Customer Reviews: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin
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VINE VOICEon March 24, 2011
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
It has been observed that for evil to win all that needs happen is for good men to do nothing. That was what the United States government did, at least officially, for much of the lead-up to World War II. Too often chances to speak out and try to stop the madness that was engulfing Germany were ignored. Too frequently the atrocities were overlooked. Too many times our response to the crisis over there was nothing, nothing, nothing...

But there were exceptions. George Messersmith, who worked at the Berlin embassy, was one of those who tried, often in vain, to bring about some change in the US policies, though he was often ignored as having too vivid of an imagination. So, too, were various Jewish groups in the USA, though they were often ignored for being Jewish. And, eventually, so did William Dodd, the United States ambassador to Germany, though he was ignored because, frankly, too many people didn't want to believe any of what was happening in Berlin.

Before reading this book I had a slightly better than average knowledge of the history of World War II and what led up to it. But even for me there were things to learn. I'd never heard of Dodd or Messersmith. Never heard of Rudolph Diels, or Ernst Hanfstaengl. I knew, at least a bit, about the Night of Long Knives and some what lead up to it, including Ernst Rohm's penchant for pretty young men, but I didn't really grasp much of what was going on that led up to it.

Now, thanks to Erik Larson's latest work, I know these people and I have a much, much improved understanding of what was going on in Germany from 1933 to 1938. Larson gives you a great "on the ground" view of what was really happening, what people thought was happening, what everyone said was happening and why the differences between these things matter. You really get a feel for how Berlin functioned, or didn't function, during this time period.

Larson's previous work, Thunderstruck, where he tried too hard to link the stories of Dr Crippen and Marconi, didn't really work for me, which was a disappointment, since The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America remains one of my favorite books. I'm happy to say this book is at least as good and engaging as "Devil in the White City". This is an excellent, well-written, suspenseful book. Even though I did know the fates of some of the people involved, Larson's writing was still engaging enough to keep me interested, and to occasionally make me wonder if my memory of their lives was wrong (it wasn't).

Anyone with even a casual interest in the events leading up to the war will find this an invaluable read. It's easily the best book I've read this year, and likely to stay that way. A truly wonderful read!
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is the fourth book written by Erik Larson that I have read. In my view, this quartet is a pretty powerful body of work: The Devil in the White City, Thunderstruck, and Isaac's Storm)--and now In the Garden of Beasts. As with Larson's other works, there are several layers to this work. Larson begins by noting that (Page xiv): "This is a work of nonfiction."

At one level, this is a portrayal of a family. Key characters are William Dodd, an academic desperate to write a book on the South who finds himself oddly enough tapped to become the American Ambassador to Germany in the very early years of Hitler's rule of the country. There is also considerable detail given to Dodd's daughter, Martha. She was coming off a failed marriage and she (and her brother and William's wife) accompanied Dodd in his service in Germany.

At another level, the book is about the gathering horror of the Third Reich. Sometimes, Germany seems like a modern, civilized country. At other times, though, the darkness of Nazism manifests itself. One small vignette: H. V. Kaltenborn's advocacy of Germany--and his family's terror at a Hitler demonstration where they were frightened by thugs for not carrying out the German salute with the arm. Other small incidents that portend what is to come pop up over the course of the work, providing a dark backdrop to the surface story.

We see Dodd's interaction with key leaders such as Goebbels and Goring. We read of him trying to protect American interests while becoming concerned about what was happening in Germany. And seeing how his superiors did not want to hear negative reports from him. His daughter? She enjoyed her freedom with a series of romances--including with the famous World War I pilot, Udet, and--extraordinarily enough--the head of the Gestapo, Diels .

There is tautness to the work, as it moves toward its climax with the Night of the Long Knives. The book closes out with Dodd and his family's return to the US and events that took place thereafter.

Another wonderful work by Erik Larson.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Erik Larson is not a novelist but his books on historical subjects are as beautifully written as if a novelist had written them. He has written about Chicago and the 1893 World's Fair, a terrible hurricane in Galveston, Texas, and a doctor/murderer in London. In all his books, he juxtaposes two events or characters and flits between the two. In this book, "In the Garden of Beasts", he presents the Dodd family of four in 1933 and the growing menace of Hitler and the Nazi party. It's brilliant writing at its best.

