Erik Larson is the author of five national bestsellers: Dead Wake, In the Garden of Beasts, Thunderstruck, The Devil in the White City, and Isaac’s Storm, which have collectively sold more than nine million copies. His books have been published in nearly twenty countries.
In the Garden of the Beasts starts 1933, the place is Berlin, when William E. Dodd becomes America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Nazi Germany in a year that proved to be a turning point in history.
A mild-mannered professor from Chicago, Dodd brings along his wife, son, and flamboyant daughter, Martha. At first Martha is entranced by the parties and pomp, and the handsome young men of the Third Reich with their infectious enthusiasm for restoring Germany to a position of world prominence. Enamored of the “New Germany,” she has one affair after another, including with the surprisingly honorable first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels.
But as evidence of Jewish persecution mounts, confirmed by chilling first-person testimony, her father telegraphs his concerns to a largely indifferent State Department back home. Dodd watches with alarm as Jews are attacked, the press is censored, and drafts of frightening new laws begin to circulate. As that first year unfolds and the shadows deepen, the Dodds experience days full of excitement, intrigue, romance—and ultimately, horror, when a climactic spasm of violence and murder reveals Hitler’s true character and ruthless ambition.
Suffused with the tense atmosphere of the period, and with unforgettable portraits of the bizarre Göring and the expectedly charming–yet wholly sinister–Goebbels, In the Garden of Beasts lends a stunning, eyewitness perspective on events as they unfold in real time, revealing an era of surprising nuance and complexity. The result is a dazzling, addictively readable work that speaks volumes about why the world did not recognize the grave threat posed by Hitler until Berlin, and Europe, were awash in blood and terror. (AMAZON BOOKS)
1. How would you describe German society at the time of the Dodd family’s arrival in Berlin?
2. What was it that made Dodd begin to suspect the rumors he had been hearing about Nazi brutality were true?
3. Why did Dodd’s—and numerous others’—warnings about Hitler fall on indifferent ears in the US?
4. Did America’s own anti-semitism play any role in dismissing the growing chorus of concern?
5. What do you think of William Dodd?
6. What was Dodd’s reputation among the “old hands” at the State Department?
7. What about Martha? What do you find in her character to admire…or not?
8. How does Erik Larson portray Hitler in his book?
9. What were events/episodes you find most chilling in Larson’s account of the rise of Nazism?
10. What have learned about the period leading up the World War II that you hadn’t known?
11. Is this a good read? If you’ve read other books by Larson, how does this compare?
The two characters who received the most attention were William Dodd and his daughter Martha.
The ambassador was seen as being weak by some while others considered him to be principled but cautious. This could be an example of the glass is half full or half empty. Either way as an academic near retirement inexperienced in diplomacy he was challenged. This was only compounded by the lack of support from his “Ivy League” colleagues, including subordinates. Even when he raised alarms about what was happening in Germany he was largely ignored. This indifference was very likely exacerbated by a not so veiled isolationism and anti-Semitism that was rampant in the Government.
Martha was thought to be a self-indulgent, shallow and easily led person. She was useful to the communists mostly as an embarrassment to the U.S. since she was an ambassador’s daughter.
A large part of the discussion centered on Hindenburg who seemed to have a hold on the Nazis that was relinquished only with his death. There is no doubt that at his advanced age and poor health the President was ineffective.
A spirited discussion ensued about the different approach that was taken primarily by the U.S. with the Bretton Woods agreement. This was led by John Maynard Keynes and Harry Dexter White. It established the World Bank preventing competitive devaluations and promoting international growth. These included beneficial trade agreements and freedom of the seas. It was so different from the punitive treaty of Versailles after WW I.
The book was enjoyed by all and if we had graded it there is now doubt it would be a 9 or higher.
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