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In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin Hardcover – Unabridged, May 10, 2011
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Erik Larson has been widely acclaimed as a master of narrative non-fiction, and in his new book, the bestselling author of Devil in the White City turns his hand to a remarkable story set during Hitler’s rise to power.
The time is 1933, the place, Berlin, when William E. Dodd becomes America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany in a year that proved to be a turning point in history.
A mild-mannered professor from Chicago, Dodd brings along his wife, son, and flamboyant daughter, Martha. At first Martha is entranced by the parties and pomp, and the handsome young men of the Third Reich with their infectious enthusiasm for restoring Germany to a position of world prominence. Enamored of the “New Germany,” she has one affair after another, including with the suprisingly honorable first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels. But as evidence of Jewish persecution mounts, confirmed by chilling first-person testimony, her father telegraphs his concerns to a largely indifferent State Department back home. Dodd watches with alarm as Jews are attacked, the press is censored, and drafts of frightening new laws begin to circulate. As that first year unfolds and the shadows deepen, the Dodds experience days full of excitement, intrigue, romance--and ultimately, horror, when a climactic spasm of violence and murder reveals Hitler’s true character and ruthless ambition.
Suffused with the tense atmosphere of the period, and with unforgettable portraits of the bizarre Göring and the expectedly charming--yet wholly sinister--Goebbels, In the Garden of Beasts lends a stunning, eyewitness perspective on events as they unfold in real time, revealing an era of surprising nuance and complexity. The result is a dazzling, addictively readable work that speaks volumes about why the world did not recognize the grave threat posed by Hitler until Berlin, and Europe, were awash in blood and terror.
“Larson is a marvelous writer...superb at creating characters with a few short strokes.”—New York Times Book Review
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"Tells a fascinating story brilliantly well."--Financial Times
"Highly compelling...Larson brings Berlin roaring to life in all its glamour and horror...a welcome new chapter in the vast canon of World War II."--Christian Science Monitor
"Terrific."--Los Angeles Times
“A stunning work of history.”--Newsweek
“Larson has meticulously researched the Dodds’ intimate witness to Hitler’s ascendancy and created an edifying narrative of this historical byway that has all the pleasures of a political thriller….a fresh picture of these terrrible events.”--The New York Times Book Review
"Larson has taken a brilliant idea and turned it into a gripping book."--Women's Wear Daily
"Harrowingly suspenseful." Vogue.com
"A gripping, deeply-intimate narrative with a climax that reads like the best political thriller, where we are stunned with each turn of the page."--Louisville Courier Journal
"Electrifying reading...fascinating." Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Larson’s latest chronicle of history has as much excitement as a thriller novel, and it’s all the more thrilling because it’s all true.”--Asbury Park Press
"A superb book...nothing less than masterful."--Toronto Globe and Mail
“Even though we know how it will end — the book's climax, the Night of the Long Knives, being just the beginning, this is a page-turner, full of flesh and blood people and monsters too, whose charms are particularly disturbing.”--Portland Herald
"Larson succeeds brilliantly…offers a fascinating window into the year when the world began its slow slide into war."--Maclean's Magazine
"Erik Larson tackles this outstanding period of history as fully and compellingly as he portrayed the events in his bestseller, THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY. With each page, more horrors are revealed, making it impossible to put down. IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS reads like the true thriller it is."--BookReporter.com
"Larson's strengths as a storyteller have never been stronger than they are here, and this story is far more important than either "The Devil in the White City" or "Thunderstruck." How the United States dithered as Hitler rose to power is a cautionary tale that bears repeating, and Larson has told it masterfully."--Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Reads like an elegant thriller…utterly compelling… marvelous stuff. An excellent and entertaining book that deserves to be a bestseller, and probably will be.”—The Washington Post
“Larson's scholarship is impressive, but it's his pacing and knack for suspense that elevates the book from the matter-of-fact to the sublime.”--Pittsburgh Review
“A master at writing true tales as riveting as fiction.”--People (3 1/2 stars)
"Larson has done it again, expertly weaving together a fresh new narrative from ominous days of the 20th century."--Associated Press
""Mesmerizing...cinematic, improbable yet true."--Philadelphia Inquirer
"[L]ike slipping slowly into a nightmare, with logic perverted and morality upended….It all makes for a powerful, unsettling immediacy."--Bruce Handy, Vanity Fair
“Dazzling….Reads like a suspense novel, replete with colorful characters, both familiar and those previously relegated to the shadows. Like Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories or Victor Klemperer’s Diaries, IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS is an on-the-ground documentary of a society going mad in slow motion."--The Chicago Sun-Times
“[G]ripping, a nightmare narrative of a terrible time. It raises again the question never fully answered about the Nazi era—what evil humans are capable of, and what means are necessary to cage the beast.”--The Seattle Times
"In this mesmerizing portrait of the Nazi capital, Larson plumbs a far more diabolical urban cauldron than in his bestselling The Devil in the White City...a vivid, atmospheric panorama of the Third Reich and its leaders, including murderous Nazi factional infighting, through the accretion of small crimes and petty thuggery."--Publishers Weekly(Starred Review)
Praise for Erik Larson
“A ripping yarn of murder and invention.”—Los Angeles Times
“Larson’s gift for rendering an historical era with vibrant tactility and filling it with surprising personalities makes Thunderstruck an irresistible tale.”—The Washington Post Book World
“Gripping….An edge-of-the-seat read.”—People
DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY
“[Larson] relentlessly fuses history and entertainment to give this nonfiction book the dramatic effect of a novel….a dynamic, enveloping book.”
