Biography, History, Nonfiction

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin

Looking for an interesting historical book about Nazi Germany, and knowing that my book club was going to read Dead Wake, I decided to read In the Garden of Beasts. Downside, it is a difficult book to get into, upside, the audiobook is well done and enjoyable.  


The time is 1933; the place, Berlin, when William E. Dodd becomes America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany in a year that proved to be a turning point in history.

A mild-mannered professor from Chicago, Dodd brings along his wife, son, and flamboyant daughter, Martha. At first Martha is entranced by the parties and pomp and the handsome young men of the Third Reich with their infectious enthusiasm for restoring Germany to a position of world prominence. But as evidence of Jewish persecution mounts, confirmed by chilling first person testimony, her father telegraphs his concerns to a largely indifferent State Department back home. Dodd watches with alarm as Jews are attacked, the press is censored, and drafts of frightening new laws begin to circulate. As that first year unfolds and the shadows deepen, the Dodds experience days full of excitement, intrigue, romance, and – ultimately – horror, when a climactic spasm of violence and murder reveals Hitler’s true character and ruthless ambition.

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In the Garden of Beasts is a bit dry. Even for those who are very interested in the time period, and Americans’ experiences in early Nazi Germany it can be a bit difficult to get into. Therefore, I recommend pairing it with another book that covers an alternate perspective during the same time, or close to it. And listen to the audiobook.

In the Garden of Beasts is less the story of the Dodd family and more the story of what was really going on in 1933 Berlin, and Germany as a whole. Even most people with an interest in the time and subject matter do not know of just how atrocious that actions of the Brownshirts/Stormtroopers/SA/SS were at the time. The concentration camps? Already in existence. Jewish purges? Already happening. Americans threatened? Yep. Already hating the Soviet Union? Check. To the point where the US didn’t even want to acknowledge it’s existence. Hitler lying repeatedly? Absolutely. Dissidents disappearing mysteriously or being shot point blank? Anyone who denies any of this, and the war atrocities and Holocaust happening? Remind them that the Nazis gave us one small means of confirming their despicable actions – they were meticulous record keepers.

Like all populist revolutions, the German revolution started off with charismatic leaders and promises that most people could support. As mentioned in my review of Four Perfect Pebbles, however, this seemingly perfect revolution can quickly become dangerous. The same thing happened in Iran as recounted in Persepolis. No one should think that they have to destroy an entire group of people.

Also, Erik Larson does a terrific job of differentiating between the German people and the members of the Nazi party. The Dodds were in Germany at a time when the German army still held loyalty to the president, Hindenburg, not the chancellor, Hitler. The actions of the Nazis were not the actions of all of the German people. As the granddaughter of a German woman who, while not Jewish, still suffered greatly during the war, my sister and I appreciate the distinction being made. My grandmother faced enough adversity in coming to the US without needing to be blamed for killing people, she was only ten years old when the war ended.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

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6 thoughts on “In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson”

  1. Excellent review! I felt very similarly about this one. I was excited to read it because I knew Larsen was supposed to be a great historical storyteller and I’m interested in this era/genre. It took me so long to finish because it felt like slogging through, I found it really dry and sometimes just boring. Maybe because I’d already read so much about that time, as you point out it could be great for introducing those facts about what was going on in Germany at that time if a reader isn’t already familiar.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve been wondering about that one, the history is definitely interesting! I know he’s really beloved but I also didn’t like his writing style in Devil in the White City, which everyone else seems to love. I feel like it must be a disconnect between me and him. But I might still page through a copy of Dead Wake and see! Thanks for the recommendation 🙂


  2. Nice review, Sarah. I read this right after the most recent election and found it most interesting (and depressing) when showing how much the Dodds, and others, tried convincing themselves that fascism was an acceptably “normal” state, and how each crime or outrage committed by the Nazis was merely an excess that would correct itself in time. Beyond that, while I didn’t find it especially boring, I did wonder if Larsen chose the most fruitful or interesting perspective on the subject by focusing on American diplomats rather than, say, actual Germans.

    Liked by 1 person

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