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Literary Friday: In the Garden of Beasts

Friday, May 27, 2011


This week I read In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson.  This nonfiction story is about William Dodd's appointment as ambassador to Germany in 1933.  Dodd was not FDR's first choice by any means and Dodd did not fit the typical ambassador mold: he was not an independently wealthy ivy league graduate.  Instead, he was a Southern history professor at the University of Chicago who owned a small gentleman's farm in Virginia.  Dodd loved spending his free time at the farm among the orchards and cows.  He also enjoyed working on a history entitled Old South. Dodd proudly described himself as a Jeffersonian Democrat, so I was interested to read his thoughts on Nazi Germany and Hitler's rise to power.  Dodd served in Berlin and lived across the street from the famed Tiergarten, a huge centralized garden in Berlin.  The Spree River served as its northern boundary, and the city's zoo was in its southwest corner.  Tiergarten means "animal garden" or "garden of the beasts."  The book's title is appropriate on many levels, but literally the garden was used as a safe haven for diplomats to speak freely with one another.

Dodd took his wife, son and daughter, Martha, with him to Berlin.  Most of the book centers around Dodd's post and Martha's active social calendar.  Both Dodd and Martha kept detailed daily journals and were prolific letter writers.  I must admit that although Martha was a tart, I found her fascinating!  She had affairs with some very big players in Berlin at the time: Rudolph Diels, the first chief of the Gestapo; Boris Winogradov, a dashing Russian spy; Armand Berard, the handsome Third Secretary of the French Embassy; and Thomas Wolfe, one of the best Southern writers ever.  Martha also often wrote to Carl Sandburg who seemed almost obsessed with her and Thornton Wilder.  One of the surprising revelations  in the book is how surprisingly chivalrous Rudolph Diels was.  He certainly was no saint, but I do not think his "Prince of Darkness" description was accurate, either. Dodd was able to work with him, and Diels was instrumental in working as an intermediary in extracting foreign nationals and others from concentration camps as well as exerting influence in punishing SA men responsible for attacks against Americans across Germany.  Oddly, Diels was not a member of the Nazi party.

Martha fell in love with Russian spy Boris Winogradov.  Boris was one of my favorite characters in the book.  Although he was married and had a daughter, he seemed to truly love Martha second only to his country.  In one of the more bizarre scenes in the book, Boris takes Martha to his embassy quarters where he shows her a traditional Russian icon corner dedicated to his love for Martha.  It had her pictures, letters, a dried stalk of mint from one of their picnics, and other trinkets from their affair;  Martha was touched by his romantic display.  Her relationship with Boris made her detest the Nazi party and embrace Communism.  How the rest of their story played-out is troubling and also confusing.  I do not want to give away any more spoilers about Boris and Martha, but I do wonder if his motivations were solely for Russia.

Another strange account in the book is when Goering invites dignitaries to visit his bizarre estate Carinhall.  His constant costume changes, bison herd with a bull named Ivan the Terrible, a bizarre mausoleum for his wife Carin surrounded by standing stones like Stonehenge, and opulent medieval-style lodge was entertaining and insightful enough to recommend this book.  After Goering's open house, Great Britain's Ambassador Phipps had this prophetic observation: "...And then I remembered there were other toys, less innocent though winged, and these might some day be launched on their murderous mission in the same childlike spirit and with the same childlike glee."  Thank God Hitler did not allow Goering to build jets like he wanted.

Based on Larson's account, I think that William Dodd was an excellent ambassador even though he tended to lecture and treat his peers almost as if they were his students.  I thought he was brave to stand-up for American values even when the state department did not have his back.  Dodd changed his moderate perception of the Nazi regime, and I think it shows how open minded he was to the political landscape in Berlin.  He also thought that the Nazi mistreatment of Jews was waning when he arrived in Berlin only to discover that this was not the case.  Dodd understood Hitler's agenda way before the State Department. The bureaucrats wanted Germany to pay for their bonds and not default, and they also looked toward a lucrative future in trading with Germany.  I think it is shameful how and why Dodd was removed from office.  Thomas Wolfe praised Dodd, saying that Ambassador Dodd instilled in him "a renewed pride and faith in America and a belief that somehow our great future still remains."

I highly recommend this book although it did make me ill to read it.  I am not kidding, I got a terrible headache and became physically sick to my stomach. I cannot understand how so many turned their backs on what was happening to those who did not fit Hitler's Aryan ideal. Also, I know one should always write about literature in the present tense, but I could not bring myself to do so in this case.  I intentionally wrote this post in the past tense. Please forgive me, I know better, but I just could not write about this book in the present. Erik Larson is a fantastic writer, and this book reads more like a narrative than an expository work.  I will probably read The Devil in the White City this summer because I enjoyed In the Garden of Beasts so much (in spite of it making me sick).

Until next time...

Happy reading!
Ricki Jill


  1. Sound like an interesting book! Have a good weekend!

  2. wow. I can see why you are sick, and not interested in writing in present tense.
    You are very brave for reading it!

  3. That is so very intense. I can see why it would affect you. Have a great weekend.

  4. Jill, this one just does not look like my cup of tea, I read books and watch movies for happy entertaining experiences! Nope, this one does not qualify. Thank You for the review! Have a great weekend


  5. Ricki,

    That was a horrible time in the history of the world. It is important to read accounts such as this as history repeats itself when we ignore the past. The book sounds difficult, but worth the effort.

  6. This looks stunning. Seems to be so natural in the photo itself.

  7. So interesting to hear more about this book - I loved his Devil in the White City, but this one doesn't appeal quite so much. An intriguing premise, though.


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I'm Ricki Jill. Welcome! I'm honored that you're reading my blog. I enjoy sharing my creative lifestyle @ The Bookish Dilettante. For more information about my blog, please read the Start Here page. Thank-you for stopping by, and I hope you'll consider following me via email.


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