It's 1933 and President Roosevelt is having a devil of a time finding someone to appoint to the post of ambassador to Germany in Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts. All of the usual picks politely decline the post, as news of Germany’s foreboding political atmosphere drifts to America. Roosevelt eventually settles on William E. Dodd, a historian at the University of Chicago whose primary goal is to finish his multi-volume historical treatise on the antebellum South before he dies. By most accounts, Dodd is an odd pick for ambassador, being neither rich nor well-connected. Most ambassadors entertain lavishly during their appointments, and it is expected that the costs will come from their own coffers. Frugal Dodd immediately made waves by pledging to live solely on his meager income, almost unheard of in cosmopolitan Berlin.
Dodd naively sees the appointment as a respite from the trials of University department chairmanship and a boon of time to work on his project. He, like most Americans, is grossly uninformed about the political machinations happening in Germany, as Hitler, Göring, and Goebbels vie for power and German Jews are increasingly menaced. The entire Dodd family decides to come along to Berlin, ready for a new lark: the professor and his wife, Mattie, their son, William Jr., and their beautiful, flirtatious, 24-year-old daughter, Martha (who happens to also be fleeing the wreckage of a precipitous marriage to a banker).
Martha and Dodd form the lenses through which we see Nazi Germany. Larson deftly traces the loss of Martha’s innocence as she at first embraces the “New Germany,” made dizzy by extravagant parties where handsome Nazis like Rudolf Diels, head of the newly-formed Gestapo, romance her. Eventually, she disavows the violence and brutality of the oppressive regime as Hitler cracks down on (largely imagined) rebellion, and Berlin is transformed from an urban paradise into an abattoir.
During the four years of his appointment, Dodd does not reveal himself to be a brilliant statesman. He makes plenty of mistakes, alienating both members of his government back home in American and officials in the Nazi party. He is plain-spoken and intractable when faced with a difficult situation. However, he excels in one way. Once he is in Berlin, meeting officials and taking his own measure of the political climate, he grasps with brilliant accuracy exactly where Hitler is heading and his goals for Germany, its Jewish population, and the world. He sounds the alarm, broadcasting to the American population what is to come. Unfortunately, no one listens.
In the Garden of Beasts is a gripping piece of nonfiction that mesmerizes even as it horrifies. For we all know the tragic outcome of this course of events, and we wish that more people would have listened to Dodd.