Larson's 'In the Garden of Beasts'

June 28, 2011

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin. by Erik Larson

Erik Larson is back in fine form. If you loved his 2004 The Devil in the White City, but were disappointed in Thunderstruck (2007) - (or maybe you loved it as well - either way), you will be excited to invest some of your summer with In the Garden of Beasts. Summer is actually the perfect time for a Larson book. We want to escape into fiction, but want to keep feeding our brains with nonfiction. Larson's nonfiction reads like fiction - perfect.

The story of how the Nazis consolidated power in 1930s Berlin, as seen through the eyes of a mismatched and far too academic ambassador and his irresponsible, flighty and gorgeous 20-something daughter, is as engrossing as it is depressing. So many missed opportunities for the U.S. Department of State to stand up to Hitler and his psychotic and pathological circle of thugs. So little understanding in the 1930s of where Hitler and the Nazis were taking the world.

In telling the story of the Nazis from the viewpoint of the U.S. ambassador (a 60-something U. of Chicago history professor who ended up with the post largely because nobody else wanted the job), Larson seems to have uncovered every letter, diplomatic cable, and official report produced by the U.S. Embassy in Berlin in the 1930s.

Throughout Garden of Beasts, Larson seeks to provide a ground-level answer to the question, "how did the world allow this happen?". Exhausted by the Depression, single-mindedly focussed on getting Germany to pay off the loans owed to American creditors, institutionally anti-Semitic, and unprepared to see evil with clear eyes, the U.S. diplomatic core and Department of State miscalculated and mis-estimated what the Nazis were about at every stage. As Ambassador Dodd and his daughter began to see the truth about the Nazis over the 4 years spent in Berlin (starting in 1933), the American diplomatic elite (the wealthy men whom Larson refers to as the "pretty good club"), persisted in believing in appeasement and benign engagement. Donald Rumsfeld's mismanagement of the Iraq invasion and war seems like small potatoes next to the failures of our 1930's diplomats and senior government officials.

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