William Dodd was a professor at the University of Chicago and a product of a southern upbringing. He was mild-mannered and subtle, but fairly ambitious, career-wise. As a self-described "Jeffersonian Democrat", Dodd had come to the attention of newly-inaugurated Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 when Roosevelt and his State Department were looking for a new US ambassador to Germany. Adolf Hitler had come to power in Germany at about the same time as Roosevelt in the United States. Both faced Depression-wracked countries and both set about helping to heal the economic woes. Hitler's plans were much more ambitious at that point; getting out of the Versailles Treaty restrictions and cleansing Germany of her Jewish population were also on the agenda. Roosevelt's appointment of William Dodd as the United States Ambassador to Germany brought many questions from old diplomatic "hands" at the State Department as well as among Roosevelt's aides. Was Dodd "tough" enough to deal with Hitler? And, what WAS "tough enough" in dealing with Hitler and the growing German menace? And, what WAS the "growing German menace"? Lots of questions in 1933 wouldn't be answered until later; later, after "The Night of Long Knives", "Krystalnach", and the whole bloody butchery of WW2.

Dodd brought with him to Berlin in 1933 his wife, and two grown children, Martha and Bill, Jr. It was Martha - then aged 22 and full of life and with a secret, soon-to-be-divorced husband back home - who flirted with both the night-life and the political intrigue of Berlin. She landed in exalted circles - both artistic and political - and lead a rather exhausting love life with Germans, Americans, and Russians.

Life in Berlin in 1933 was easy-going, but still "edgy" as Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party fought for a political future. President Hindenburg was still alive and Hitler was his Chancellor. He was still not in command and would not be so until Hindenburg's death nearly a year later. Hitler was also fighting within his own ranks. His old comrade, Ernst Rohm, led the SA and it was a threat to Hitler. "The Night of Long Knives", in 1934, was the coup staged by Hitler as he got rid of Rohm and a lot of other political enemies. William Dodd, sickened by the violence and the knowledge that Hitler was on the road to world-power, began to speak out firmly about the Nazi regime and the threat it posed.

"In the Garden" is a masterpiece of writing for those interested in the subject. His book, "Devil in the White City", with its story of Chicago and a mass-murderer, might have appealed more to a wider audience, but this book is wonderful for the history buffs among us. I also appreciate the sources he lists at the end of the book.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
When I ordered this book, I only grazed through the description and didn't realize that it was an actual story of someone's experiences, but I was delighted at my error. The author makes his characters really come to life, and gives a fascinating look at a tumultuous time in world history. It also gives a fascinating view of the archaic workings of the State Department. Then as now, it was overwhelmingly entrenched in the status quo, and run by the patrician scions of wealthy families, who went to the right schools, married the right people, and lived out their fantasies of the world as they wanted to see it, and as they wanted it to be. Reality seems like a foreign concept to some of them.

William E. Dodd was appointed ambassador to Germany, simply because no one else would take the job. Once he took the job, he was constantly looking over his shoulders, and suffered from a whispering campaign in the American government, and lack of respect from the German government. Dodd was a gentleman and a scholar, and was not a wealthy man, unlike most other ambassadors. Quite simply, he couldn't afford to live large, and was determined to live within his means, an admirable goal. Would that today's politicians around the world would do the same! He was mocked for that by the patrician caste, and the Germans found his simplicity perplexing and very different from other ambassadors. Dodd and his family went to Germany as liberal people in the best sense of the word. They were interested in other peoples and cultures, high minded, and willing to give people the benefit of the doubt. Dodd had done some of his studies in Germany in his youth, and he was looking forward to returning to the land of Goethe, efficiency, culture, and good living. Unfortunately Goethe didn't live there anymore.

Initially, he was hopeful of finding that rumors of German brutality and horror were exaggerated at worst, and untrue, at best. What was troubling to me was that Anti-Semitism was a seemingly normal and acceptable fact of life at the time, and that the government and State Department were as prone to it as everyone else afflicted with it. Dodd himself, seems to have harbored a mild form of it. Instead of being able to vindicate the Germans, he found out that the rumors were not rumors at all, and were in fact, true. He was, perhaps, naive in his world view, but he was a man that did his job to the best of his ability. He and his wife seemed more like friends that parents to their children, and it was unfortunate. Little is said of his son, Bill, but his daughter Martha looms large in the book, and it becomes a dual snapshot of their lives, with the other family members being merely incidental. He made no efforts to check his daughter's habits, which seemed to include having as many affairs with unsuitable men as possible. Definitely she was a liability, to a man in a sensitive position, but he never seemed to either notice or complain. Certainly he had to be aware on some level of what she was doing, but the subject seemingly didn't come up for discussion.

