With Isaac's Storm, his well-spun story of the 1900 hurricane that destroyed Galveston, Texas, Erik Larson established himself as a leading author of narrative history. He followed with the highly praised The Devil in the White City, a book that wove together the stories of a visionary architect and a mass murder at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Interest in Thunderstruck, his story about the development of radio and the capture of a murderer, waned rather quickly, but with In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin, Larson has recaptured the attention of readers. The book has been on many best sellers lists since April, and reserve lists at libraries are long. I enjoyed all four books.
I have heard readers say that In the Garden of Beasts takes a little more effort to read and that they needed more breaks in reading than they needed for previous books. I suspect this might be true as there are many German military and government officials, foreign diplomats, and U.S. State Department officers introduced in the first half of the book. A reader with prior knowledge of key players in German and World War II history will have an easier time remembering who was assisting and who was opposing the work of academically-minded American ambassador to Germany William E. Dodd, a man who hoped to quietly help the German government rid itself of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. His flirtatious daughter Martha also had a large number of friends and suitors. A reader who can accept not remembering every name will enjoy the story more.
In In the Garden of Beasts, Larson takes readers back to 1933 and 1934, a time when few people in the international community were concerned about Hitler and the Nazi Party. Ambassador Dodd anticipated an easy assignment. The State Department was mostly concerned with the German government paying its debts to American financiers. The American public wanted to recover from the Great Depression and paid little attention to foreign news. Those who did read the news saw Nazi restrictions on Jewish life as little different than Jim Crow laws in the U.S. The seriousness of the situation slowly dawned on Dodd, but officials in Washington were not sympathetic to his reports. They would not even issue travel warnings when American citizens were being beaten by Storm Troopers.
With the mass executions of June 30, 1934, Hitler revealed his full intent to govern Germany absolutely. As Larson tells the story, I wondered how the world could still doubt Hitler's dictatorial abilities and mad ambition. In the Garden of Beasts is a revealing look at a time that is mostly forgotten.
Larson, Erik. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin. Crown, 2011. ISBN 9780307408846.