In The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson interwove the progression of a serial killer with the planning and construction of the Chicago World’s Fair. With In the Garden of Beasts, he tackles the subject of Hitler and his rise. More specifically, he examines why no one stepped in to stop Hitler and his regime before they had built up their military strength. Presented through the dual perspectives of then newly appointed US Ambassador to Berlin, William Dodd, and his forward daughter, Martha, Larson examines the gradual and often reluctant disillusionment with the Nazi regime and its leaders.
In 1933, President Roosevelt appointed William Dodd, a professor from Chicago, to the position of Ambassador to Berlin, but it turns out that was only after several others had turned the position down. Dodd was from a very different economic background and upbringing than many foreign officials of the day. This led to a number of personal disagreements with the State Department and other workers in the Berlin offices during Dodd’s tenure in Germany. Though Dodd was ambassador for several years, Larson focuses almost exclusively on the first full year the family spent there, July 1933 through 1934.
Apparently trying to repeat the pattern of alternating between two figures that worked so well in The Devil in the White City, Larson switches focus from Dodd’s more official assessments of the Nazi party and its key players to his daughter’s less formal evaluations. Unfortunately, they’re very similar in their initial awe at what the Nazi party had accomplished in restoring Germany after the devastating reparations negotiated at the end of World War I. Similarly, they mirror each other in their slow enlightenment to the harsh reality of the oppression the Nazi party was gradually enforcing on its Jewish citizens and attacks on confused or unknowing tourists.
What made alternating between the two threads of The Devil in the White City so appealing was the fact that they were completely different tales being told. The difference between Dodd and his daughter are less impressive. His difficulties with his colleagues are long and drawn out while the sections focused on Martha are almost entirely about her romantic liaisons with various men from all points on the political spectrum.
I think this angle with Martha was meant to spice up the more monotonous and slower paced political nitpicking of Dodd’s year, and it did spice it up. While Martha’s attitudes towards love and sex are depicted in a way that paints her as a woman ahead of her time, her other accomplishments and talents are largely glossed over. There’s a little about her attempts to become a writer as well as mentions of the artist, publisher, and writer friends who frequented the same salons and parties that she did. But so much is spent on her romantic exploits that it feels Larson was simply, well, exploiting her, using her sex life to make the book more interesting.
The book builds to the fateful June 30, 1934 when Hitler set off a purge within his party, taking out many he perceived to be threats to his increasing power and influence. But the journey to that day is protracted and the narrative is patterned more than directed at the approaching event. Instead it hits hard and fast. And then it’s gone. There’s little winding down or examination of the extended impact the purge had in Germany. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back as far as Dodd and Martha were concerned, each taking a more defiant stance regarding the Nazis and Hitler. But Dodd remained Ambassador for another few years warning that intervention was needed before Hitler had Germany fully rearmed and started a war. Those three additional years as well as the handful left before his death are compressed into just a few chapters. So much emphasis is placed on his gradual awakening to the horrors of the Nazi party and its influence that it undermines how far ahead of his colleagues he was in his realization. He struggled to keep his head in the sand for months while nations kept at it for several more years.
While the information and research that went into In the Garden of Beasts is fascinating, I do think it could have been organized and presented in a more efficient and less forced manner. That said, reading this book alongside something like On Hitler’s Mountain and examining the different ways the Nazi party seduced citizens and foreign officials is mesmerizing and disturbing.