It was 1933, and the head of the University of Chicago’s history department, William Dodd, was dispatched as the American Ambassador to Germany. He took his wife and grown children with him to a country that was witnessing the rise of Hitler. Nobody wanted to believe that things were as perilous as they seemed. Including Dodd. This is the premise of Erik Larson’s latest work of nonfiction In the Garden of Beasts, which details the life of one American family in Berlin, and the horror that they watched unfold.

Ambassador Dodd was not your typical American ambassador. A self-made man, an academic, and hailing from a modest background, he was unlike the wealthy men of privilege that usually filled out the diplomat corps. He took the job believing it would give him time away from the stresses of academia and allow him to finish his magnus opus on Southern history. He had no idea of what he stepped into. No one did. At the time the world was inclined to ignore the rumblings from German, the stories of the oppression of Jews and the nationalist fervor that was building up. Including Dodd and his family, even during the first year that they lived there.

Larson’s work focuses on Dodd and his adult daughter Martha– a free spirit, who was a bit of a bohemian who took a multitude of lovers while in Germany, including members of the Nazi party and Soviet agents. Let’s just say that Martha loved living on the edge, and living on the edge she did– initially, she refused to believe the reports of the horrors that were beginning to come to the surface in Germany, instead preferring to believe it to be a country that was trying to get back on its feet after a devastating war. Dodd was also inclined to give the benefit of the doubt, to the consternation of a select few diplomats that also served with him– he preferred to not worry about the “Jewish Problem,” believing that Hitler could not possibly last while in power.

The book is wonderfully written and moves along at a crisp pace– it weaves a web of  with intrigue surrounding the main characters. It builds and builds up to the “Night of the Long Knives” which is when Hitler launched a massive and terrifying attack against his enemies and took total power over Germany. From that moment on Dodd (and his daughter) began to speak out against Hitler and Germany, but no one would listen. No one wanted to hear them, even after they returned to the US four years later and Hitler’s aggression was apparent. The government instead followed a model of appeasement.

Larson is a fantastic writer– this is a historical book that is paced as a novel, and it is as tense and thrilling as any spy thriller–but it is for real. The book is really thought-provoking. Why did the government just look the other way? Why was the world not willing to confront the truth? How could we just let a madman run amok, and deny that he was violating human rights while the US’ s own ambassador was frantically cabling for the government to just listen to him? Of course,  these sorts of things continue to happen, governments continue to look the other way as madmen slaughter their own people–but this book gives yo a fantastic look into how an entire country (Germany) could willfully deceive itself, and the historical and social circumstances that surrounded Hitler that allowed him to rise to power.

This is a great book, one of the best nonfiction works I have read this year. Do yourself a favor, go read it and have your eyes opened, because we cannot repeat the mistakes of the past.

Ciao for now,

Bookish C