In the Garden of Beasts
Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin
May 2011 Indie Next List
— Christopher Rose, Andover Bookstore, Andover, MA
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Summer 2012 Reading Group
— Jeanne Costello, Maria's Bookshop, Durango, CO
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The time is 1933, the place, Berlin, when William E. Dodd becomes America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Nazi Germany in a year that proved to be a turning point in history.
A mild-mannered professor from Chicago, Dodd brings along his wife, son, and flamboyant daughter, Martha. At first Martha is entranced by the parties and pomp, and the handsome young men of the Third Reich with their infectious enthusiasm for restoring Germany to a position of world prominence. Enamored of the “New Germany,” she has one affair after another, including with the suprisingly honorable first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels.
But as evidence of Jewish persecution mounts, confirmed by chilling first-person testimony, her father telegraphs his concerns to a largely indifferent State Department back home. Dodd watches with alarm as Jews are attacked, the press is censored, and drafts of frightening new laws begin to circulate. As that first year unfolds and the shadows deepen, the Dodds experience days full of excitement, intrigue, romance—and ultimately, horror, when a climactic spasm of violence and murder reveals Hitler’s true character and ruthless ambition.
Suffused with the tense atmosphere of the period, and with unforgettable portraits of the bizarre Göring and the expectedly charming--yet wholly sinister--Goebbels, In the Garden of Beasts lends a stunning, eyewitness perspective on events as they unfold in real time, revealing an era of surprising nuance and complexity. The result is a dazzling, addictively readable work that speaks volumes about why the world did not recognize the grave threat posed by Hitler until Berlin, and Europe, were awash in blood and terror.
Praise For In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin…
NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK OF THE YEAR
WASHINGTON POST NOTABLE BOOK OF THE YEAR
NPR BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR
O, THE OPRAH MAGAZINE BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR
USA TODAY 10 BOOKS WE LOVED
PUBLISHERS WEEKLY BEST NONFICTION BOOK OF THE YEAR
KIRKUS REVIEWS BEST NONFICTION BOOK OF THE YEAR
NEW YORK TIMES, JANET MASLIN'S TOP 10 BOOKS OF THE YEAR
SEATTLE TIMES BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR
THE WEEK BEST NONFICTION BOOK OF THE YEAR
GLOBE AND MAIL VERY BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR
AMERICAN BOOKSELLERS ASSOCIATION INDIE BOOK OF THE YEAR
“By far his best and most enthralling work of novelistic history….Powerful, poignant…a transportingly true story.” —New York Times
“Reads like an elegant thriller…utterly compelling… marvelous stuff. An excellent and entertaining book that deserves to be a bestseller, and probably will be.”
“The most important book of 2011.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“A dazzling amalgam of reportage….Reads like a suspense novel, replete with colorful characters, both familiar and those previously relegated to the shadows. Like Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories or Victor Klemperer’s Diaries, IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS is an on-the-ground documentary of a society going mad in slow motion.” —Chicago Sun-Times
“Fascinating...A master at writing true tales as riveting as fiction.” —People (3 1/2 stars)
“Larson has meticulously researched the Dodds’ intimate witness to Hitler’s ascendancy and created an edifying narrative of this historical byway that has all the pleasures of a political thriller….a fresh picture of these terrrible events.”
—New York Times Book Review
“Larson, a master of historical nonfiction, has written a fascinating book that, although carefully researched and documented, reads like a political thriller...highly recommended to anyone interested in the rise of the Third Reich and America’s role in that process.” —Jewish Book World
“Larson's strengths as a storyteller have never been stronger than they are here, and this story is far more important than either "The Devil in the White City" or "Thunderstruck." How the United States dithered as Hitler rose to power is a cautionary tale that bears repeating, and Larson has told it masterfully.”
—Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Larson has done it again, expertly weaving together a fresh new narrative from ominous days of the 20th century.” —Associated Press
“Mesmerizing...cinematic, improbable yet true.” —Philadelphia Inquirer
“Compelling...the kind of book that brings history alive.” —USA TODAY
“[G]ripping, a nightmare narrative of a terrible time. It raises again the question never fully answered about the Nazi era—what evil humans are capable of, and what means are necessary to cage the beast.” —Seattle Times
“A stunning work of history.” —Newsweek
“Tells a fascinating story brilliantly well.” —Financial Times
“A cautionary tale not to be missed.” —Washington Times
“Highly compelling...Larson brings Berlin roaring to life in all its glamour and horror...a welcome new chapter in the vast canon of World War II literature.”