—The New York Times
“A hugely engrossing chronicle of events public and private. Exceedingly well-documented, exhaustive without being excessive, and utterly fascinating.”
“An irresistible page-turner that reads like the most compelling, sleep-defying fiction.”—Time Out New York
“A gripping account…fascinating to its core, and all the more compelling for being true.”—New York Times Book Review
“Superb...Larson has made the Great Hurricane live again.”—The Wall Street Journal
“Gripping….The Jaws of hurricane yarns.”—Newsday
- Publisher : Crown; 1st edition (May 10, 2011)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 464 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0307408841
- ISBN-13 : 978-0307408846
- Item Weight : 1.55 pounds
- Dimensions : 6.38 x 1.43 x 9.52 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #28,988 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
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Martha Dodd dated a series of dangerous boyfriends in Berlin, including a Soviet spy and the chief of the Gestapo secret police. In what may be the most ill-advised matchmaking attempt in world history, a mutual friend even tried to set her up with Adolf Hitler himself, although it never progressed beyond one brief meeting between the German leader and the American ambassador's daughter.
Foreign Service Officers may find the description of the 1930s-era Foreign Service to be of interest. Half-jokingly described as the "Pretty Good Club," the Foreign Service was then comprised mostly of wealthy men who were able to spend well beyond their government salaries while overseas. Anti-Semitic attitudes were both common and socially acceptable in the State Department of that era, which helps explain why America failed so miserably to accept Jewish refugees from Germany during the 1930s.
Wisconsin residents and University of Wisconsin alumni may be interested in a supporting character in the book, Milwaukee native and UW-Madison alumna Mildred Fish Harnack. She had moved to Germany and was a friend of the Dodd family in Berlin. Although she was an American citizen, she stayed in Germany after the war began, organized a anti-Nazi resistance group, and was executed by the guillotine on Hitler's orders in 1943. The University of Wisconsin Law School has an annual human rights lecture series named in her honor.
Top reviews from other countries
This story is of course shocking, the rise of National Socialism (there was nothing socialist about it) Hitler and his gang of acolytes, the hate, the suffering, the rise and fall of Nazism, the death of democracy and the subjugation of an entire nation to the will of one man to dominate those around him. We have all read about what happened to Germany, an educated, civilised and cultured modern state turned into a living hell.
However for me this story is even more shocking than the writ large essays by leading historians who have covered this period endlessly. This story is about how all this affected a small and decent family from a far off land. How they saw at first hand how the Jewish community were being persecuted, how an orderly law abiding society was slowly changing into a thugs paradise. How the rule of law was perverted or more often then not just ignored, and how new laws were passed purely to allow certain members of society to be treated like criminals based purely on their religion. How these actions by a vindictive new force affected the family is just as interesting as what they eventually did to a nation.
The author has been honest with the reader and made it clear that these changes took place slowly over time, a new rule here, a new decree there, a beating in the street, a hanging in the park, communities put under siege, forced to move, forced to leave their jobs. All these incremental moves eventually added up and, as we all know, culminated in the Holocaust and the systematic murder of millions. The families struggles with what was happening all around them and how it affected each of them individually is illuminating and perhaps answers the often asked question as to how a cultured society was turned into a ferocious beast in a few short years.
Turning a blind eye, looking the other way, perhaps having little sympathy for the victims and holding Anti Semitic views, believing the crude lies of the propogandists, too little questioning of those in power, little or no oversight, or perhaps just too scared to stand out from the crowd and say something. People who did often lost their jobs or were turfed out of their homes or just disappeared one dark night after a knock at the door.
This is the shocking part of this story, how a civilised, cultured, educated and law abiding democracy became a beast through the democratic process. Germany wasn't invaded or taken over by a foreign power, the people voted for these changes and because of political unwillingness and/or cowardice allowed the beasts to gain power and draw the whole world into a conflict like non ever seen before.
