Posted by: Jeanie F | June 6, 2011

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

I must confess that I thought this book had two strikes against it before I began to read it:

  1. 1. It was yet another story of the Holocaust, and
  2. 2. It was written by Erik Larson who, in my opinion, sometimes ruins a good story by overly pedantic attention to detail.

So why, you might ask, did I even give it a try? Mainly because I’m a sucker for 20th Century US history. Something that’s always troubled me about WWII and, particularly the Holocaust, is why it took us so long to get into it and why we did so little to help European Jews. The reviews I read of this book promised to address these questions.

If you haven’t read or heard about this book, it is essentially the story of William E. Dodd, America’s ambassador to Germany in 1933, Adolph Hitler’s first year in power. A professor of history at the University of Chicago when he was selected by Franklin D. Roosevelt to represent the US in Germany, Dodd had experience in Germany as a student, but no diplomatic experience whatsoever.

Dodd packed up his wife, Maggie, his grown children, Bill and Martha, and sailed to Germany with little idea of what lay ahead for the family. As Larson puts it, they

embarked on a journey of discovery, transformation, and ultimately, deepest heartbreak.

At the time, America was in the midst of the Depression and many Americans held a deeply isolationist opinion. There was fear that allowing Jewish immigrants to come to the United States in large numbers would draw off the few jobs that were available. Many felt that “Nazi oppression of Germany’s Jews was a domestic German affair and thus none of America’s business.

Even within the Jewish community there were divisions, with some Jews frustrated by Roosevelt’s failure to speak out while others feared that protests and boycotts would make life more difficult for those in Germany.

It was against this backdrop that Dodd, a naive and inexperienced academic suddenly thrust into one of the most vicious and divisive regimes in history, entered the scene. Roosevelt had two priorities for Dodd: to ensure that Germany repaid the large debt owed to the US following World War I, and that Dodd do what he could to “protect [German Jews], and whatever we can do to moderate the general persecution by unofficial and personal influence ought to be done.” In other words, Roosevelt’s direction to Dodd was to do whatever he could to straddle the fence, insufficient direction for a new ambassador with no political experience.

What follows is an account of the Germany that Dodd encounters, very different from that he experienced as a student. While initially striving to fulfill Roosevelt’s obscure direction, as his tenure in Berlin progressed Dodd found it more and more difficult. Following what is now called “The Night of Long Knives” in which Hitler and his SS imprisoned and/or murdered those set against him, Dodd could no longer keep his own opinions to himself.  His attempts to bring forth more overt US interference in German politics earned him powerful enemies in Congress and eventually Dodd was dismissed from his post and returned to the United States.

The story is interesting and insightful, providing the unique perspective of an American citizen and family who lived through and within Germany’s transformation to a fascist state. As a reader, you travel down that road with the Dodds and experience their growing concern, and finally their disgust and terror, at that transformation.

I have to say that my one complaint – and it is an ongoing complaint I have with Larson’s work – is the attention to minutiae so often present in his writing. I will share only one small example here, information that would probably be appropriate in an academic work, but not in a book meant for the general public. This passage introduces “The Night of Long Knives”:

At 2:00 A.M. Saturday, June 30, 1934, Hitler left the Hotel Dreesen and was driven at high speed to the airport, where he boarded a Ju 52 airplane, one of two aircraft ready for his use. He was joined by two adjutants and a senior SA officer whom he trusted, Viktor Lutze. (It was Lutze who had told Hitler about Röhm’s scathing remarks after Hitler’s February 1934 speech to the leaders of the army and SA.) Hitler’s chauffeurs also climbed aboard. The second aircraft contained a squad of armed SS men. Both planes flew to Munich, where they arrived at four thirty in the morning, just as the sun was beginning to rise. One of Hitler’s drivers, Erich Kempka, was struck by the beauty of the morning, and the freshness of the rain-scrubbed air, the grass “sparkling in the morning light.”

See my point?

Grade: B+



  1. Hmm – I’ve been avoiding this book just because it looks too dense. I did like Larson’s Devil in the White City, but agree with you that he can tell more than I need to know. thanks for the review.

    • I actually found this to be slightly less cumbersome than Devil in the White City and, as a whole, much more interesting. The problem with Larson is that, just as in my example above, it’s hard to skim what Leonard Elmore calls “the parts that people skip,” because the important information is firmly embedded it it!

  2. Thanks for the honest review.

    Just stopping by again to say hello and to take a look around.

    I am having a Father’s Day giveaway on my blog if you would like to stop by.

    Hope you can visit.


    • I went right over and signed up – now I’ll just cross my fingers. Thanks for the heads-up!

  3. Larson is an author I keep meaning to read. His books sound interesting, but one reason I will stop reading a book is because of all the extra un-needed details. I zone out reading pages of it and then can’t remember a single thing I read pages later. I still want to try him out just to see if I notice it a lot. Thanks for the review!

    • If you do try him, let me know what you think. His books are so popular, but I have mixed thoughts about them.

  4. Hi, I just put up my entry about ‘In the Garden of Beasts”. I don’t read much non-fiction, but Larson does have a way of making it interesting. What made it interesting for me was that Dodd was pretty much a stumblebum as an Ambassador, and his daughter kept doing these things that could only embarrass the whole delegation there like getting involved with the Gestapo guy.

  5. You’re tempting me. Pedantic? Overdetailed? Sounds right up my alley!

    If you ever want to really get into a “romance” (as the author describes it) filled with pedantic hyperdetail of WWII, try Winds of War and War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk. He deals magnificently with the question of why the Holocaust was so ignored/overlooked/unknown. There’s a lot of military detail that turns out to be more accessible than I would’ve thought (though I’ve never gotten through the Battle of Leyte Gulf towards the end, and I don’t think my enjoyment of the book requires that I do). They are both very long (800 pages) books, but they’re set in the lives of a family as they deal with different aspects of the war – the patriarch is a naval officer snared into diplomacy against his instincts, one son is a career navy flier, one is a slacker who hangs out in Italy with an American Jewish girl and her academic uncle then ends up in Poland when the war starts… the matriarch has a series of vapid adventures but her loneliness and rootlessness is highlighted by her silliness; the daughter ends up working in show business, that pit of Communist vipers; Oh, you have to read this, you can skip over the military parts. But try reading them, they turn out to be informative!

    • Karen, I actually read both of those, but so many years ago I not only forgot the content, but even that I had read them! I do remember parts of Winds of War – liked that one better than War and Remembrance, as I recall.

      I think you would like Garden of Beasts – go for it!

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