In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

For many years I lived in the town of Clayton, and on the corner of Robertson St. and US 70 there is a historical marker for William  E. Dodd  that I have stared at many a time waiting for the light to turn green. It says; “Ambassador to Germany, 1933-37; professor and writer of U.S. history. He was born 2 mi. N.E.”. I always thought it was neat that a local farm boy ended up as an Ambassador to Germany, and always wondered what his story was; well now I know.

In the year 1933, Mr. William F. Dodd, a Professor from Chicago, along with his family (wife, daughter and son) were sent to Berlin by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to become the American Ambassador. Mr. Dodd was the first Ambassador to Germany from the U.S. and settled in Berlin during the year that was to become a turning point in history. Mr. Dodd, a fairly docile gentleman, was perfectly willing to accept the German politicians and their ways, which proved later on, that he was a bit overly naïve. Mrs. Dodd and Bill, Jr. were content with their lot in life and daughter, Martha, was extremely social and loved to party. Some of the handsome young men of the Third Reich were more than happy to show her the town. Martha was so impressed with these men that she had many affairs, one of them with the head of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels.

But, as the days progress, it is evident that the new regime in Germany is starting a little “ethnic cleansing,” as they say now, and the Jewish race and many others are being persecuted. These attacks against citizens of Germany are certainly not kept quiet and Mr. Dodd is getting very nervous and sending letters back to the State Department telling the President what is going on. Sadly, the State Department is very unconcerned about the letters and thinks that Mr. Dodd is crying wolf. Mr. Dodd watches the new laws passed by German Chancellor, Adolf Hitler, and also the newspapers are censored as to what they can write. He even has a meeting with Hitler, where Hitler swore that he was not interested in starting a war. Unfortunately, Mr. Dodd believed Hitler and said so to the U.S. State Department.

Erik Larson has once again created a narrative non-fiction masterpiece. In the Garden of Beasts is another of his skilled well-documented historical chronicles that will join fiction lovers with history buffs, with neither realizing the merge. Mr. Larson, in my opinion, is a master at making this work.

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