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Erik Larson has been widely acclaimed as a master of narrative non-fiction, and in his new book, the best-selling author of Devil in the White City turns his hand to a remarkable story set during Hitler’s rise to power.
The time is 1933, the place, Berlin, when William E. Dodd becomes America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany in a year that proved to be a turning point in history.
A mild-mannered professor from Chicago, Dodd brings along his wife, son, and flamboyant daughter, Martha. At first, Martha is entranced by the parties and pomp, and the handsome young men of the Third Reich with their infectious enthusiasm for restoring Germany to a position of world prominence. Enamored of the “New Germany”, she has one affair after another, including with the suprisingly honorable first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels. But as evidence of Jewish persecution mounts, confirmed by chilling first-person testimony, her father telegraphs his concerns to a largely indifferent State Department back home. Dodd watches with alarm as Jews are attacked, the press is censored, and drafts of frightening new laws begin to circulate.
As that first year unfolds and the shadows deepen, the Dodds experience days full of excitement, intrigue, romance - and ultimately, horror, when a climactic spasm of violence and murder reveals Hitler’s true character and ruthless ambition.
Suffused with the tense atmosphere of the period, and with unforgettable portraits of the bizarre Göring and the expectedly charming - yet wholly sinister - Goebbels, In the Garden of Beasts lends a stunning, eyewitness perspective on events as they unfold in real time, revealing an era of surprising nuance and complexity. The result is a dazzling, addictively listenable work that speaks volumes about why the world did not recognize the grave threat posed by Hitler until Berlin, and Europe, were awash in blood and terror.
I have rarely been more conflicted about a book than I am about this one. In many ways it was gripping and sometimes mesmerizing and then again, it was also annoying and at the same time, utterly appalling.
The indifference and callously entrenched anti-Semitism of US State Department officials and their consequent tolerance for the atrocities of the Nazi government is hard to stomach.This is not an image of our government that could make anyone proud to be an American.
The failure of all the western nations to do anything to stop Hitler while they could -- with relative ease -- have done so is difficult to fathom. The feather-headed self-absorption of Dodd's daughter is like a case of hives: the more you scratch, the more you itch.
Most of the people in the book are awful in one way or another. Dodd, the ambassador, ultimately grows to become, in his way, heroic. He, at least, saw what was happening and tried -- within the scope of his position -- to do what he could. That no one listened to him is part of the heartbreak.
Worse is that those who failed to act more often than not did so NOT because they didn't believe him (although some really didn't), but because the majority of them were hardened anti-Semites and/or because they thought Hitler was going to rid Europe of the menace of Communism. Hitler as the lesser of two evils? How revolting is that? And all of this led to the bloodiest war in human history, a conflict wherein more than 30 million people died.
The banality of evil has never been more obvious or more terrifying. Read it and weep.
62 of 64 people found this review helpful
What an incredible view of a pivotal moment in history. Perhaps this book is not as powerful if you have middling knowledge of 20th century history, but I found this portrait of Germany and the birth of the Third Reich chilling.
If you have ever asked, "how could THAT have happened?" read this book, and you'll know. Watching Berlin, one of the world's most important cultural centers, dissolve into barbaric, paranoid madness is very disturbing, particularly because of how easily it happened. Its also quite sad to know that there were a few moments at the beginning, here and there, when maybe it all could have been stopped.
I'm still thinking about it all days later. Very worth reading.
47 of 50 people found this review helpful
Very nicely read, this book makes for compelling listening. The book covers a period (1933-37) in which the monster that was Germany grew into something truly awful. William Dodd, the American ambassador in Berlin is nicely drawn. He’s a kind and decent man. We are told he is witty, although the evidence is scanty. If this is true, then the book is quite tragic as it traces a man’s descent from a joyful state into one of stress, ending with major job dissatisfaction and depression. He ends up a sad old drudge, but along the way he runs into some of German history’s strange cast. In fact, the book’s best bits are on the Night of the Long Knives. His daughter, Martha, is a piece of work. She’s a combination of fun-loving, manipulative, sensual and self-righteous that seems to drive all sorts of men to distraction. And she does go through a lot of men. Eventually, she goes off in a direction that would have deeply saddened her ambassador father, I imagine. From Mata Hari to Stalinist in three easy years. The Dodd family members, who are as different as can be, seem to get along very well with one another during a difficult time. It’s a very memorable book.
48 of 52 people found this review helpful
Some have panned this book as having main characters who reader's didn't care about. I can only say that those readers must be looking for heroes. For those seeking to understand HOW Nazi Germany could have happened, this is a perfect addition to the lexicon as a glimpse into America's inertia, latent if not overt anti-semitism, lack of foresight, and even investment driven foreign policy (sound familiar 2011 America???).
There are no Shindlers in this book, just complicated human beings. Additionally, Hitler, Goehring, Goebels, etc. are humans.... flawed, monstrous, paranoid, etc..... yet human, not the PBS or History Channel bad guys we've come to loathe. This is a great book.
One downside.. the narrator is only a B-minus.
22 of 24 people found this review helpful
The book is well-written and well read by the narrator but seems to concentrate almost exclusively on the first two years of Dodd's residence as the US ambassador in Nazi Berlin. Dodd had memories of an earlier Germany as he had studied for his doctorate at Leipzig at the turn of the century, and with his liberal academic training as a historian, his dry wit, and his total lack of sympathy for the rich boy milieu of the then US diplomatic service, he was not long coming to the conclusion that he had been set among a gang of liars, thieves and murderers passing themselves off as the legitimate government of a New Germany. He made his opinions known using historical analogy as a veiled criticism of the Nazi regime. His German audiences understood him perfectly and reacted with thunderous applause: by then they were too frightened to speak out for themselves. The reaction in the State Department was entirely different and a movement got under way to get rid of him before he alienated Hitler, since his main job was to get the German government to pay the 1.2 billion dollars they still owed American investors. The main drama of this story concerns the Night of the Long Knives, June 30 1934, when Hitler, Goebbels and Goering took the law into their own hands and simply assassinated their enemies.
