In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin
When William Dodd accepted the post as the first U.S. Ambassador to the Third Reich, no one told him – no one knew – that it was like the "Land of Oz" and that behind the screen of the "great and powerful Oz" lay some secrets the Thousand Year Reich did not want exposed.
Award-winning and best-selling author Erik Larson pulls back the screen and exposes the world behind the glamor of 1933 Berlin with its beribboned, dashing young officers. Its seeming gaiety and the never-ending round of parties. This was the world into which the first Ambassador to Hitler's "Thousand Year Reich", William Dodd and family were thrust when he accepted the post.
Larsen is a skilled story-teller who has a rich body of material to work with. Indeed, it takes a craftsman to walk the fine line where his work remains true to the moment so that Dodd's unusual and sadly frustrating years as America's top diplomat to Hitler's Reich remains the centerpiece without slipping off as a sad sideshow to the life his family led as they were seduced, wined and dined by the country's ruling elite.
Dodd was just a college professor when he was tapped by then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt to become the top diplomat in Berlin. He brought his wife, son and daughter with him on this assignment. Martha becomes the chief protagonist in this piece as the flamboyant young woman is not only swept off her feet by the royal treatment she receives, but is swept into the arms of lovers such as Rudolph Diels, first head of Hitler's feared secret police, the Gestapo and then into the arms of others.
Larsen, using Dodd's accurate reporting, skillfully recounts the rising horror as he hears reports of Jews disappearing and of regular beatings in the streets. Dodd knew there was a "special program," as it was easy to see, aimed at Jews and he reported the facts to a State Department that seemed not care enough.
By now nearly every Dodd's cable to the State Department seems to be met with not much concern even as Hitler enacts the racist "Nuremberg Laws," where the degrees of "jewishness" are established with penalties attached. Larsen shows us Dodd's frustration mounting, also as the Reich leadership becomes more and more oppressive and erratic. Newspapers are censored; reporters and other disappear.
Larsen, whose gripping writing takes us through this dark period in history, builds his work like a composer builds a symphony as the intrigue, excitement and romance lead inexorably to the cataclysm called "Crystal Nacht," where Jewish shops are burned and ransacked, their owners beaten senseless by thugs with clubs and ax-handles, all in the name of the "pure" Reich.
Larsen's portraits of the bizarre behavior of Goering and the slimy Goebbels are spot on.
This work deserves a place on your reading list if you enjoy good history and it most certainly deserves a spot there if you like good writing and portraits painted as if by a painter. Larsen deserves high praise for his work. It was chosen for an Amazon Best Books Award.
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