Seen through the eyes of the family, the looming conflict of political isolation and possible world war is brought much closer, made more intimate. Stalin said "one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic" and it's the writers ability to describe many small or even trivial despicable actions that make the big picture more understandable. The daughter seems to have struggled the most with how to deal with the new regime and it's loathsome views, perhaps her youth, inexperience of politics and maybe a willingness to look away from the ugly side of this new world played a part in her getting confused as to what was right and wrong. Perhaps many German young man and women were conflicted the same way and decided to say nothing or look the other way. When your very life and the lives of others you know are at stake it's is understandable that you would feel powerless to do anything.
In the end this is a book about an American family and how they tried to deal with extraordinary times, but I suspect their story is not very different from millions of similar German families also caught up in a conflict perhaps just too big to manage.
Superior writing about a very dark episode in Europe's history.
Dodd was born a southerner. He had studied at Leipzig University around 1900, so knew German and liked the country. He had become professor of History at Chicago University in 1909. He had been a supporter of the new American president, Franklin Roosevelt, and had hoped for a sinecure ambassadorship in a country like Holland or Belgium, that would give him time to complete a history of the American Old South. Instead, on June 8th, 1933, he was offered and accepted the Berlin Embassy, after four other men had declined the offer. At the time he was 64, and Martha was 24.
Dodd was born a southerner. He had studied at Leipzig University around 1900, so knew German and liked the country. He had been a history professor at Chicago University He had been a supporter of the new American president, Franklin Roosevelt, and had hoped for a sinecure ambassadorship in a country like Holland or Belgium, that would give him time to complete a history he was writing of the American Old South. Instead, on June 8th, 1933, he was offered and accepted the Berlin Embassy, after four other men had declined the offer. Dodd himself did not approve the ferocity of Nazi antisemitism, but thought the Germans had valid grievances against the Jews.
The family eventually moved into a house in the Tiergartenstrasse. (Tiergarten is translated as “the Garden of Beasts.)
As street violence against Jews decreased and those that did occur were disowned by the regime, Dodd reported that the Nazis were becoming more moderate – ignoring the fact that the regime was now banning Jews from more and more professions and was about to deprive them of German citizenship. Dodd did decline an invitation to attend a Nazi party rally at Nuremberg, on the grounds that it was a party and not a state occasion; but his decision met with displeasure at the State Department as being provocative.
In October 1933, Hitler withdrew Germany from the League of Nations and from a disarmament conference; but Dodd was initially convinced by Hitler’s assurance that he wanted peace. His despatch to Washington to that effect was contradicted by one sent by George Messersmith, the American Consul-General in Berlin. Dodd began to be dissatisfied with Messersmith, and suspected him of coveting his own job. He also thought, wrongly, that Messersmith was Jewish, and felt that in any case there were too many Jews working in the American embassy, and he mentioned this to the State Department. When Messersmith was in Washington on leave, he reinforced the State Department’s low opinion of Dodd. There were in fact people in the State Department who would have liked to move Dodd, but were unable to do so because he enjoyed the friendship and support of President Roosevelt.
In March 1934 Dodd went on two months’ leave back to Washington. He had to spend a lot of time defending himself against his detractors in the State Department – and trying to get Jewish leaders to moderate their attacks on the Nazis: it would only make matters worse for the Jews in Germany.
Dodd and the German government were increasingly at odds: the Germans expected the American government to clamp down on anti-German activities in the US; Secretary Hull replied that the American government, unlike the German one, could not suppress freedom of speech; and in turn made demands that Germans in the US cease anti-American activities.
Dodd was also beginning to feel that Hitler’s assurances that he wanted peace were simply a move to buy time in which to rearm, and he also now saw that the Nazi persecution of Jews, though less physically violent, was relentless. But in June 1934, jst before the Night of the Long Knives on June 30th, 1934, he believed that the regime could not last much longer.
But after that event, Dodd turned decisively against the Nazis and warned the State Department of Nazi ambitions and of the danger of American isolationism. Roosevelt shared his view, but the American public was more than ever isolationist. Dodd withdrew from as much contact with the regime as possible. The Germans were aware of his hostility and likewise cold-shouldered him. The State Department thought that he was now useless as an ambassador, and wanted him removed. By 1936 Dodd himself contemplated resigning, and he could have given his deteriorating psychosomatic state of health as an excuse; but he decided against it, as it “would be recognized as a confession of failure.” Instead, he took another period of leave in the United States. Roosevelt urged him to stay as ambassador for a while longer. In his absence, one Prentiss Gilbert, who was acting ambassador, attended one of the Nazi rallies in Nuremberg, something Dodd had always refused to do. Dodd wrote a letter of protest to the State Department; the letter was leaked; and the Germans indicated that he was now persona non grata. Dodd felt that if he resigned now, it would be seen as the result of German pressure, and he agreed with Roosevelt that he should stay as ambassador at least until March 1, 1938, and he returned to Berlin. But Roosevelt came under such pressure from the State Department that Dodd was asked to leave before the end of 1937. He was succeeded by Hugh Wilson, who praised Hitler, and promised Ribbentrop that he would do all he could to keep America out of war and accused the American press of being “Jewish controlled”.
