In the Garden of Beasts

Written by Erik Larson
Review by Bruce Macbain

“Once, at the dawn of a very dark time, an American father and daughter found themselves suddenly transported from their snug home in Chicago to the heart of Hitler’s Berlin.” So begins Erik Larson’s biographical study of William Dodd, U. S. ambassador to Germany from 1933 to 1936, and his flamboyant, impulsive daughter, Martha.

Dodd was Roosevelt’s fifth choice for the post and ill-suited to it. A mild-mannered history professor raised in a poor Southern family, he lacked the wealth, the pedigree, and the political connections of his State Department colleagues. (He also lacked their bent toward anti-Semitism and isolationism.) They eventually brought him down.

But the real interest in this book is Martha. An attractive 24-year-old, she was ready for adventure, and Berlin thrilled her. Larson (The Devil in the White City) vividly evokes the city’s glitter, excitement, and spreading violence. Martha plunged into a whirlwind of parties, night life, and astonishingly risky love affairs: first with Gestapo chief Rudolph Dielsand, then, as her enthusiasm for the Nazis cooled, with a handsome Russian NKVD agent. To all of this, her overworked father remained oblivious. Dodd died in 1940, all but forgotten on his little Appalachian farm. Martha lived until 1990, an exile in Prague, a woman without a country.

Both as political history and as a study in human nature, Larson’s book is well worth reading.