My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I suspect some knowledge of WWII would've served me well, going in to this book. I know the basics, but a greater knowledge would've supplied a lot of context this book lacked. Larson writes with the assumption a person reading his book has already done a lot of reading about pre-WWII. Whereas, I tend to read "human interest" nonfiction for an entry point into history with which I'm unfamiliar.
In the Garden of Beasts tells the story of the Dodd family, from the unlikely selection of William Dodd, history professor, as ambassador to Nazi Germany, to the directions their lives take after he leaves the post. The Dodds start out feeling favorably toward Germany, and William Dodd attributes "the Jewish problem" as being just as much Jewish people's fault as it is the Nazis'. The events that change their minds don't affect them directly, but they still realize a lot sooner than the US government, who's privy to all the same knowledge the Dodds are, with the barrier of an entire ocean between them and the conflict.
If you're looking for a book about the social lives of the major players of the Third Reich, you're in luck. This goes into great detail regarding the parties, who's invited to whose, who's in favor on a particular month in 1933 or '34, and who Martha Dodd is dating (that list is almost as long as the guest lists for exclusive parties the Dodds attend). Martha's sex life, in fact, is a greater plot point than the attacks on US citizens visiting Germany who fail to deliver the Hitler salute appropriately.
What I was looking for in this book was how a country goes from a democracy to a fascist dictatorship. That's in there, too. The book covers the time period when President Hindenburg, who appointed Hitler as Chancellor, dies, and Hitler seizes power. The book also shows how history led up to that point, when normally, a better-balanced successor might have been appointed. It shows how Hitler not only disposed of his political enemies, but how he did it in a way that both silenced any opposition, and won his country's approval. The propaganda machine was already in full swing, at that point, and Hitler and his people knew how to use it.
Though Hitler is a major influence in this narrative, his path intersects with the Dodds' very little. He meets Martha Dodd once, and strikes her as charming and charismatic, but a bit shy. William Dodd also finds him charismatic on their first meeting, but finds a later encounter, where Hitler rants about the abhorrence of Jewish people, rather unsettling.
There's another subplot in this book about Martha's being seduced over to the Communist cause by Russian spies. So much of that narrative is speculative, though, as there's very little official documentation. It explains her disaffection with Nazi Germany, but otherwise doesn't add much, except to explain why she behaves as she does after leaving Germany. I could've done without that section entirely.
Overall, this was an interesting perspective on the Third Reich, pre-WWII. I found the narrative thread lacking, but the tidbits of historical perspective were fascinating. The story made clear that any ambassador would've been over his head, in William Dodd's shoes, but he was uniquely unqualified for the role. I wouldn't recommend this if you don't already have some knowledge about the time period and the people it discusses in great depth, but, if you're looking to round out your WWII history with something lighter, this is just the thing.
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