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I’ve read many books and watched many movies and documentaries about WW2 and the rise of Hitler’s regime, but this is the first time I get such a in-depth glimpse at the personal experiences of Berlin’s elite at the time. It was also a great book to shed some light into one of the most asked questions in History: how did the World let it happen?
In the Garden of Beasts is an account of William Dodd during his 4 years as the American ambassador to Germany(1933 and 1937). He was an unlikely choice for such a sensitive position: a 64-year old mild-mannered scholar, whose life-long goal was finishing a four-volume History of the Old South.
The rest of the Dodd family included his wife, his 27 year-old son and 24-year-old daughter Martha, who was as central to the book as Dodd himself. Martha was a free spirit, who became enchanted with Berlin’s care-free and bohemian life and only slowly came to realize what lay beneath.
During those four years, Martha had many prominent lovers, such as the head of the Gestapo, a French attaché and a Soviet undersecretary-come-agent. At some point a common friend though she would be a good wife for Hitler and set them on a date, of sorts (I kid you not!).
The documents Martha and Dodd left and that Larson expertly weaves, give us an interesting insight into the personal lives and character of these people. One of the book’s most fascinating episodes was the account of a surreal event at Göring’s country estate, where he shows-off his hunting skills. Other fascinating moments are Dodd’s private meetings with Hitler and other Nazi high-officials. The way they managed to out-smart and counter-argument any accusations are as brilliantly and they are frightening, not least because it’s not difficult to find modern examples of similar smoke-screening tactics.
As also obvious with The Devil in the White City, Larson knows his pacing. It’s with skill that he describes the growing tension in Berlin, from the warm welcome received by the Dodds, to the first signs of violence, to the infamous Night of the Long Knives. He also clearly admired Dodd and portrays him as a Cassandra-figure, who tried to break through the propaganda and warn America. Still, I couldn’t but wonder what would have happened with a more energetic, forceful, and better connected ambassador.
Dodd was a good man, honorable, an old-fashioned gentleman, but no matter how Larson puts it, Dodd was probably the right man at the wrong time. He spent time and energy worrying about the price of the cables sent by the Embassy, when one of the most terrifying events in human history was happening at his door-step. He also lobbied Washington to cut the number of Jews on him staff, arguing that it would help relations with the German government.
And before you say anything, I’m completely aware I’m passing this judgment from the comfort of my 21th-century couch, but I guess we all wonder about what we would do in such a situation.
I usually measure the quality of my non-fiction books by the amount of hours they make me spend on Wikipedia. By those standards, it this was a great read. I started with the fascinating concept of gleichschaltung (coordination), meaning the process by which Nazism took control of all aspects of German life, and ended in Göring’s first wife, who’s body he move from Sweden to Germany, to be buried in a stately funeral.
This audiobook is one of the nominees of the Audie Awards 2012‘s History category. It was narrated by Stephen Hoye and produced by Random House Audio. It’s the first time I hear anything read by him, but I hope it won’t be the last. He has great diction, both in English and German, and the type of voice that’s dynamic enough to fit the different moods in the book, from the parties to the tragedies, from Martha’s love letters to Goebbles’ speeches.
It’s still the first of my Armchair Audies category, but we’re off to a good start. The next one in line: 1812: The Navy’s War by George C. Daughan, narrated by Marc Vietor.