Richard'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
Jul 27, 11

bookshelves: 2011
Read in July, 2011

I have to admit, I didn't quite "get" this book. It's a history of Hitler's consolidation of power, using the tenure of Ambassador William Dodd as an organizing structure, and told as if through the eyes of a gossip columnist.

The title is great. The Tiergarten, the power neighborhood of Berlin, is literally translated as the Animal Garden, because it was the location of the zoo. Author Erik Larson uses the translation Garden of Beasts, and that is poetically apt because is was the locale of German government, and Hitler and his gangster cronies were roaming around. The sub-title immediately refocuses us, and lessens the impact of the title. But it's not so much love as sex, not so much terror as denial, the American family is, alas, just that nuclear, small minded, and anti-Semitic. Pres. Roosevelt needed an ambassador and Bill Dodd seemed to do - but just barely.

The threads running through In the Garden of Beasts are the high drama of the Nazi's political success, the low drama of the foreign service in-fighting, the gossip of Martha's affairs with just about anybody, and the scandalous behavior of Hitler's henchmen.

The author gave me the impression that while Bill Dodd was misreading events, denying the Reich's gangsterism, and complaining about the foreign service old boy network, his daughter was sleeping with every available guy in Berlin - Nazi and otherwise, his wife was organizing parties, and his son was nowhere to be seen. The only American who made any sense was US Consul George Messersmith, but he and the ambassador were not on the best of terms. But politcs don't seem to be as important to this account as peccadillos, and even they get tedious.

Of positive note is the author's excellent handling of the Nazi party purge known as the Night of the Long Knives. Erik Larson pulls that off in thriller style.

By the end of his tour Ambassador Dodd does score a few positive points albeit so nuanced as to be minor - a critique of tyranny expressed with the Roman empire as the subject era, sending regrets for his attendance at the first Nuremberg rally while organizing other embassies to do the same, but he never outgrows his anti-semitism, and, poor man, never completes his magnum opus of a three volume history of the old south. Martha eventually comes to her senses, the Mrs. and son fade into obscurity.

By the end of the book I felt as though I'd finished a People magazine version of history, entertaining but illuminating only as the sputter of gossip illuminates.

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message 1: by Mmars (new) - added it

Mmars Like your review. I'm still interested in reading it ---- someday.

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