hitler ruthlessly took military control and as it became clear the Germany was no longer safe for any “undesirables.” I always have trouble with the military aspect of any books about WWII, but this book leaves all of that out. As far as everyone knew, in 1933/34 Hitler wanted peace for Germany and for Europe. But those who were able to see a little bit further than the ends of their own noses, they understood that Hitler would never settle for what was best for Europe as a whole. He wanted revenge.

Sadly no one else listened to the few.

In the Garden of Beasts is in paperback now, which is even more reason to pick it up for yourself.