Back at home, Dodd became an active opponent of isolationism, making speeches warning against Hitler and deploring the appeasement policies of the European democracies. He died in 1940.
Martha was a real flirt. She had broken off several engagements. She had married in March 1932, but the marriage was rocky from day one, and she left her husband when her doting father asked her to go with him to Berlin, though she would not be divorced until 1934. She later described herself as having been “slightly antisemitic”, and believed that Germany was being reborn by the Nazis. She was taken with Berlin and with the Germans she met, and gave no credence to the horror stories she was told. Vivacious and attractive, she was soon a member of the diplomatic set, and attended lavish parties – a contrast to the modest entertainments proffered by her father, who was not a rich man and insisted on living modestly on his salary alone. Martha had several sexual affaires. She also met some senior Nazis, the first of whom was Ernst Hanfstaengl, the Nazi foreign press chief and a friend of Hitler’s.
Another was Rudolf Diels, the relatively moderate chief of the Gestapo, with whom she probably had an affaire. Her father also liked him: Diels occasionally released, at Dodd’s request, foreigners from concentration camps and punished SA men who had attacked Americans, usually for not giving the Hitler salute. But Himmler, then the head of the SS, clearly wanted to take over the Gestapo, too; and Diels told Martha that he feared for his life. He was in fact removed from his post in April 1934; was arrested after the plot of July 20th, 1944 against Hitler, but survived; testified for the prosecution in the Nuremberg trials, and became an official in the West German government.
Martha also had an affectionate relationship with one Boris Winogradov from the Soviet embassy. He was actually an NKVD operative; but he was probably genuinely in love with her. She spent a lot of enjoyable times with him, but did not allow herself to be seduced.
She attended the trial in November 1933 of the five men accused of having set the Reichstag Fire. She was disgusted by Goering’s performance and impressed by the defendant Dimitrov, whose aggressive defence led to the acquittal of four of the five defendants. She gradually became disillusioned with the Nazis, stopped defending them, and showed a new interest in the Soviet Union. She travelled to that country, without Boris, though he was in the Soviet Union at the same time, and, to her displeasure, pleaded that he was too busy to be with her. She wanted to marry him, and had actually written to Stalin asking for his permission; but the NKVD was displeased with the lack of energy of Boris’ work with Martha, and approached her directly, hoping to recruit her. To a minor extent, it got information from her. The NKVD posted Boris to Romania and then to Poland, where Martha would meet him again in 1937, on her way back from a second visit to Russia. She met him one last time in Berlin, just before she returned to the USA in 1937. Boris had come from Warsaw, without permission, to see her.
She returned to America two weeks before her father’s final departure in 1937 – and within six months married a left-wing America, Alfred Stern. He, too, would work for what was now the KGB. By the time Martha wrote to Boris to tell him of her marriage, he had been executed in one of Stalin’s purges.
Martha and Alfred were very public about their interest in communism, and were summoned by the Un-American Activities Committee in 1956. They fled to Mexico and later settled in Prague. There she gradually became disillusioned with communism, and deplored the Soviet occupation after the “Prague Spring” in 1968. But she remained in Prague, where she died in 1990.
It has two very good things going for it. First, it is an honest look at how real people viewed the rise of Adolph Hitler. And it is an honest look at how anti-Semitism played a huge part in those views. However, Larson doesn't condemn the characters for not protesting enough, or for their anti-Semitic beliefs, or even for openly accepting and admiring Hitler's government. Nor does he praise them in the end, when they finally realize how bad the situation really is. Rather he tries to understand their thoughts, feelings, and actions from their own vantage point and give us a good feeling of what it would have been like if we were there. It's a refreshing, more objective view of history and one I thoroughly enjoy.
The second wonderful part of this book is the feeling of walking the streets of Berlin. Larson has a good flair for narration and the reader is transported to those streets, and can feel, see, smell, and almost touch the sights and sounds of the end days of the Weimar Republic. I hope on my next trip to try and find some of those sights. The book had deepened my love and interest in the city and has opened my eyes to a part of its history I had thought to ignore.
As for history books, this is less a conventional history, and more a personal insight. There is a general overview of the events that led to Hitler's seizure of power, but if you are looking for a deeper reading, than Larson's book is not for you. This book is unlike his others and I don't think his intention was to write just narrative history, but rather to try and experience a historical moment from the eyes of its witnesses. Fascinating. Definitely worth five stars. I read it in less than 48 hours.