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In the Garden of Beasts

How a cautious American academic and his flirtatious daughter met evil in Hitler’s Germany.

By Erik Spanberg / June 6, 2011

In the Garden of Beasts By Erik Larson Crown Publishers 448 pp

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Much like those of the Civil War, the stories of World War II can – and do – fill the shelves of bookstores and libraries. Plenty may overlap or prove superfluous, but new research, archival discoveries, and fresh perspectives can still reap rewards for historians and
readers alike.

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Into this category goes Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts, a disturbing but highly compelling account of the life of the American ambassador to Germany and his family during Hitler’s rise to power. Larson, author of “The Devil in the White City” and other bestsellers, focuses on a narrow yet intriguing chapter of the buildup to the war: what life was like in Berlin among the social and political elite as Hitler became chancellor, told through the eyes of a most unusual ambassador and his family.

William E. Dodd was the 64-year-old chairman of the history department at the University of Chicago when he fell into the unlikely role of ambassador to Germany.

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Dodd, an established historian, had hoped for a quiet State Department posting in a region with little strategic importance (the Netherlands, perhaps), something that would leave him largely free to work on what he really cared about: an ambitious four-volume history of the American South.

President Franklin Roosevelt, however, was desperate to find someone to send to Berlin. The newly appointed Chancellor Hitler had already created an air of menace that caused several more likely candidates to turn down the job. Eventually Roosevelt turned to Dodd.

The new ambassador, a “humble Jeffersonian,” grew up a farm boy and lacked the typical Ivy League background and résumé. He eschewed finery and pageantry and became a State Department joke when he shipped his family’s battered Chevrolet to Berlin to navigate among the Mercedes-Benzes that ferried Nazi officials.

Dodd also economized by leasing a four-story mansion owned by a Jewish banker on the edge of the Tiergarten, Berlin’s Central Park. (“Tiergarten” translates, literally, as “garden of animals” – or beasts.)

Dodd and his family – his wife, Mattie; his son, Bill; and his daughter, Martha – paid a paltry $150 per month for the first three floors of the mansion. The banker, a man named Panofsky, squeezed into the top floor with his family, hoping that living with the American ambassador would make persecution much harder, even for Hitler and his goon squads.

Dodd arrived in Berlin as isolationism ran rampant in America. Even when American tourists in Germany were beaten and detained for the flimsiest of reasons, the State Department and others in government paid little heed. Martha, Dodd’s 24-year-old daughter, became a fixture on the Berlin social scene, promiscuous and outspoken if naively smitten with what she at first believed to be a German renaissance.

Drawing on letters and government accounts, Larson brings Berlin roaring to life in all its glamour and horror during the first year of Dodd’s ambassadorship. Martha flirts and gossips with Nazi power brokers, including the head of the Gestapo, as well as foreign correspondents and a Russian spy. When she meets Hitler, he kisses her hand.

William Dodd was briefly persuaded that the situation in Germany wasn’t as bad as critics charged, that Hitler’s promises of moderation would be realized. Within several months, however, he saw clearly that Hitler and his cronies were madmen who must be stopped.

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