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).