Book Review: In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

First of all, for those of you who are less interested in my book reviews (CJTW, this might mean you…), fear not, this week will have a plethora of other posts on topics like: Das Baby’s first vacation, the summer of love, a furniture buying bonanza at White Home Collections in the great state of New Hampshire (live free or buy excessive quantities of cheap shabby chic vintage stuff…or both), and more!

If there’s one thing the Hipster Hausfrau reads a lot of, it’s Nazi books. Not because she’s likes Nazis (she hates them, duh), but because her book is about her grandmother’s role in the Nazi resistance. Back when she stored a lot of her books in the dining room, her guests had to look at shelf after shelf of books about concentration camps, partisan fighters, and Hitler. Certainly less appetizing than blue paint.

So when she learned that Erik Larson, of Devil in the White City fame (full disclosure: HH is probably the only person in America who hasn’t read this book) had written a book about the Dodd family in Germany during the early days of Hitler’s ascension to power, she was excited to see what the famed author had unearthed and rendered about the lives of the two Dodds in particular–Ambassador William and his daughter Martha–who had come to feel like old acquaintances whom you always enjoy bumping into at a party.  If that party were disturbingly attended by a coterie of brown-shirted thugs wearing swastikas, bad haircuts, and a loathing of Jews, socialists, and liberty.

Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts (464 pp. Crown. $26.00) is masterful, even to someone who feels like they’ve read a ton of books about this history, and it has as much to offer to someone who only knows the broad outlines of this time. It’s a sad but true reality that many people feel over-saturated with so-called Nazi books; a constant warning in my grad program was that I had to be aware of readers’ Holocaust/Nazi fatigue. Offensive, but true. Larson deftly dodges this issue by focusing his book on the early days of Hitler’s regime, and by creating compelling and balanced portraits of all of the figures. History offers us a black and white view of this era because on a grand scale, the morality (and immorality) were clear. But on an individual basis, as Ambassador Dodd discovers, “this new world…prov[ed] to be far more nuanced and complex than…expected.” Larson offers up this texture so that we can feel what it was to live in this world, the constant terror of violence, but the constant hope that things might improve, that Hitler might be checked, that his manifesto laid bare in Mein Kampf might be an exaggeration of his goals and philosophy. We know, of course, that there was no such luck, but it is a testament to Larson’s skill as a writer that he perches us on the precipice of history, hoping things might be different.

At its core, In the Garden of Beasts is the story of the somewhat frustrated career of Ambassador William Dodd, an academic, rather than the typical embassy old-boy, sent to Nazi Berlin to represent American interests. The task proves impossible, of course, but even more difficult is convincing the Americans at home of the grave danger presented by Hitler. Regarded as nebbish, embarrassingly frugal, and lacking in the necessary smooth manners of a traditional ambassador, he realizes fairly quickly the impossibility of maintaining diplomatic relations in a country where American visitors were not infrequently beaten for failing to issue the Nazi salute. But it is a slow education for Dodd, who arrives in Germany bursting with the ideals he formed as a graduate student there years prior. With painstaking and vivid detail, Larson takes us through Dodd’s transforming beliefs, from being a man who diffidently “read a brief statement that emphasized his sympathy for the people of Germany and the nation’s history and culture” to becoming “one of the few voices in the U.S. government  to warn of the true ambitions of Hitler and the dangers of America’s isolationist stance.”

The other star of the book is Martha Dodd, the Ambassador’s vivacious and frankly rather wild twenty-five year old daughter. It is Martha who really gets out into the world of Nazi Berlin, and she too, must undergo a drastic change, from believing in the Teutonic Nazi ideal to seeing their insidious truth. Among those who participate in her education are several lovers (and too much, frankly, is made of her having several lovers), among them Rudolf Diels, a surprisingly moral early Gestapo chief, and Boris Winogradov, a Soviet embassy official whom we ultimately learn is a spy. Larson’s fixation on Martha’s being “frankly sexual” is a distraction from her storyline, and is reminiscent of postwar attempts by both the Americans and Soviets to discredit women who resisted the Nazis by labeling them as sexually voracious bisexual sluts (to be blunt!).

Larson’s storytelling is richly woven with novelistic narrative details that pull us wholly into this world, as when Harvard graduate and senior Nazi official Putzi Hanfstaengl is described as having a “voice [that] stood out like thunder over rain.” Perhaps the most chilling moment in the book is when Hafstaengl introduces Martha to Hitler, in a failed attempt to engage his leader’s sexual appetite. Martha finds him “peaceful and charming,” “modest, middle class, rather dull and self-conscious–yet with this strange tenderness and appealing helplessness.” Knowing what we know, it is an unnerving exercise to try to make this image fit with the Hitler who would destroy much of Europe.

Ultimately, I recommend this book not just for its historical portraits, but for its engaging, suspenseful storytelling and nimble prose. It’s not just an account for those fascinated by Nazi times: it’s for everybody! A great example of the power of well-rendered nonfiction.

I feel gross rating a Nazi book with strollers, but that’s what I’ve set myself up to do.

5 Strollers! Roll right out to your local bookseller and pick this one up!

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