Review: In the Garden of Beasts

Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts tells the story of key years in Hitler’s rise to power from the eyes of a US ambassador to Germany and his adventurous daughter.  Larson has a keen eye for exploring seminal events from unlikely perspectives, and it serves him well here.

His protagonist is an unlikely choice for ambassador.  William Dodd was a history professor who was looking for a sleepy assignment that would give him time to work on a book. Unexpectedly, due to widespread distaste for the posting and Roosevelt’s whim, he became ambassador to Germany in 1933.  Hitler is in power but still consolidating it.  German rhetoric is full of bluster and racism, people are beaten on German streets, yet everyone wants to believe that this will all blow over.

Dodd is a strange man to find in the middle of this.  In a clubby world of career diplomats he is a principled academic.  He guides himself by Jeffersonian principles of everyman’s democracy (and frugality), but finds that his aristocratic brethren are more interested in Germany’s bond payments than its human rights record.  While that somewhat overstates the case – no one could be completely blind to the regime’s violent attitudes – it is remarkable to see the range of opinions that people held.

While Dodd is something of a fish out of water his daughter Martha takes to the Berlin scene like it was meant for her.  She rubs elbows (and other parts) with correspondents, underground opponents of Hitler, Russian spies, and Nazi officials.  Her personal observations round out her father’s ethical ones to construct a lively picture of a turbulent time.

Larson’s choice to frame his history from the views of these outsiders gives his readers a frame of reference that is informed but still apart from the world he is describing.  This helps put the reader in the frame of mind needed to enter into early 1930’s Europe.  The uncertainty and misplaced hope for Hitler’s government look like blindness and folly from the other side of World War II, but at the time rational, intelligent people held those views.  Understanding why they did and how they were disabused of them helps understand our world, too.

The best framework would not be worth much without Larson’s eye for the telling detail and narrative flow.  It is a powerful skill to not construct a telling detail, but to winnow it from the piles of from  this widely researched time.  Larson demonstrates that ability again and again without losing the main thread of the narrative.

Garden is not flawless.  The sharp focus on his characters recedes after the harrowing Night of the Long Knives, but the book lingers on them longer than I expected. Even the ends of even minor players are described in detail.  History is messy, but trailing off is less powerful than ending.

Still, Larson shows a fascinating time from an illuminating angle.

Strongly Recommended.

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