Book Review: In The Garden of the Beasts

Erik Larson’s book is the true story of William E. Dodd and family. Dodd, a historian, wanted a new job involving little work and much spare time–a sinecure–to complete his six-volume history of the “Old South.” He put out the word in Democrat circles that he would consider a job as US minister to a small, relatively unimportant country. In a plenitude of irony, Roosevelt appointed Dodd Ambassador to Nazi Germany.

How did this happen? Larson explains how this unlikely, naive academic was plunged scalp-deep into that high profile, frustrating and dangerous post.

Why is this book important? Largely because it shows, besides shocking machinations inside the Embassy and the State Department, the slow and frightening process of “othering,” the means by which Jews were slowly, relentlessly marginalized and denied their rights. Dodd’s tenure in Germany ended in December, 1937, well before Kristallnacht, but, based on Dodd’s story, readers can easily connect the dots from 1937 all the way to the Holocaust.

[Dodd himself made that leap of logic no later than June of 1938, when he warned that Hitler’s true intent was “to kill them all.” In August, 1933, Hitler had told “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, who appears often in Garden of the Beasts: “We need [Jews] for hostages.” Murder was clearly on Hitler’s mind long before 1938.]

Additionally, Garden of the Beasts demonstrates the reductio ad absurdum of absolute power: the replacement of law and human rights by political expediency and bureaucratic whim–all presented as in the service of a “noble cause,” of course.

The book explores in detail Dodd’s on-going efforts to influence the National Socialist government. Was he successful to any degree? Readers may draw their own conclusions.

Particularly interesting is the cast of characters, the usual well-known names, Goebbels, Goering, Himmler, along with less familiar (and often more surprising) underlings. Who, according to Mrs. Dodd, was the only high ranking Nazi with a sense of humor? Who was Hanfstaengl’s son’s favorite playmate? What official did the US Embassy appeal to for help and get it most often? Which American resident was the biggest loose cannon at the embassy? Which one became a Russian spy? Which back-stabbing, good-ol’-boy State Department officials tried to undermine Dodd? These things and more are revealed in In the Garden of the Beasts.

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3 Comments

Filed under book review, True Stories

3 responses to “Book Review: In The Garden of the Beasts

  1. Excellent review, Jeff, and a new and interesting look at our American State Department.

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  2. Got to admit that I would not praise it as highly as Larson’s other works. I found it full of unanswered questions and had the feeling that Larson got so disgusted with writing about Nazis (which I understand) that he cut it short. Even tho I read it a few years ago, I don’t think he ever told readers what happened to the owners of the house that Dodd lived in. Do you remember if he did?

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    • Yes, Vickey, a little Nazism goes a long way, but I’m not sure that accounts for the brevity of Garden of the Beasts. Larson didn’t seem to have sufficient material for a full book, which may be why he stuck in all that supplementary material at the end. It did cover a 4-1/2 year period, however.

      No, I don’t recall any mention of the fate of the owners. It may not be easily discovered at this late date. The odds of their survival were not good.

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