The book is well written, and I enjoyed the private look into ordinary people thrust into an untenable but fascinating new world. Their initial hopes and their approval of the Hitler government was to slowly unravel. They went to Germany thinking, and especially in Martha's case, that Hitler was good for Germany. They were to become disillusioned, gradually, and learn that Hitler was not only bad for Germany, but bad for the world as well. It seems to me that history repeats itself endlessly, but even a historian doesn't always recognize that something really bad is just around the corner. I came away from the book with admiration for Dodd and his tribulations at the hand of "friends" and enemies. This book was riveting from beginning to end, and I can't recommend it highly enough. The characters are well drawn, and their lives and experiences are told at a good pace. It is never too much or too little. I would definitely read more from this author.
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Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I've read Larson's "Isaac's Storm" and "Devil in a White City," and like those, he's once again done a great job combining scruplous research, vivid writing, a compelling human narrative, and no lack of detail to provide the human story behind historical events. The scope of "Garden" is much vaster than his earlier works, since he's tackling Nazi Germany. The main character, US Ambassador to Germany William Dodd, is a historical figure that I was certainly unfamiliar with.

In the end, though, for me it just wasn't that fulfilling - interesting, informative and well-written, yes, but overall it just left me cold. The problem is as a reader I knew it wasn't going to have a happy ending. So as interesting and semi-heroic as some of the characters were, in the end it's not going to really matter. As interesting and dramatic as the narrative is, I'm left asking, "I care about these people, why?" The worst is horribly yet to come.

However, it definitley made me appreciate the 1933 era that Ambassador Dodd was working in. It's easy to look back now and say "the US should have done this or that," and that's all true, but since the State Department was run by borderline (at best) anti-Semites, the country was heavily pro-isolation, and we were in the middle of the Depression, it just wasn't that easy. At first I thought Dodd was out of his depth, but reading the book made me realize that he might have done as well as anyone could have.

The book certainly does not need a 'happy ending.' But it should add something new to the study of the lead-up to WWII. I think we already knew that US policy was often anti-Semitic, and this book will make you angry seeing our government behave in such a craven way. But, the book offers no answers as to "why," or any present-day perspective that helps us better understand that time period. So we feel bad about what we already know, but there is no look in the mirror for why our country behaved that way - compromising with clearly evil people.

So certainly not meaning to be a negative review...but it provided an "average" reading experience. I did learn a lot, the narrative (based a lot on letters and other correspondence) brought the characters to life, and it's a time of history that I think we have preconceived notions about that are not historically accurate, so it's always interesting to know more, especially when it can be told through the perspective of real people and their true words.
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VINE VOICEon April 4, 2011
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This story is too fascinating and alive with too many compelling characters not to be made into a movie. I found it almost hard to believe it wasn't made up. The world would have been better off it had been.

The Garden of the Beasts begins with the arrival in 1933 Berlin, of a history professor, the newly appointed Ambassador William E. Dodd, a 64 year old unassuming and modest outsider, not from great wealth or a prestigious university as were his predecessors, which will be cause for later misunderstandings. Dodd reluctantly takes the job no one else wants. His goal is an undemanding position so he can leave, what he feels is his mark on the world, his completion of books about the old south. Nothing has prepared him for what lies ahead.

He is accompanied by his wife, son and 24 year old free spirited and flirtatious daughter Martha.

Martha is initially exited and enchanted with what she views as the color and energy of Berlin's rebirth. She enters a social whirlwind of parties, teas, dating and affairs with diverse and sometimes dangerous men, oblivious to the deepening darkness beneath the surface. She even once naively dismisses storm troopers who taunt and parade a woman down a street past a jeering crowd because the woman had associated with a Jewish man. Martha justifies the actions of the Nazis insisting they should not be condemned without knowing the whole story.

