IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Eric Larson

It’s not a new book, but it is nonetheless a relevant book. I have rarely been more conflicted about a book than I was about this one. It was gripping, sometimes mesmerizing. Simultaneously appalling and annoying.

William Dodd was made ambassador to Hitler’s Germany because no one else wanted the job and because they didn’t want to put a “real” ambassador in what they considered a lose-lose position.

From the outset, it was the intention of Dodd’s bosses that he should fail. The U.S. government never had any intention of supporting him, of stopping the rise of the Nazi party or to curtail the personal power of Adolph Hitler.

You need to understand this in order for the rest of the story to make sense if indeed it could be said to make sense. It didn’t make sense to me, but maybe it will make sense to you. Given the way our current government is behaving, maybe it makes more sense only because I am finally aware that it doesn’t have to make sense. 

The indifference and callously entrenched antisemitism of US State Department officials and their resulting tolerance for the atrocities of the Nazi government is hard to stomach. This is not an image of our government that would make anyone proud to be an American. And amazingly, we are doing it again. This time, the people who are doing it lack the polish and education of their forbears, but the hideous results are similar.

The failure of all western nations to do anything to stop Hitler while they could have done so easily is difficult to fathom. Their choice of Dodd, who was considered an amateur and not “one of the club” was an incredibly cynical move by the U.S.

Most of the people in the book are dreadful people in one way or another. Dodd, the ambassador, ultimately grows to become, in his own way, heroic. He saw what was happening and tried — within the very limited power of his position — to do what he could. That no one listened to him is part of the tragedy. Dodd’s daughter, on the other hand, is a feather-headed self-absorbed brat. She reminds me of a case of hives. The more you scratch, the more you itch.

Everyone acts in bad faith to one degree or another. Even more hard to bear are those who failed to act, failed to respond to Dodd’s repeated pleas for help. Usually, it wasn’t because they didn’t believe him (although some didn’t), but because the majority of them were hardened anti-Semites who thought Hitler could rid Europe of the menace of Communism while wiping out the Jews. They thought wiping out the Jews was a terrific idea.

Hitler didn’t get rid of Communism, but he did a pretty thorough job of wiping out European Jewry. Historically, I guess that would make the glass half full.

How revolting is it for me to learn this? I always rejected my mother’s suspicions on this score as paranoia. I refused to believe my government could allow — encourage — the genocide of an entire people. Sometimes, discovering mom was right is not heartwarming. This is one of those times.

William Dodd – U.S. Ambassador to Germany – International News Service (Chicago, IL). Creator and publisher – International News photo – June 10, 1933

To put the cherry on this dessert, the State Department’s little plot to allow Hitler enough latitude to “take care of the Jews” also led us into the bloodiest war in human history, a conflict in which more than 30 million people — military and civilians — died. The banality of evil has never been more terrifying. Read it and weep for the past and weep for the present.

Evil intentions never produce good results. This book offers the ultimate cautionary tale. It is as relevant now as ever.

Categories: Book Review, History, Marilyn Armstrong, War and battles, Writing

Tags: , , , , , ,

26 replies

  1. My spouse would love this book. I’ll see if he has read it yet–thanks for featuring it.


    • I think it’s important to get a better sense of America’s history. We have done many good things, but we have also done many wicked things. As most countries do, we have done our best to hide the bad stuff and promote the better parts of our history … but the past has a funny way of coming back to bite us. And sadly, here we are. Again.

      Liked by 1 person

      • It’s all connected, and too many, especially those who grew up before the internet–including politicians–still try to operate by the rules that applied when not everything was recorded or available to the world immediately via media and online. Those who lied and sneaked then still seem to, and seem to blithely expect that no one will know that this event did or did not happen, or this opinion was not all over the media etc., or this action was not videoed and available for anyone to see. It’s a puzzling lack of adapting skills on the part of bad guys.


        • It also shows a high level of stupidity among supposed leaders, a continuous failure to connect those dots, and a complete lack of knowledge of history. We keep going down the same path. It’s our historical loop. Somehow, we always think it will come out differently THIS time.

          Liked by 1 person

          • It really is dumb. If I were trying to rule an empire, say, I’d use all technology available, and ask questions about everything possible, sneaky and obvious, and just LEARN. Even if I were trying to have slaves or other completely-bad things, I’d want to keep them happy enough not to riot and kill me, through sheer selfishness if I had no compassion. Ruling is and ain’t what it used to be.


            • Well, now that Trump has been exposed to Corona, we can hope that his personal history and stupidity turns around and bites him. But seriously, we are curious people. It’s one of the reasons we are bloggers. We are interested in learning stuff. All kinds of stuff. It’s why we read things that have nothing to do with our usual lives. We collect information. AND we make fantastic Trivial Pursuits players.

              Liked by 1 person

              • I saw someone playing that recently at a local venue where they have Cel;tic music sessions once a week, and it reminded me that we should try it again. I am no good at ‘modern’ information, but know lots likely to be in a game from the 80s or so–


                • Garry and I used to be a killer team. He knew everything about current news, history, sports, and entertainment. I knew books, history, science, board, and card games, and had a pretty good grip on geography and general knowledge. But now that we are retired, we haven’t kept up with everything. But it sure would be fun to play anyway. Just bouncing the information around.


  2. It is amazing how the truth always comes out eventually. This is a pretty terrible story, Marilyn.


    • It is. Depressing, too. I’m amazed I actually read the whole thing. I didn’t really want to read it at all, but I felt I ought to. It makes you realize just how screwed up this country is now and has been for a long time. Not cheering to the heart.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I can see where this would be a troubling book….


  4. the devil in the white city is a great read Marilyn, thanks for the recommendation, I have read bits about the rise of Hitler and how the elite everywhere, were in agreement, most of them, with the issue of eugenics, will check out the book, hope your day goes well, anymore books I should read?, thanks


    • Larson has written a lot of books and they are all well-written. Some of them aren’t even as depressing as this one. I read a lot of history, but this is a piece I tend to avoid — for obvious reasons.

      Liked by 1 person

      • the devil in the white city was a great read, the story of evil and how it is so well hidden, a lesson for everyone and so well told. Have you ever read victor hugo’s, les miserables, hope your having a great day, you have much to tell the world, amen


  5. Sounds intriguing. I will definitely put it on my list of “have to reads”. I haven’t been reading like I used to, I barely pick up a book. It seems like life is always a bit too busy. Scheduling I guess.


  6. Wow, what a review. The conflict you write about seems to be an important key to understanding. On a larger scale than a book why does someone go along with and condone it? I was talking about this with my hubby yesterday. It’s a very complex and scary subject to really have a deep look at the vagaries in human nature. Hope you and your hubby are well.


    • We are seeing it now and I don’t understand it today any better than the people who lived with it back then did. I don’t know. I don’t understand. There seem to be a lot of people who are looking for “the bad guys” and apparently never look in a mirror. It’s always “someone else.” As long as we can “point” to the bad guys and never take responsibility for anything, it will never end.


    • Dodd didn’t go along with it, but once he was in it, he felt obligated to try to do the best he could. Many of the things he did were far outside his instructions from Washington. He hid Jews all through the embassy and while the man was born to be a middle-level manager, he rose to the occasion. He had no help from DC, no help from anyone and his family was more of a liability than a help. He tried. He tried hard and he wasn’t able to do much, but he did what he could considering he had no money of his own and no assistance from his government. it’s an educational book and is exactly what my mother told me.

      I always thought she was just paranoid, but she wasn’t. She was dead on target.


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