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“In the Garden of Beasts”

Over the Thanksgiving weekend I finished “In the Garden of Beasts” by Erik Larson, who Lincoln readers may recall as the author of the 2006 One Book One Lincoln selection, “The Devil in the White City.”

“In the Garden of Beasts” describes the tenure of William E. Dodd, the United States ambassador to Germany from 1933 through late 1937. These were horribly interesting times, standing so closely by as  the Nazis rose to power.

Dodd wasn’t a member of the upper-crust diplomatic corps. He was an academic, a historian with emotional ties to Germany dating to his student days in Leipzig. This made him an outsider among the diplomatic set from the start. He planned to live within his (relatively small) means, and to avoid the excesses in spending that he detested in other diplomats. He wanted to represent the best of the United States.

The truth of the Nazis became more and more clear to Dodd. And here is where Larson has a difficult task–how can he place us as readers in that time, before the horrors of the Nazis were obvious? One of Dodd’s tasks was to lean on the German government to pay their debts to the United States. This seems absurdly minor in light of what eventually came of the Nazi government. Larson seems to convey that the expectation was that Dodd would maintain friendly relations with that government, and yet as Dodd became more aware of Nazi intentions, friendly relations seemed impossible.

Larson must stir into this mix the remarkable behavior of Dodd’s daughter, Martha. An attractive young woman who was separated from her husband, she carried on many liaisons, including many with members of the Nazi party. The amount of sexual behavior in which she engaged, often within the ambassador’s home, was known in many quarters. I don’t think I’m the only person who wrongly believes that until the 1960’s, Americans were entirely straitlaced sexually. Her behavior seems so out of step with the time. It reminded me of the affairs carried on in wartime London, especially among the Churchill family, described in Lynne Olson’s “Citizens of London.” The story of Dodd’s tenure as ambassador would have been incomplete without including this aspect.

In one sentence, I would describe this book by saying that it’s a quick-reading and fascinating view of an incredible time in our history, the rise of the Nazis in Germany.

A one-sentence evaluation would be that Larson focuses his efforts on the energy of the Dodd family’s story, and from time to time the story needed to establish broader historical foundation. I sense that he too often left it to me to place pieces of the plot in context. I needed to know more about how other countries were responding to HItler, for instance, to understand Dodd’s behavior better. I needed to know more about how an ambassador typically operated. Larson comes awfully close to exploiting the scintillating aspects of Martha Dodd’s sexual behavior and the well-known horror of the Nazis–I would have preferred him to teach me a little more. What I found he did well was to draw the characters as fully as possible.

In the end, I learned a lot, and I’ll likely seek out additional reading. I agree with many of my reading friends who found this an excellent book, it’s just that I’m reserving a little space for wishing that Larson had been a little more scholarly. I will recommend this to people who enjoy history (but maybe not to more serious students of history), to those who like nonfiction, and to the many people with a general interest in the World War Two era.

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