First of all, if you haven't read anything by Erik Larson up to this point, let me recommend The Devil in the White City as a starting point. I enjoyed In the Garden of Beasts, but it's not his best work. If you begin with this book, I fear you will never come back around to the excellent tale of the Chicago World's Fair (and co-occurring rampage of a sadistic murderer running amok during the chaos) in 1893. But Devil hooked me and so here we are.
This is the true account, based on journals, letters, and telegraphs kept and sent by Ambassador Dodd, of life in Germany during the rise of Hitler. I'm sure I'm not the only one of my generation who has ever said, "How in the HELL did they let this happen?" And by they, I mean our president, our secretary of state, our world as a whole. How did no one foresee the way this was all going to play out? But after reading In the Garden of Beasts, I get it.
Ambassador William E. Dodd was appointed by President Roosevelt to fill the position in Berlin in 1933. Dodd, who at the time, was serving as a college professor while he wrote his multi-volume historical account of the south in his free time, was looking for an ambassador role...preferably in Austria or...really, anywhere quiet that would allow him to focus the majority of his time on his writing. And Roosevelt had procrastinated filling the Berlin position after he had been turned down by everyone he asked. At last, someone at a dinner party mentioned Dodd and he, having no clue what awaited him just one year down the road, took it.
Dodd moved his family, including his wife, son, and party-girl daughter Martha, to Berlin soon after the appointment. Martha was separated from her husband at the time and saw the trip as one of infinite opportunities. Dodd and his wife saw it as a chance to impact world politics and impart on the German people what a level-headed bunch they were. They refused all standard ambassador treatment, including a luxurious house with countless staff and a fleet of cars at their disposal. They, instead, rented the upstairs portion of a house located just outside the gates of the Tiergarten (the park, loosely translated to "Garden of Beasts" from its days as a zoo, located in the middle of Berlin). During any other moment in time, any other regime, this modest living would have been respected and perhaps even admired, but Hitler's Germany equated power with wealth...or at least the appearance of wealth. Dodd refused to let his appointment (and the debt these appointments incurred on the American people) become a burden for an already taxed U.S. economy. He vowed to live within the salary he was given (and forgo the extravagant dinner parties that ambassadors were expected to host). The end result was Hitler's Germany dismissing him as a respectable authority representing the interests of the United States.
The entire Dodd family missed the importance of the rise of Hitler as it was happening. Ambassador Dodd saw Hitler as quiet and even cowardly and Martha saw only the exciting adventures that this new Germany offered. Even as Dodd began to catch glimpses of Hitler's true intentions and the power behind them (as Jews were forced out of jobs and housing and laws directly affecting Jews were being enacted everyday), Martha courted disaster as she carried on romantic affairs with the Gestapo leader, Rudolf Diels and the Soviet attache/secret NKVD agent, Boris Vinogradov. The men of the Third Reich were dashingly handsome and infectiously enthusiastic about The New Germany. Against her father's better judgment, she found herself singing right along with the Third Reich's anthem at a dinner party and even giving the Heil Hilter arm salute.
It was not until a road trip to a village outside of Berlin, where Martha and her traveling companions witnessed a Jewish woman and her Aryan lover being paraded through the streets after being severely beaten, that she began to question her unwavering support of the New Germany. Ambassador Dodd had long since been warning the State Department back in D.C., as well as President Roosevelt, of increasing unrest in Berlin. But it was all falling on deaf ears. And Dodd, never one to become too demanding or loud, pushed where he could and let the rest fall where it may.
The novel concludes with the day Hitler rose to ultimate power and all of the violence and death that accompanied that moment. The fear the Dodds felt is tangible in those pages and you get a real sense of how Berlin went from inhabitable to Hell overnight. Especially if you were Jewish. Or had sympathies towards the Jewish people.
The Dodds hurried home shortly thereafter and pretty much fell apart. Martha and her brother separated ways and Ambassador Dodd and his wife split their time between D.C. and a Virgina farm. And as we all know...then there was war.
While I was quick to mention that this is not Larson's most engaging novel, it certainly paints a vivid picture of Berlin in the months before Hitler's rise. The Gestapo and the police and the military...all fighting for power over the city's citizens...and Hitler calling the shots from his director's chair. He was not seen as fearsome or loathsome. At one point, one of Martha's close friends even sets her up on a date with Hitler, but neither seemed interested (although Hitler did admit to Diels later that he remembered meeting her). And that is how it happened. Under the cover of night, so slowly at first that anyone really noticed, and with the help of devoted followers who believed in their cause and in their leader.
I would recommend this book for anyone who enjoys a historical account of Germany. It gets thick with names and associations at times and I think some of it interferes with the underlying story. While it is, for the most part, an engrossing story, there are small bits of boring sections that I skipped. Ambassador Dodd's wife and son are mentioned, but the spotlight remains on the ambassador and Martha through most of the book. Martha's exploits with the men of the Third Reich makes for juicy reading and Ambassador Dodd's view of the New Germany makes you sympathize while also shaking your fists. There's a little bit of a love story, as Martha truly felt herself in love with Soviet agent Vinogradov and there is tons of violence towards the end, if that's your thing. But mostly, it's a well-researched and easily understood account of the months leading up to a time of impenetrable darkness.