Jon'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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Jul 25, 2011

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Another of Erik Larson's meticulously researched histories giving virtually a moment by moment description of a brief, cataclysmic period. This is one year in the lives of William Dodd and his family. Dodd was Roosevelt's (not first, second, or even third) pick to be ambassador to Germany in 1933. It is fascinating to read all the actual quotes from diaries and letters describing various peoples' immediate impressions of the same events. Dodd was temperamentally unsuited to be an ambassador anywhere, and certainly not Berlin at this period. He knew that and took the post only reluctantly. At first he had a very difficult time believing that the Nazis could be as bad as they seemed--as a history professor and a Jeffersonian democrat he was convinced that, like politicians the world over, they might posture and rabble-rouse, but in the final analysis they would be rational actors and would do something approximating the right thing. He slowly came to learn that the men running Germany would, in a normal time and place, have been institutionalized. Fears that the same phenomenon might be happening in Washington right now have, I'm sure, helped make this book a best seller. The story includes the escapades of Dodd's daughter Martha, a 20-something intellectual and ingenue who flirted promiscuously with a variety of handsome young Nazis, Communists, and other players who met her fancy. The suspense lies in finding out who will and won't survive the increasing Nazi brutality. The writing is a bit heavy-handed, repeatedly inviting the reader to congratulate himself for being smarter and more discerning than all these people, when in fact all he has is the benefit of hindsight. There is some probably unintentional irony in the title--it refers to the Tiergarten in central Berlin, a large semi-forested park that was originally a game preserve. While in the title it is clearly meant as a metaphor for the bestial viciousness of the Third Reich, the actual Tiergarten in the book is a place of safety and repose--the only place where Dodd could meet people and have private conversations that he could be sure were not being overheard by the Nazis.

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message 1: by Ed (new) - added it

Ed I heard Larson's interview on Fresh Air after this came out, and thought he was really interesting. Thanks for the reminder!

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