Review: In the Garden of Beasts – Love and terror in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson

At first, this did not look promising at all. Erik Larson, who always writes well and chooses some great subjects, took on the story of one American family who lived in Berlin during the first years of Nazi rule. The head of the family was William E. Dodd, a historian of the Old South who President Franklin D. Roosevelt had named as the U.S. ambassador to Germany. If the book consisted only of the dry facts of Dodd’s time in the Nazi capital, it would not be particularly readable. After all, ambassadors mostly do diplomacy, which means going to meetings, writing memoranda, sometimes attending or hosting dinners and parties.

And yet … this is an extraordinary story that comes alive not so much through the life of Dodd (who was a decent enough man), but through the life of his daughter, Martha.

For this is Martha Dodd’s book even more than it is the Ambassador’s. As a young, bright and ambitious woman, Martha had already developed friendships with some of America’s best known writers. In Berlin, she pursued and was pursued by a large and diverse group of men, among them the head of the Gestapo, a Soviet spy, and others. Her story is more interesting than that of her father’s — and, in my view, ends more tragically as she winds up a refugee from her own country, living again in central Europe decades after the war had ended.

One of the many poignant moments in the book is the author’s revelation that the final love letter Martha received from her Soviet lover was dictated to him by his NKVD torturers before he was executed in Stalin’s great purge.

Highly recommended.