Review of IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS by ERIK LARSON
With this nonfiction history book, Larson follow the American ambassador in Germany before World War II. The book almost reads like fiction with a well-paced sense of storyline and plot threads as Larson leads readers through a wealth of complicated, layered information.
Above all this is a true tale about the ambassador William E. Dodd, but his daughter Martha also plays a significant part. Starting with Dodd, though, he had an admirable view on the role of politicians that I wish we saw more of today. He believed politicians, diplomats included, serve their country and their people and should not be extravagantly rewarded for service he considers more a duty than a favor. Dodd took his pay at a much lower rate than offered and frequently turned down luxuries in favor of more practical, cost-efficient alternatives. Noble as this may sound to some, myself included, this modest approach earned him countless enemies and he spent most of his career fighting off one attempt or another to oust him from his position in favor of someone more traditional (and by that I do mean more of a spendthrift). The official stance against Dodd was that part of a diplomat’s role is to pamper and impress his peers. However, I believe (and this is me talking, not something taken from the book) that people like Dodd threaten those more attached to their bloated salaries and excessive lifestyles. Dodd focused on the work: on who he needed to talk to and more on what should be said in that conversation than what fancy restaurant or party they should attend, what they should wear and eat, or how he could phrases bribes as gifts, etc.
Meanwhile Dodd’s daughter Martha loved the attention her father’s role brought her. She became infamous in their circle for her promiscuous dating life. Her lovers included some men very powerful in politics at the time, including the first chief of the Gestapo and a Soviet spy. My impression at least, though, is that Martha seemed to care little for the political connections of these men beyond a novelty that contributed to their complex and intriguing characters as men romantically interested in her.
It feels odd to make such statements about Dodd and Martha, as if I knew them at all. Larson, however, includes plenty of first hand quotes from speeches, interviews, conversations, and letters, enough that the reader can start to believe they have an idea of what kind of people contributed to this part of history. It’s particularly eye-opening reading direct quotes on how people reacted to Hitler at the time, not to mention direct quotes from Hitler himself. Larson paints a not unfamiliar portrait of a world in denial and a U.S. preoccupied with their own priorities. Sadly, and again all too familiar, Dodd’s warnings become lost in pettier politics. His peers look down on him as an idealistic nonconformist due to his financial beliefs and then their dislike of him turns to an eagerness to dismiss anything he claims, including warnings about the threat Germany poses to Jews, to the U.S., and to the world.
Dodd might sound like a heroic underdog in my descriptions, but Larson carefully avoids idolizing him. Both Dodd and Martha make anti-Semitic statements, establishing that while they abhor the thought of genocide they do both agree that Jews are a worldwide “problem.” Near the end of the book there’s also brief mention of something terrible Dodd does once back in the U.S., a seemingly random story except as a reminder of who he was as a complete, flawed man of his time.
The short chapters make this thick book read faster than expected. With the excerpts from historical documents providing real words from real people, Larson gives his readers at least a subtle sense that we were there. He treats these figures with careful attention to their hypocrisies and nuances, piecing together a familiar world of flawed human beings and how those flaws can sometimes leave big gaps in mankind overall, gaps that can be exploited in the worst ways imaginable.
It’s only in the past five years or so that I have taken an interest in nonfiction as well as fiction, but Larson’s unique way of making history read like a story makes me eager to hunt down his other books.