Feature

Book of the week: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson

Using journals and other writings, Larson re-creates the experiences of the U.S. ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, who took the post just as the Nazis were consolidating power.

(Crown, $26)

It’s one thing to recognize evil when one sees it, said Mary Ann Gwinn in The Seattle Times. In Erik Larson’s “eerie and disturbing” new account of an American family’s venture to 1933 Berlin, the question that lingers is how one might recognize when an evil is actually implacable. With his latest best seller, the author of The Devil in the White City has re-created the experiences of the U.S. ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, who brought his wife and their adult daughter, Martha, with him when he took the post just as the Nazis were consolidating power. It can be “hard to warm up to the well-meaning but outmanned Dodd and his feckless, flirtatious daughter,” the two figures whose journals and other writings provide Larson his grist. But “as a work of popular history, Beasts is gripping—a nightmare narrative of a terrible time.”

“There has been nothing quite like” this book in all the volumes written about Hitler’s rise, said Janet Maslin in The New York Times. The “extraordinarily candid, often unflattering records” left behind by the Dodds make wrenching drama of America’s willingness to look the other way. At first, Dodd foolishly believed that cooler heads would prevail in Germany. “Give men a chance to try their schemes,” he wrote to President Roosevelt. Martha, meanwhile, was an “indiscriminate flirt” with offhandedly anti-Semitic views who carried on affairs with various Nazi officials during her Berlin holiday. Yet Larson’s book would be “smugly heavy-handed if it did nothing but emphasize the Dodds’ prejudices and naïveté.” He instead recognizes Dodd’s impossible position and eventual transformation: When Dodd finally did catch on, he did his best to warn his countrymen.

The secondary dramas are compelling too, said Larry Lebowitz in The Miami Herald. As Martha “cuts an autobahn-wide swath of lovers across Germany,” she leaves a trail of “high-stakes intrigue in her wake.” Her father, meanwhile, must contend with the backstabbing of well-born enemies in the State Department who consider the longtime academic a rube. Larson cheats history a bit by largely ending his story three years before Dodd’s departure. But that choice turns 1934’s “Night of the Long Knives” into a chilling climax. After Hitler arranged for the mass arrest and execution of scores of his enemies, Dodd threw caution aside. Larson’s “masterfully” told tale reminds us that “Ambassador Dud” emerged as one of the first non-Jewish Americans to argue forcefully that appeasement was no solution.

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