Book Review: “In the Garden of Beasts” by Erik Larson

World War II has always been one of my great fascinations. Guiltily, I always declare that World War II is the “best” period in history, but of course what I mean is that it’s the best period to be studied. For anyone alive at that time, it was a period filled with uncertainty, terror, and unheard of atrocities. Perhaps the most haunting years to read about or study are those twilight years just before Hitler began doing what he is infamous for. Indeed, there is a period of time from when Hitler was first elected to when he declared supreme control over the country of Germany that is chilling to read about with hindsight.

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson, is a book that covers that in-between time. The picture Larson paints of Germany is one where tensions are rising due to reparation payments demanded by the U.S. and the abysmal economic climate. It was in this landscape that Adolf Hitler was elected to the position of Chancellor. From this position, Hitler began implementing subtle changes to the landscape of Germany. He introduced the brown-shirted secret police and began drafting legislation that quietly took away the rights of German Jews. Berlin, the capital city, was at the heart of this undercurrent of tension and in 1933, an American came to town.

Larson’s book follows the ambassadorial term of William E. Dodd, a professor at the University of Chicago. As isolationism grew in America and the president – Franklin D. Roosevelt – watched the European situation become increasingly prickly, pressure mounted for him to choose an ambassador to Berlin. Several people were approached and they turned down the position, but Dodd’s name kept coming up and Roosevelt finally decided to give him a try. Dodd was happy at the university, but he also wanted more time to work on his magnum opus – a compendium of the history of the American South. He thought that the ambassador position would give him time to work on his writing. Unfortunately, he was very wrong.

In the Garden of Beasts charts a time when only those within the country of Germany could have seen what was approaching. Time after time, Larson mentions concerned telegrams and lengthy written reports by Dodd being ignored or discounted in America. Whether there were German sympathies present in Roosevelt’s administration, or people simply didn’t believe things were that bad in Berlin, we don’t know. What we do know is that these decisions to remain ignorant of what was taking place in Berlin and around Germany led Hitler to believe that he could do what he liked without fear of reprisal. Hitler’s overreaching began in his own capital city, spread to the entirety of his country, and eventually bled into all of Europe, as we all know.

By covering Ambassador Dodd’s time in Berlin – a time that ends before the real tragedies begin for Germany and Europe at large – Larson makes the reader want to scream warnings at the pages of their book. At least, that’s what I wanted to do. Several times I put down my book and ranted to those sitting with me about how everyone should have seen what was coming and how someone should have stopped Hitler. But the book portrays the time very well and you can almost understand how a willful ignorance took place. After all, I’m sure some people simply lived by the idea that if it wasn’t said out loud, it wasn’t really happening. If they ignored it, maybe it would go away. People began to live in the hopes that Hitler’s regime would organically run its course, but no one took the steps necessary to start that process of downfall.

In my mind, In the Garden of Beasts is a must-read for anyone enthusiastic about World War II and the times surrounding it. By no means a comprehensive history of Hitler’s regime or the time period in Europe, it does give us a clear image of a very specific time. I knew virtually nothing about America’s ambassador to Berlin during this time, so I learned a lot while reading Larson’s book. There were some dry patches and a bit too much time spent on the romantic endeavors of Ambassador Dodd’s daughter for my liking, but overall it was an interesting read.

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

  1. I just read this a few weeks ago, and I agree that it is a must read! I had read Larson’s book The Devil In The White City in high school, and when I saw this on the shelf I immediately grabbed it. I’ll admit I didn’t know very much about WWII before America entered the fighting, but this gives a really great look at the subtleties of Hitler’s rise to absolute power. And it gives a very scary look at how much evil people will accept if it comes at them gradually.

    1. Hey, awesome! I’m glad you liked the book as well. Same here — I read ‘The Devil in the White City’ for a course in college and really loved Larson’s way of telling a non-fiction story.

      And isn’t that incredibly unnerving? People were okay with a lot of the things Hitler did in the beginning because they were slow and subtle. If only they’d realized what he was capable of.

  2. Oooh! I really want to read this. As a kid, I was really obsessed with WW2 to the point that most of my pretend games revolved around my dolls living through the second world war. As an adult, my dissertation research is on representations of Canada, the Canadian wilderness, and native peoples in  ww2-era Canadian radio docudramas and the music written for them. Some things never change I guess. Thanks for the book recommendation!

    1. Aww, that’s awesome! As a kid my favorite American Girl doll/stories was Molly because she lived during WWII. That sounds like such an interesting dissertation topic, I bet that was fun to research. I hope you check out the book and I hope you enjoy it!

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