In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This book follows U.S. Ambassador William Dodd and his family, especially his daughter Martha, through his term in Berlin during the rise of the Nazis. Dodd was a Midwestern professor of history, unlike the wealthy, flamboyant subordinates in the embassy who were products of Ivy League schools and long dynasties. He was thus often at odds with the clubby “boys” who saw him as a cheapskate who embarrassed the U.S. with his mild-mannered and penurious ways. Others saw him as heroic, one of the few who saw Hitler for what he was and who sounded the early alarm. Hitler’s rise is eerily similar to that of Donald Trump, with the cult of personality, the bigotry against minorities and other ways. I learned a lot about Hitler and Germany than I hadn’t known.
At least as much time in the book was spent on Martha, a free-spirited, lustful literati who had multiple affairs with prominent men including Nazis and a Soviet spy. Her memoir and other writings provide must of the grist for this mill.
Stylistically the author made some odd choices. He has a penchant for exaggeration and dramatization that detracts from his credibility. Many of his descriptions are belied by photographs. For example, reading his descriptions Goring comes across as absolutely enormous, but in photos, and statistically, he’s just a large, overweight man, not all that huge. Similarly, he makes out many of the men and women, including Martha, to be either extremely beautiful or handsome, yet photos of them make them seem rather ordinary. Other descriptions were excessive, such as cerulean skies, bordering on purple prose that might be appropriate in a romance novel but not a historical non-fiction work. Some, perhaps most, of this probably comes from his reliance on Martha’s writings. She comes across as a flighty romantic.