In the Garden of Beasts

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin

In 1933, the quiet, scholarly history professor William E. Dodd accepted his first (and last) diplomatic post and became the United States Ambassador to Germany. His wife Mattie, son Bill, Jr. and daughter Martha accompanied him to Berlin. Dodd and his wife were ill-suited for the diplomatic lifestyle, leaving dinner parties early to go home so Dodd could have stewed peaches and a glass of milk and retire early. Dodd was essentially an academic, unaccustomed to social and political wranglings his new post retired, but as a student of history he saw the true danger that Hitler and his followers posed earlier than most of his colleagues, including his friend President Roosevelt. His daughter Martha, meanwhile, threw herself into the social life of Berlin, made many friends and even more lovers, including a high-ranking Nazi official and a Soviet spy.

It’s a fascinating story by a master of narrative nonfiction, but I found this book depressing and am relieved I finished it. It’s so hard to look at the actions of people in the early 1930s and not judge them too harshly with the wisdom of hindsight. I finished this book without much sympathy for any of the main characters. Martha was just awful. I rather liked her father for a while, but I lost all respect for him toward the end of the book when I read about his involvement in an automobile accident in his later years back in the United States.

It’s a great book and I’m glad I read it, but I’m also glad I borrowed the ebook from the library instead of buying it. I’m done with those people and never want to reread the book, discuss it in a book group, see the movie, or have anything more to do with them.

2 comments

  • Meg

    This sounds like something that I would rather not read! Bad Dodds.

  • Elizabeth Thomsen

    It’s a very interesting book, though, and I’d be interested in your take on it. I think the fact that I was so happy to reach the end of it was actually a positive thing — I was definitely engaged in the story!

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