2012 Reading biographies human rights

Reading 2012: In the Garden of Beasts

March 13, 2012

Erik Larson gives readers a front row seat to the unfolding of Hitler’s rise of terror in his book In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin.

The Dodd Family

Using the diaries, correspondence, and writings of William E. Dodd, Larson pieces together the life of the Dodd family in Germany in 1933. An unlikely selection as U.S. Ambassador to Germany (by President Roosevelt), Dodd is determined to stand apart from others in his position by living within his salary of just over $17,000 a year (not too bad for 1933, but small considering most other ambassadors had vast wealth to spend). Believing this to be an opportunity to live at a slower pace and work on his history books, histories of The Old South, he also sees the job as an opportunity to bring along his adult children, Bill Jr., and Martha, along with his wife, and to spend the time together as a family.

Little did Dodd realize what the experience would hold for him and the challenges it would bring. Both he and his daughter Martha had heard much talk and forewarning of the mounting concerns and cruelty toward the Jewish people, but their arrival in Germany seemed to depict a different scene — a young, fresh, youthful and thriving Germany. While the story includes Dodd’s wife, also named Martha, and his son, William E. Dodd, Jr. (Bill), most of the family story centers around either William Dodd or his daughter, Martha. The two are very different in their public behavior and perception. William Dodd is economical, conservative, and sincere, while Martha, in the midst of a divorce, is flamboyant, excessive, and quite promiscuous (with quite a variety, from Carl Sandburg to Gestapo officers to Soviet spies).

Eventually, the Dodds come to the shocking realization that what they’ve heard is true, and William Dodd in particular, makes it clear that he doesn’t approve of Hitler’s actions. I won’t spoil the book anymore, though, clearly it’s history. Word is also out that the book will be made into a movie in 2013. I’ll look forward to it, though I’ve yet to meet a movie who is better than its movie.

The author, on WWII-era history and the Dodd family:

“Like most people, I acquired my initial sense of the era from books and photographs that left me with the impression that the world of then had no color, only gradients of gray and black. My two main protagonists, however, encountered the flesh-and-blood reality, while also managing the routine obligations of daily life. Every morning they moved through a city hung with immense banners of red, white, and black; they sat at the same outdoor cafés as did the lean, black-suited members of Hitler’s SS, and now and then they caught sight of Hitler himself, a smallish man in a large, open Mercedes. But they also walked each day past homes with balconies lush with red geraniums; they shopped in the city’s vast department stores, held tea parties, and breathed deep the spring fragrances of the Tier-garten [a.k.a., “The Garden of Beasts”], Berlin’s main park. They knew Goebbels and Göring as social acquaintances with whom they dined, danced, and joked—until, as their first year reached its end, an event occurred that proved to be one of the most significant in revealing the true character of Hitler and that laid the keystone for the decade to come. For both father and daughter it changed everything.”

Far Reaching Implications

In addition to this fascinating family story, the book is a powerful, albeit subtle, commentary on the ideologies and thoughts of the time, both in America and various European countries. America’s main concern with Germany at the time was that they repay their financial debt to America. It was the U.S. government’s hope that Dodd would be able to pressure Germany into committing to repay the debt.

Like many Germans, Americans at this time also thought they had a “Jewish problem.” (This sentiment in this era is also emphasized in the book Sundown Towns, which I wrote about earlier this year.) When complaints arose of German military cruelty toward Jews, many in America and Europe acknowledged that the German way of handling the problem was a bit over the top, but still felt that the Jews had brought the problem on themselves. The book also very briefly alludes to America’s manifestation of racial prejudice toward African Americans, in particular when Martha boasted of her family’s heritage of slave owners in a discussion with a suitor.

Table of Contents

  • Das Vorspiel
  • The Man Behind the Curtain
  • Part I: Into the Wood
  • Part II: House Hunting in the Third Reich
  • Part III: Lucifer in the Garden
  • Part IV: How the Skeleton Aches
  • Part V: Disquiet
  • Part VI: Berlin at Dusk
  • Part VII: When Everything Changed
  • Epilogue: The Queer Bird in Exile
  • Coda: “Table Talk”

Interview with the Author

The following video is an audio interview with the author of In the Garden of Beasts, Erik Larson:

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