Original date of publication: 2011
My edition: 2011 (Crown)
Why I decided to read: It was offered on Amazon Vine
How I acquired my copy: Amazon Vine, March 2011
I’ve read Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City twice, and also Thunderstruck; so when this book was offered on Amazon Vine, I jumped at the chance to read it. Devil in the White City and Thunderstruck are books that deal with crime; In the Garden of Beasts is a little bit different. In this one, Larson traces the story of the Nazis’ rise to power, from the point of view of an American diplomat and his daughter. William Dodd spent four years in Berlin, but this book focuses on the first year. In reality, the whole family went over to Berlin; but it’s the stories of William and Martha Dodd that are much more interesting.
Dodd was an odd choice for the role of Ambassador; a former college professor, he was more interested in American history and getting his book written than in foreign policy. He wasn’t even Roosevelt’s first choice for the job! But Dodd was a very quiet, unassuming man, and his humility is what makes him so likeable. On the other hand, you have Martha, who, apparently, was quite promiscuous; a good chunk of the book deals with her romances with various men—not to mention the fact that she had a husband at home! There’s a tone of disapproval when Larson talks about her affairs, especially since many of them were with various members of the Nazi party. I think Martha was simply looking for affection and attention anywhere she could get it; and when a woman (or man) sleeps around the way that Martha did, there’s usually a deep-seated reason for it. It would have been interesting if Larson had explored that subject more, including the relationship between Dodd and his daughter.
However, the main focus of the book is the Nazi rise to power, as seen through the eyes of someone who was actually there. Larson bit off a lot when tackling his subject matter, especially since it’s still so controversial, and he tells his story is great detail, which is impressive. I learned a lot about 1933 Berlin that I didn’t know. It’s an informative book, but I wasn’t quite as attached to the main players in the story as I might have been.