—Christian Science Monitor
“Terrific storytelling.” —Los Angeles Times
“Vivid and immediate...a fascinating and gripping account.” —Washington Independent Review of Books
“Gripping...a story of stunning impact.” —New York Daily News
“Larson is superb at creating a you-are-there sense of time and place. In the Garden of Beasts is also a superb book...nothing less than masterful.” —Toronto Globe and Mail
“Harrowingly suspenseful.” —Vogue.com
“Larson has taken a brilliant idea and turned it into a gripping book.” —Women's Wear Daily
“A gripping, deeply-intimate narrative with a climax that reads like the best political thriller, where we are stunned with each turn of the page.” —Louisville Courier Journal
“Electrifying reading...fascinating.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Larson's books are tightly focused and meticulously researched, but they also are rich in anecdote and detail from the homey mundane to the tragic, the absurd and the downright funny. His prose has an austere, compassionate lyricism. His narratives have novelistic pull...his psychological perception and empathic imagination lend flesh to the documents, music to the ballrooms. He gives a throbbing pulse to the foolish and the wise, the malignant and the kind.” —The Oregonian
“A masterly work of salacious nonfiction that captures the decadent and deadly years of The Third Reich.” —Men's Journal
“Even though we know how it will end — the book's climax, the Night of the Long Knives, being just the beginning, this is a page-turner, full of flesh and blood people and monsters too, whose charms are particularly disturbing.” —Portsmouth Herald
“Larson’s latest chronicle of history has as much excitement as a thriller novel, and it’s all the more thrilling because it’s all true.” —Asbury Park Press
“Larson succeeds brilliantly…offers a fascinating window into the year when the world began its slow slide into war.” —Maclean's
“Larson's scholarship is impressive, but it's his pacing and knack for suspense that elevates the book from the matter-of-fact to the sublime.” —Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
“[A] brilliant tour de force of nonfiction writing...Larson, as always, conjures magic with the details, and often injects a welcome dollop of dark humor...In the Garden of Beasts serves as both a serious, insightful look at history, and a stern warning against national complacency when you’re being run by a dictator who is both vicious and undeniably off his rocker.” —Dallas Morning News
“Like slipping slowly into a nightmare, with logic perverted and morality upended….It all makes for a powerful, unsettling immediacy.” —Vanity Fair
“A master of nonfiction storytelling...Larson once again gathers an astounding amount of historical detail to re-create scene after vivid scene...a stunning, provocative immersion...a call to citizens in all nations to investigate the motives of power brokers and government officials, to stand our ground when we see others' moral compasses going awry.” —Dallas/Fort Worth Star-Telegram
“No other author...has the ability to actually live up to that old adage of making history come alive. What Larson is doing is creating a world that no longer exists on the page...[He] not only succeeds but is able to turn what one would expect to be tedium into page-turning brilliance.” —Digital Americana
“Narrative nonfiction at its finest, this story drops into 1933 Berlin as William E. Dodd becomes the first U.S. ambassador to Hitler's Germany—a tale of intrigue, romance, and foreboding.” —Kansas City Star
“One of the most popular history books this year...offers something for both serious students of the 1930s and for lovers of charming stories.” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Erik Larson tackles this outstanding period of history as fully and compellingly as he portrayed the events in his bestseller, The Devil in the White City. With each page, more horrors are revealed, making it impossible to put down. In the Garden of Beasts reads like the true thriller it is.” —BookReporter.com
“In this mesmerizing portrait of the Nazi capital, Larson plumbs a far more diabolical urban cauldron than in his bestselling The Devil in the White City...a vivid, atmospheric panorama of the Third Reich and its leaders, including murderous Nazi factional infighting, through the accretion of small crimes and petty thuggery.” —Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
“An excellent study, taking a tiny instant of modern history and giving it specific weight, depth and meaning.” —Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
“A brilliant and often infuriating account of the experiences and evolving attitudes of the Dodd family during Hitler’s critical first year in power. With the benefit of hindsight, of course, the Dodds seem almost criminally ignorant, but Larson treats them with a degree of compassion that elevates them to tragic status.” —Booklist (Starred Review)
“Larson writes history like a novelist...conveying quite wonderfully the electrically charged atmosphere of a whole society turning towards the stormy dark.” —The Telegraph
Praise for Erik Larson
“A ripping yarn of murder and invention.” —Los Angeles Times
“Larson’s gift for rendering an historical era with vibrant tactility and filling it with surprising personalities makes Thunderstruck an irresistible tale.” —The Washington Post Book World
“Gripping….An edge-of-the-seat read.” —People
DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY
“[Larson] relentlessly fuses history and entertainment to give this nonfiction book the dramatic effect of a novel….a dynamic, enveloping book.”
