In the Garden of BeastsIt’s 1933, and FDR is looking for an ambassador to Germany. The Treaty of Versailles, which ended the First World War, has assigned a massive war debt that Germany must pay. The debt combined with the worldwide depression has contributed to the country’s extremely low morale, the unraveling of the country’s finances, and growing racism that targets the Jews and other groups. The president of the republic is highly regarded. But a crazy man, Adolph Hitler, has just been elected Chancellor. All the most qualified people for the job of American Ambassador to Germany have sadly declined the position. 

Eventually, Roosevelt settles on a frugal, mild-mannered Professor from the University of Chicago, William E. Dodd.  Dodd spent some of his happiest post-college years in German and is sympathetic to the plight of the German people. Dodd wants to finish his history of The Old South, but Roosevelt can be persuasive, and so Dodd packs up his sturdy wife, his recently divorced daughter Martha and his son Bill Jr. as well as their old Chevrolet and brings the family to Berlin.  

To put it simply, Dodd gets there just in time to witness the rapid fall of Germany into a state of almost pure barbarism. Hitler pits factions of the police and military against each other. He encourages them to parade around the city harassing, beating, and even killing anyone who won’t make an overt display of support for the Nazis. The Jews are especially singled out as targets of this new harassment. The press is censored, and brutality is encouraged, while Hitler makes blithe promises to Dodd on a whole range of issues while actually doing nothing to respond to his requests. 

Amazingly enough, Dodd’s daughter Martha doesn’t see any of this. She’s an extremely attractive woman who is immediately courted by some of the leaders of Germany’s police, military, and diplomatic community. She sees the smiling faces of the soldiers as they parade about the city and is convinced that Hitler is restoring German pride, confidence, and industry. Even when she falls madly in love with a communist and hears his take on Hitler, she still maintains her idealistic vision of the rise of the Third Reich.  

Author Eric Larson is an exceptional writer who can convey the growing sense of alarm and panic among the various communities who have not bought into Nazism. He displays particular skill in portraying the leading social and military lights in Germany at the time. Spending time in the pages of this book is to meet some astounding people and share in the terror they feel as the world they love assumes a grotesque form before their very eyes. This is a historical work that reads like a well-constructed thriller. 

Bottom line, Ambassador Dodd recognizes the dangers posed by Hitler rather quickly sends messages to the state department and the president that honestly portray the problems. But he isn’t the right fit, it seems, doesn’t have to right style to become part of the good old club that is the diplomatic corps of the time. Can Dodd rise above all this and deal effectively with the mad world in which he finds himself? Can he warn the president and the state department of the growing threat? And can his attractive daughter finally open her eyes and see the danger she’s put herself, her lovers, and her family in? These are the kinds of questions I’ve find addressed in great novels. The fact that In The Garden of Beasts is really a history of the events leading up to World War II makes this an even more compelling read.