Sara's Reviews > In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson
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's review
Mar 31, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: giveaways, world-war-ii, history
Read from May 05 to 27, 2011

Erik Larson certainly knows how to write a history. He takes an unusual angle on a well-known subject and makes it seem like a new discovery.

When I learned about Hitler in school, or later when I would read histories of the era, the big question that I was never ever to answer was "How?" How did Hitler gain power so quickly? How did Germany let this happen? How did Europe let this happen? Why did appeasement seem like a good plan? Larson's book is the closest thing to an answer that I've ever gotten. How could Germany say no to prosperity and a renewed sense of legitimacy in th eyes of the world? And Hitler, a remarkably charismatic leader, could be quite reasonable-sounding when you met him in person.

Oh, sure, there was a darker side. Sometimes people you know would be questioned, or lose their job, or disappear... but if you looked the other way, everything was sunny and coming up roses. And it wasn't just Germany, either. When Willam Dodd became the U.S. ambassador to Germany and moved there with his family, his daughter Martha was especially enchanted with the "new Germany." That enchantment took quite a long time to wear off. Even though tererible things were happening in front of people's very eyes, each incident was written off as an anomoly. Even attacks on American citizens--I had never heard about this before, and I was very surprised.

Larson focuses largely on Ambassador Dodd and Martha. His wife and son (Bill, I think?) are barely mentioned. Dodd was more or less a laughingstock as an ambassador. He lived frugally, wasn't as into the social aspect of ambassadordom as usual, and broke protocol on a number of occasions. He was a historian, not a socialite. Martha was a bit of a scandal, and people gossiped about her. She was involved with several men, including a high-ranking Nazi official and a Russian member of the NKVD (a precursor to the more infamous KGB).

The scariest thing about this book is how absolutely normal everyday life seemed (for the most part) up until the Night of the Long Knives. Why didn't anyone stop the Nazi rise to power? Probably because no one expected things to go the way they did.

Read this book. It's a good one.

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