In the Garden of Beasts is the latest of Erik Larson’s extremely interesting histories. In a couple of his books, he takes the approach of juxtaposing two seemingly different subjects and showing how they are related, for example, in Thunderstruck, where he tells the story of Marconi and the invention of radio and how that affected the capture of the famous British murderer, Crippen. In other books, though, he has managed to make historical events more personal by relating them from the point of view or one or two people. Such is the case with In the Garden of Beasts, which follows William E. Dodd’s years as the American ambassador to Germany during the build-up of Nazi power before World War II (1933-1937).
The book is about the experiences of Dodd and his family as they witnessed the events of those times. It focuses mostly on Dodd and his daughter Martha, based upon their letters and memoirs.
Dodd was in many ways an uncomfortable fit for the position of ambassador. He was an academic–a historian whose previous position was chairman of the history department at the University of Chicago. He had worked his way up from extreme poverty and believed that he had not risen as far as he would have if he had come from a more privileged background.
Dodd was a personal acquaintance of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and he requested a position as an ambassador of a small country from FDR, hoping both to add to his prestige and to be able to devote more time to writing his history of the South. In an ironic twist, though, he was offered Berlin, a much more demanding situation than he wanted and no sinecure, after several other candidates turned it down.
He saw his role as that of a reformer. He intended to live modestly on his salary and provide the other employees in the diplomatic service with an example of good stewardship of public funds, never understanding that his frugality was more likely to be misunderstood by his colleagues from more privileged backgrounds, who were the more usual occupants of such a position and who viewed him with disdain. In fact, some of them circulated a malicious and untrue rumor that FDR had made a mistake with the phone book and offered the job to the wrong Dodd.
The family was at first inclined to believe that the stories of attacks on foreigners and Jews by the SA (German Stormtroopers) were exaggerated. Frankly, they were also somewhat anti-Semitic. Martha admired the vigorous blond young men who were excited by the rise of Hitler, and she socialized with men in the Nazi leadership. In fact, she was quite the party girl, in every sense of the term. Dodd naively thought that he would have more impact on German policies if he maintained friendly relations with the country’s leaders, no matter what he thought of them personally.
It took Dodd an inordinately long time to recognize the truth about the kind of people he was dealing with, especially considering all his sources of information. However, when he did, he was at times heroically unflinching about standing up to the Nazi high command.
The genius of this book is that it relates history from the point of view of naive onlookers whose understanding of the situation and sense of danger grow slowly, rather than from complete hindsight. The book brilliantly conveys the feel of the time and place as the Dodds slowly realize the extent of the Nazi atrocities and begin to understand the growing terror of the German citizens. Dodd is an interesting character, a man who is sneered at by his staff and the Germans for his fuddy-duddy qualities, such as leaving state balls at 11 to go to bed, but who startles them several times by having the courage to stand up to Nazi leaders.