Casual visitors to Germany could not see the Nazi's increasingly ominous and less subtle control, the policy of "coordination" and "self coordination;" in which neighbors denounced neighbors to the SA; the Aryan Clause which banned Jews from government jobs and restricted them from the practice of medicine and law; the 1934 law that barred Jews from editing and writing for German newspapers, and the increased attacks against American citizens. "Beneath the surface, however, Germany had undergone a rapid and sweeping revolution that reached deep in the fabric of daily life. It occured quietly and largely out of easy view."

Dodd believed at first that the government would grow more moderate; the Jewish problem would ease and Hitler's government would fall. As he became aware of new repressive measures and new atrocities, he was struck by the German people's indifference and their willingness to "accept each new oppressive decree, each act of violence, without protest."

The book deepens and gathers momentum, showing how as time passes and atrocities increase Dodd becomes more disillusioned even as American Jews back home are divided as to what to do about Germany's treatment of Jews, and the State Department pushes Dodd to focus on collecting Germany's debt to American creditors. Dodd and members of the state department also bicker over matters of seemingly little lasting significance as Germany steps up repression and arrests and appears to be preparing for war.

We meet Hitler's long time friend, and commander of the SA (Storm Troopers), Ernst Rohm; Konstantin Freiherr von Nuerath, Germany's Minister of Foreign Affairs whom Dodd believes to be a moderate; Gestapo Chief, Rudolf Diels whom Dodd likes and Martha dates; Harvard educated, and foreign press chief, Ernest Hanfstaengl who arranges a meeting between Martha and Hitler, hoping they'll become romantically involved. We encounter Goebbels and almost see the expressions change on his face. We witness the enraged and blood thirsty Goring; and listen to Vice-Chancellor Papen, who believes, "Within two months we will have pushed Hitler so far in a corner he'll squeak."

We are there and in on Hitler's purge, the "Night of Long Knives" when Hitler's SS and Gestapo moves against the SA and Ernst Rohm, and murders of over 85 people. We hear the crowd roar its approval when Hitler tells them afterward that he acted only in the best interests of Germany to save the nation from turmoil. We can almost feel Dodd's sighs afterwards, as he loses hope for peace and better relations and writes, "I do not see how anything can be done as long as Hitler, Goering and Goebbels are directing heads of the country."

The book is dense with intrigue, murder, extravagance, romance, deception, paranoia, backbiting, lies and betrayals.

We witness the attempts of some people to tell the truth. George Messersmith, America's consul general for Germany was warning the state Department as early as June, 1933 about the true magnitude of Hitler's threat. In 1938 Dodd says in a speech that, "Mankind is in grave danger but democratic governments seem not to know what to do." There were other warnings that were ignored or dismissed. By Dodd's speech in 1938 it was already too late.

Erik Larson has focused on the events of 1933, and says, "Hindsight tells us that during that fragile time the course of history could so easily have been changed. Why, then did no one change it? Why did it take so long to recognize the real danger posed by Hitler and his regime?"

I think of the quote by Edmund Burke, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

There were too few good men. Too few listened to them. No one acted, and too quickly, it was too late.
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on August 26, 2011
Approximately half this book concerns what others have called "the escapades" of Martha Dodd, the ambassador's daughter. This is a polite way of saying that Martha was aggressively promiscuous, apparently sleeping with any attractive man that came within reach, no matter what his allegience.
Now while this is initially titillating --my God, she's actually sleeping with the Gestapo chief! -- after awhile the recounting of her affairs become tedious and appear to be little more than an attempt to pad the book.
There also is a description of what life was like for Germans after Hitler came to power. Primarily, though, the author concentrates on the privileged elite: what was said or left unsaid at parties or meetings.
What saves the book is the information it provides about Ambassador Dodd, who gradually came to realize the true nature of Hitler and the Nazi regime. His inability to make the government he served, then the American people, understand that the world was on the precipice of horrific war, is heartbreaking.
His story definitely is worth reading. Martha's? Really, who cares?
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on May 27, 2011
While I may have been one of the remaining few who thought that perhaps the average German (during the time leading up to WWII and the actual war) did not really know about the atrocities taking place, this book makes it perfectly clear that THEY ALL KNEW! The concentration camps existed down the street, around the corner, in so many areas and were publicly discussed by Nazi leaders that everyone HAD TO BE aware of them. The story of the Dodd family's life in Germany, their friendships, encounters with Nazi (and other) leaders and attempts to represent a 'normal American' lifestyle are eye-opening.

