Archive for March 14th, 2012

In the Garden of Beasts

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

By Erik Larson

The Short Take:

Larson recounts the early days of Nazi Party dominance in Germany, as seen through the eyes of the thoughtful historian turned ambassador, William Dodd, and his reckless daughter, Martha. Thoroughly documented and written in a suspenseful manner, this book predates the invasions and wholesale genocide of the later Nazi regime, but is still shocking. Almost as shocking are the amorous exploits of the glamorous Martha, who collects lovers of every political stripe.


It’s easy to love Larson and the way he divides a story between two different points of view. In this case, not only are we given a detailed vision of Germany in 1933 and 1934, from two very different people right in the midst of everything, we also see how their impressions collide with those of State Department and diplomacy officials back in the U.S.A.

Considering you know what eventually happens, this book still keeps you on edge. Since so much literature focuses on the later years, learning about the myriad rivalries, plots, and suspicions within the Nazi leadership is eye opening.

It’s an amazing book, though admittedly it’s sometimes hard to read about the suffering and outright terror so many people felt. What’s even harder is reflecting on how many of these same distressing elements are still in the world today. It’s good to read Larson’s masterful book just so we recognize what is going on in the world right now for what it actually is.

A Little Plot:

William Dodd and his daughter  start out their tenure in Germany predisposed to support the Nazis, who seem to bring new energy and pride to a country humiliated and economically destroyed since World War I. Despite contrary reports and rumors, they want to see only the positive side.

Dodd, for his part, is actually far more critical of the extravagance and lackadaisical ways of other embassy employees. He intends to stand as a solid symbol of America: hard working, sensible, down-to-earth.

Martha,on the other hand, is enchanted by all the strong young men, and embarks on a series of love affairs that include high-ranking Nazis as well as Communist diplomats. She is even presented to Hitler as a potential girlfriend.

But gradually, they both begin to change their minds. This not only makes their lives more complicated, it also puts them in greater danger, because no one is truly safe in Nazi Germany.

For more about Eric Larson and his outstanding books, click here.


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