—The New York Times
“A hugely engrossing chronicle of events public and private. Exceedingly well-documented, exhaustive without being excessive, and utterly fascinating.”
“An irresistible page-turner that reads like the most compelling, sleep-defying fiction.” —Time Out New York
“A gripping account…fascinating to its core, and all the more compelling for being true.” —New York Times Book Review
“Superb...Larson has made the Great Hurricane live again.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Gripping….The Jaws of hurricane yarns.” —Newsday
Crown, 9780307408853, 480pp.
Publication Date: May 1, 2012
About the Author
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
In his prologue (“Das Vorspiel”), Erik Larson writes, “There are no heroes here, at least not of the Schindler’s List variety, but there are glimmers of heroism.” What heroism did you find in this history? Who were the greatest cowards?
Discuss the significance of the title, derived from a literal translation of the word Tiergarten. What is captured in the deceptive beauty of the garden, a refuge for many of the men and women described in the book? What does it take to transform a beautiful creature into a “beast”?
How was Martha able to appear youthful, even virginal, yet also sophisticated? What made her attractive to such a broad variety of men, from literary figures to military leaders? What type of man was she most attracted to? How did these men compare to her father?
Studying for his doctorate thesis in Leipzig, Dodd researched American history while he was a student far from his homeland. Returning to Germany decades later, what did he discover about his homeland by looking at it as an outsider?
Larson describes Roosevelt’s struggle when no one would take the job as U.S. ambassador to Germany. Would you have accepted the job if you had been in Dodd’s situation?
Was Dodd’s lack of wealth a help or a hindrance as an ambassador, especially in a time of economic depression? Would Hitler have been more intimidated by an American ambassador who lived lavishly?
Dodd was repeatedly reminded that his big-gest concern should be whether Germany would default on its massive debt to the United States. Why didn’t Washington link Messersmith’s warnings to America’s economic interests? Do economic concerns still overshadow human rights in foreign policy today? Are economics and human rights dependent on each other?
William Dodd longed to have time to write a complete history of the rise and fall of America’s Old South, the land of his ancestors. He also became embroiled in controversy when he taught at Randolph-Macon College and tried to expose unsavory aspects of the Confederacy. How did his specialization in Southern history ironically help him navigate Hitler’s Germany?
In the Garden of Beasts captures the years when outsiders refused to believe Hitler was any-thing more than a passing sideshow. Dodd even sympathized with Hitler’s belief that the Versailles Treaty gave Germany a raw deal, and that American banks were charging Germany unfair interest rates. Without the benefit of hindsight, what would you have believed about the political situation in Germany in the early 1930s?
How was it possible for Dodd and Messersmith to have such different perceptions of the same circumstances?
Discuss Martha’s relationship with Boris. What allure did the Soviet Union have for her? Why was she drawn to travel there?
Discuss the Dodds’ evolving attitudes toward Jews. Would you have hesitated to protect the Panofsky family (the Dodds’ landlords)?
What was the effect of the power struggles within Hitler’s regime? How did paranoia both help and hinder Hitler’s cause?
Larson’s research sources comprise more than forty pages. Look through this section and make observations about the process he undertook to reconstruct this history. How does it benefit a society to have free access to historical documents? Is there such a thing as “historical truth”?