This is the first Larson book that I have read and I found the writing to be interesting, engaging, and thought-provoking. William Dodd was a learned professor at the University of Chicago. His interest was southern history and he was in the midst of completing a major treatise on the south when tapped to be the U.S. ambassador. He had studied in Leipzig, was fluent in German, a liberal, and seemed to fit the bill when no one could be found to take the position. He was given two hours by President Roosevelt to accept or refuse the post after it was offered. Upon his acceptance he moved his family: wife Mattie, son Bill and daughter Martha to Berlin. He was an atypical ambassador in that he didn't have a lot of money and he lived and acted frugally. As such he did little to ingratiate himself into the German diplomatic circles and was often the brunt of their jokes.
Maybe naivete is too strong of a word, but Dodd really did not find the situation in Germany as alarming as it looks from the 21st century upon his arrival in Berlin. Despite the fact Jews and American Jews were being attacked and murdered, he seemed powerless to bring the urgency of the situation to Roosevelt or the German government. In reality, he believed as did most Americans that Hitler would lose his power base and fall from the leadership ranks. In the four years that the book covers the reader through Larson watches this belief change to one that reflects the urgency and abomination of the situation. He spoke out vehemently on one occasion, saying,
“You cannot expect world opinion of your conduct to moderate so long as eminent leaders like Hitler and Goebbels announce from platforms, as in Nuremberg, that all Jews must be wiped off the earth.”In the Garden of Beasts chronicles not only William Dodd's life and work, but also that of his daughter, Martha's. In fact, she is almost the focus of the book. Martha was, to say the least, socially motivated and promiscuous. As a literary agent in Chicago, she was a very close friend of Carl Sandburg and Thornton Wilder. Later she added Thomas Wolfe to her conquests. As a resident of Berlin, she was enamored of the Nazi movement and counted a number of them as suitors, including Rudolf Diels, the first head of the Gestapo. But it is with Boris Vinogradov, an NKVD (Russian Secret Police) agent that she continues a prolonged love affair. Could it be that he is interested in her for the access to information that she has? Martha's story is intriguing and disturbing. She returns with her family and without Boris to the U.S. when Dodd resigns his post, but continues her intelligence collecting and eventually flees the country with her husband, Andrew Stern, when they are investigated as moles and communists.
It is easy to see why In the Garden of Beasts rose quickly to the top of the NY Times best seller list. It is nonfiction, but reads like fiction. It gives insight, heretofore unchronicled, into the life of an ambassador in the most troubling time of a century. Larson investigates all the German hierarchy of the Third Reich and the reader can't help but be fascinated by some of their private lives. But more than that it is the life story of a down to earth family man who is trying to do what he can to preserve peace among nations and peoples. Don't miss this one.