I was surprised how suspenseful this story was given that I knew the ending. It's the story of the American ambassador to Germany from 1933 to 1937 including the experiences of his family. This was early in the Nazi era and their true colors were not clear. When William E. Dodd and family first arrived in Germany in 1933 they didn't know where history was headed.
Mr. Dodd had earned his Ph.D. at the University of Leipzig in 1900 so he had many positive memories of his earlier experiences in Germany and had only optimistic expectations for Germany. He very much wanted to believe that the new spirit of nationalism pervading Nazi Germany as a positive thing. From the reader's perspective, the newly arriving family appear to be clueless innocences expecting a garden of delights. But we the readers know it will prove to be a "Garden of Beasts."
The new German government kept passing laws restricting the freedoms of Jews. Americans and other foreigners were frequently beaten on the streets, usually because they failed to offer the Seig Heil salute when brown shirts marched by. Hitler’s ultimate aims were arguably plain to see when he repudiated the Treaty of Versailles and began rebuilding the army. Concentration camps, like the one at Dachau, were becoming operational, even if their eventual purpose was still clouded.
It didn't take Mr. Dodd long to become pessimistic about the new shift of politics in Germany. Many in his circle couldn't believe the Nazi government would survive; surely it would be replaced a another government more appropriate for a civilized country. By the end of his ambassadorship he was more anti-Nazi than most of the foreign service professionals of the time. Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department continued to be more concerned about German debt payments than "internal issues" such as persecution of Jews. Mr. Dodd in his later years (he died in 1940) traveled throughout the country giving lectures warning of a coming war that would inevitably envolved the United States.
Much of the book follows the story of Dodd’s flashy daughter Martha who was working her way out of a failed marriage and aspired to be a writer. Immediately upon arrival in Germany, however, she revealed her true talents as a would-be belle of Berlin. Out almost every night, her squires included players on all ends of the spectrum, including Russian spies and high-ranking Nazis. The book gives accounts of her social life in amazing detail. The author apparently had access to her letters and diary to provide such detail--even to the level of describing the dresses she wore on various dates.
Martha was much slower than her father in developing negative opinions of the Nazis. She was too attracted to all those handsome male Nazis to believe anything negative about them. With time she did became disillusioned with the Nazis so she shifted her romantic interests to a Communist with the Russian embassy. (Talk about one extreme to another!) She seemed to have a rather promiscuous "love the one you're with" attitude toward men. Soon after she returned to the United States she met and married a wealthy man. She must have been very attractive with strong signals of being sexually available because it seems that all the men she met wanted to date her.
This book was an interesting view of a slice of history when the world was on the cusp of a catastrophic war.
The following short review is from the PageADay Book Lover's Calendar for 5/29/2013:
Being named the American ambassador to Nazi Germany in 1933 was probably the very definition of a thankless job, and William E. Dodd brought more than the usual degree of naïveté to the position. It’s all the more chilling then when we witness his dawning awareness as the true evil of the Third Reich unfolds all around him. Erik Larson knows how to make history read like a novel, and readers will find themselves turning the pages to learn what happens next—even if they already know.IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS: LOVE, TERROR, AND AN AMERICAN FAMILY IN HITLER’S BERLIN
, by Erik Larson (Crown, 2011)