In the Garden of the Beasts

December 28, 2011 at 7:06 PM | Posted in Books, Uncategorized | 10 Comments
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In the Garden of the Beasts by Eric Larson seems like one of those novels that drop famous people into its dinner parties (‘as I was saying to Proust as he dipped …’), novels that strain belief. But this is a work of non-fiction and a great one.

I am by no means a student of the Nazi era in Germany but I’ve read a number of books, including The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer and seen the famous news reels many times. The story is always shocking – perhaps because Germany is a great country with so many great men; perhaps because there are so many American’s of German ancestry.

This is the story of a new and inexperienced U. S. Ambassador to Germany, William E. Dodd, who took over just as Hitler was gaining steam. Dodd was a professor and got the job after many had turned it down. He came with his family, including his daughter, Martha Dodd Stern, one of the great flirts of all time. He had studied in Leipzig as a student, was fluent in German and very naive. But at the end of his four years, he was one of the few Americans who understood what was happening under the world’s nose.

The gang’s all here: Hitler, Göring, Goebbels, Himmler, Rudolf Diels, Ernst Rohm and the “Zelig”, Putzi Hanfstaengel and we see them in their offices, at rallies and at the dinner table. Russians? Yes, as lovers and spys.

Dodd was there for the “night of the long knives” and I must say that Hitler reminded me of Michael Corleone taking down his enemies while at Church for his nephew’s baptism, except that Hitler performed several of the executions himself. I was surprised by this as Hitler is one of the greatest cowards in the rogues gallery of leaders.

We, of course, know how the story ends but here is a new angle in, and one well worth reading and thinking about.


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  1. Yes..I read this book a couple of mos. ago and thought it was a great read. I might be going a bit overboard here but I think Dodd ranks as one of our all time great ambassadors in our Foreign Service. He might have started his tenure in Berlin thinking he can “work” with the Nazis (in the early 1930’s) but soon found Germany to be a gangster state. Eventually he was outspoken against them, even getting himself “fired” for being too “uncooperative” with Hitler and his gang. Goebbels especially hated Dodd. So much so that Goebbels wanted ex Ambassador Dodd “silenced” in the US for saying things like “Hitler wants to kill all the Jews.” No one believed Dodd then…unfortunately they believed him yrs. after his death in 1940. Goebbels was the great swine….he couldn’t even committ suicide by himself…had his whole family (wife & children) go down with him.
    Larson’s one of my most favorite authors.

    • Bill, your note is a perfect additive to the book. You have captured the essence!

  2. This has been on my to read list for quite some time. Larson has a real skill for making nonfiction feel like fiction doesn’t he? Have you read his book “Devil in the White City”? Also a great read and many famous people and products pop up in that one as well.

    • Yes, I did read Devil and that led me to Beasts — and I agree that it has a similar, if more evil, flavor. Have you read other Larson books?

  3. I’ve recently been reading David Downing’s fictional treatment of this era. Four tense novels featuring an Anglo-American journalist in Berlin with a German son and partner. ‘Potsdam Station’ is the first in the series. The background and social settings are convincing and the most compelling aspect is the sheer efficiency of the Nazi regime in the pre-war period. Their crimes being clearly planned, methodically carried out, and involving a large number of people.

    • Oh, you and your groups of books!! I had not heard of the books or author but will give it a go. I’ll send you an email on a book I am listening to that was written just for you — it’s about the Civil War from the perspective of England.

      • …says the Proust-lover! Is it by Amanda Foreman? She’s Carl Foreman’s daughter. Got a funny story about him to tell you some time.

      • Yes, Amanda Foreman. Have you read the book? Long but great and was Top 10 book of the year in the NY Times this year. That is a high mark.

        Look forward to the story. Happy New Year!

  4. No, haven’t read it but have heard it isn’t bad. She’s a bit of a publicity hound though so I’m prejudiced against her. I’m still working my way through the US histories of the Civil War. Started with Shelby Foote and want to read Catton but can’t sort out his chronology – seems to have written two trilogies on the same subject. Just been given John Keegan’s short one which probably concentrates on the military side, none the worse for that. And couldn’t resist Traveller’s autobiography which I found in a second-hand bookshop!

    Happy New Year to you all, especially the boy whose first it is.

    • Interesting as our approach differs: anytime I begin to see that troops are on the move, bivouacing and such, I begin to skim.

      I read Catton long ago and like him thought I agree that the books seemed to overlap –in those days before wikipedia sorted things out for us.

      I could never get though Foote — see first sentence above!

      Happy New Year to you and your perapatetic family.

      All well with Lord Harry?

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