Don't get me started about Martha (she is the height of 'hoochie-mama-ness' far ahead of her time)! As the daughter of a diplomat, living in a foreign country, she lives her life with no concern for how it reflects on her father, her country or her up-bringing. In fact, it is most apparent that she cares nothing for anyone or anything other than the next attractive/evil/sexually active man who enters her sight! It is not possible to feel any sorrow for her later unhappiness as she and her husband (the one she kept) flee the country and eventually wonder where it would be best to die. Anywhere and much earlier would have been excellent for Martha!

The fact that Ambassador Dodd was correct in his evaluation of Hitler and the path he was following is small compensation for the way Dodd was treated by others in the diplomatic field and in the end by Roosevelt. He was last in line to be offered the ambassadorship to Berlin and was consistently treated poorly - especially when he lived within his means! (Do our present day leaders still subscribe to the belief that it is a bad idea to live on what you earn???)It is a shame that his insights were never given the respect they deserved to perhaps prevent the world-wide conflict that was WWII and the deaths that ensued.

Well written, well documented and a "can't-put-it-down read"! I enjoyed it from start to finish and was impressed with the photos which were one that have not been in every story about the era! An excellent author again writes a great book!
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on April 4, 2011
Format: Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Be prepared to stay up reading into the wee hours once you get your hands on this book. It held my interest better than any novel, and it filled in all the gaps in my understanding of how Hitler was able to gain so much power so quickly, with so little opposition. Erik Larson used the detailed diaries of William E. Dodd and his daughter Martha to reconstruct "a year in the life" for Americans in Berlin from 1933 to 1934.

William Dodd had no idea what he was saying yes to when President Roosevelt offered him the position of ambassador to Germany in 1933. Dodd had fond memories of the Germany of 40 years before, when he'd attended college in Leipzig. Upon arrival in Berlin, he and his family discovered a Germany already in the grip of terror, a mere six months after Hitler had been appointed chancellor. Storm Troopers were attacking people in the streets. Communists and liberals were already being sent to concentration camps without due process.

As ambassador, Dodd found he was required to attend diplomatic functions and rub shoulders with the monsters of the new regime. As the horrors worsened, he found this increasingly repugnant, and tried doggedly to convince those in Washington that intervention was necessary. His entreaties fell mostly on deaf ears. Dodd's bosses were more concerned about getting Germany to pay off their huge debt to America, while maintaining an isolationist position with regard to foreign conflicts.

While Dodd struggled with his diplomatic duties, his young daughter Martha was treating her time in Berlin as a lark. She dated and consorted with highly placed Nazis, including some of the most abominable of Hitler's minions. At first, she enthusiastically endorsed the Nazi agenda and its effect on the "New Germany." By the winter of 1933-34, however, she too was living in terror. This didn't seem to put much of a damper on her dating life, though, and she gained a reputation as quite a round-heeled girl.

In late June of 1934 came "The Night of the Long Knives," in which Hitler orchestrated the rapid execution of hundreds of Storm Troopers and other "enemies," some seemingly at random. That August, President Hindenburg died. Hitler quickly took control and achieved absolute power. William Dodd remained in his position as ambassador for three more years, during which American leaders continued to refuse his requests for intervention in Nazi Germany.

This book has already earned a permanent place in my home library. I can't recommend it highly enough. Great care has been taken to provide all the little things that prevent confusion and make a book easier to read and understand. I would give it six stars if I could.
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on June 1, 2011
I am a huge Erik Larson fan and bought this book with great anticipation. While I finished it and cannot say I disliked it, nor did I find it as compelling as his other work. The narrative seems almost stereotypic in outlining the horrors of Nazi Germany--perfectly accurate of course--but the book never reached any sort of crescendo, as it did in his other works. The plot boils down to: unusual choice for Ambassador goes to Germany; sees Nazi horrors; is largely ignored; and returns home to warn others about what he saw. Again, all accurate and true to the point, but nothing that, in some form or another, any well read person hasn't seem time and again. As my title suggests--flat. Anyone new to this author would be better served with Devil in the White City--a far more exciting and compelling read.
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