After that the story tails off. What, we want to know, happened in 1935 (open rearmament); 1936 (the military reoccupation of the Rhineland); 1937 (the Hossbach memorandum in which Hitler told his generals to prepare for war).
Not a peep. Was Dodd still in Berlin? Well, yes, he was.
The amorous and rather flighty adventures of his 20-something daughter Martha act as a sidebar to the main story. At first taken up with the glamour and the uniforms and the apparent youthful energy of the Third Reich she underwent her own change of heart and it is suggested she may have become a Soviet agent.
It's a good story. I enjoyed it.. But after 1934 we get only little scraps and tidbits.
33 of 37 people found this review helpful
This book focuses almost entirely on the first year of Hitler's leadership of Germany, told from the perspective of some "ordinary" folks, principally the US ambassador to Germany and his 20-something daughter. The book is written beautifully, with much interweaving of such primary sources as letters, diaries and recollections (including a book written by the daughter in 1939). It also includes details on the lives of the two principals, the bumbling but well-meaning ambassador & his fights with the snobby suits at the State Department. And the loves and partying of the daughter. I thought the book was very well narrated too.
11 of 12 people found this review helpful
It seems to me that there are two kinds of history writing. One kind informs about what happened. A good example of this kind of writing is William L. Shirer’s “History of the Third Reich.” It contains a factual exposition, in time line form, of the events comprising the period it covers. But, after we have some knowledge of the facts, we may want to go further and seek an explanation for the events, that is, why did they happen. It is this second type of history, the “why,” that is the most interesting, and it leads us down further pathways of thought, to ask “Could it have been different?”
“In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin,“ by Erik Larson, does not present any facts that were heretofore unknown to any reader like myself, who has read extensively about the 1930’s, but it does help to explain these events and hence is very valuable. To the casual reader wanting to read a good tale, thanks to the story-telling ability of Larson, “In the Garden of Beasts“ is as engrossing and compelling as any adventure story on today’s fiction book lists. It is a proverbial page turner.
The book impacted me in two ways. First, I lost more respect for President Roosevelt, who has been a hero to many of my generation. Actually, as scholarship of the last 60 years or so has provided more and more information and analysis of Roosevelt’s presidency, for me, he long ago fell from the “greatest American presidents” circle, to that of an important war president (it’s difficult for any non-war president to be considered great). In “In the Garden of Beasts,” Roosevelt’s failure to give our ambassador to Germany (1933-1938), William E. Dodd, who is the main character in this book, clear direction about American policy towards Germany, in spite of the amazing access that Dodd had to personal meetings with Roosevelt. Dodd, a history professor and no strategic thinker, was competent enough to follow Roosevelt’s
14 of 16 people found this review helpful
This book well recounts the eye-opening experience of a rather naive American history professor who arrives in 1933 Berlin as the new US Ambassador. We see Mr. Dodd as a reflection of the best (and sometimes less than best) qualities of a middle American of that period: critical of the snobbish attitudes of his wealthier professional State Department subordinates in the Embassy; seeking to provide well-intentioned advice and a good example to the Nazi leaders so as to improve their behavior and relations with other countries; and expressing on occasion his own anti-Semitic views that were common in the US at that time. A gradual transformation in his attitude toward the Hitler government occurs, culminating in the shocking ???Night of Long Knives??? purge in July, 1934 when Hitler approved the arrest and murder of 100???s of suspect party members (including his long-time comrade Kurt Roehm, head of the SA) and political opponents, including a few army generals whose loyalty to Hitler was questioned. From that point it was fully clear to Ambassador Dodd that the Nazi government was a criminal regime that constituted a serious danger that could not be trusted nor dealt with under normal terms of civilized relations.
Unfortunately for everyone, the US, Britain and France???the key countries in a position to stop Hitler???were slow to recognize or confront the true depravity and dangers of the Nazi regime until it was too strong to stop short of a major war. The West was mired in the Great Depression and guided by public opinion that greatly feared another major war, both of which Hitler recognized and used to his advantage to move forward until he was too powerful to stop without such a war.
The book offers a sub-plot of the Ambassador???s daughter, Martha, who in her mid-20???s made a point of fully enjoying Berlin, with numerous friends and love affairs. She also changed her attitude toward the Nazi regime as she saw its true horrors over time.
13 of 15 people found this review helpful
This is a memoir of an American family living in Berlin during the years Hitler came to power. It is 1933, and William E. Dodd is sent to Berlin as the American Ambassador to Germany. What he and his family saw that year and the ensuing years defies description. It is harrowing. Nevertheless, I am grateful for this remembrance because we must never forget what happened and what led to it being able to happen. Everyone should be educated about this period of time. Otherwise, something similar could sneak up on us even here in America. In fact, check your back from time to time.
Well written and researched. Great narrator.
8 of 9 people found this review helpful
loved this book. good narration of a great new book from a brilliant writer. One of the best audios I had yet in my ~2 years of audible. If you're interested in the folly of the 3rd Reich and the chaos of pre-war Berlin this is a very good way to learn through the authors narrative of the Dodd family.
19 of 23 people found this review helpful