Erik Larson assigns himself a Herculean task: to tunnel through the mountain of research on Hitler's regime and the circumstances that led to World War II and emerge with a singular, simple premise: What was Berlin like during the first year of Hitler's chancellery?
Overshadowing this relatively narrow context are the questions that plague anyone confounded and horrified by the Holocaust: How did things go so horribly wrong in Germany, in plain view of its citizens, and why were Europe and the United States so slow to respond? Larson shows us, through the eyes of the U.S. ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, and his grown daughter Martha, the events, the atmosphere, the characters, and the behavior of Berlin's citizens in the early days of Hitler's ascendency. The principal narrative takes place from the summer of 1933, when Dodd arrives with his family to assume the role of ambassador, to the summer of 1934 and the "Night of the Long Knives", Hitler's brutal purge of perceived enemies within the Nazi Party.
The perspectives of the mild, scholarly and overwhelmed Dodd (Roosevelt's last pick, after several others turned down the post, recognizing the storm clouds brewing in fractured Germany) and his intelligent but flighty daughter were unique and fascinating. Dodd was completely out of his element. He was an academic, not a politician, businessman, or social climber- the usual State Department profile for an important ambassadorial post. He shied away from confrontation, unless it regarded the administrative duties of embassy employees or the profligate use of embassy dollars on extravagant parties and overlong overseas telecommunication. Martha, who adored men to the point of idiocy, tumbled into German high society with glee. She loved Berlin and defended its nationalistic attitudes (while seemingly ignoring the violent acts against Jews, Communists, and other undesirables) as Germany's legitimate reaction to the stranglehold of the Treaty of Versailles.
We witness the dawning horror of Dodd and his daughter as Hitler's true ambitions come to light. We see the facade of graceful, elegant Berlin cracking under the increasing violence. We learn of the machinations within the Nazi Party as a host of men vie for their place within Hitler's inner circle. We cringe as the ridiculous Nazi salute and its accompanying "Heil Hitler" become the required greeting in hallways, in schoolrooms, restaurants, the street- and woe to the hapless or willful tourist who does not comply. And we are given the first glimpses into the hell of Dachau, among the first of concentration camps Hitler established soon after his appointment to the chancellery.
Larson does not attempt to answer how the Nazi regime soared to power with such monstrosity and to such public acceptance and acclaim. He does take us, in a real-time unfolding of events, to the heart of a city as it moves toward its destruction.
I was annoyed by and impatient with Dodd and his daughter- they were not empathetic characters, but perhaps my frustration was unfair. With the hindsight of history, I wanted to shake them out of their malaise and trip up their missteps, to shout "Can't you see what is happening?!" Yet, their roles in the course of history were largely insignificant. Dodd was a pawn in the game of international relations. At least he survived his ordeal. Millions of innocents did not.
Larson has the amazing ability to breathe suspenseful, vivid narrative life into his characters. Although not as gracefully rendered as his other non-fiction, In the Garden of Beasts is bold, brilliant, and unforgettable.