Mark’s #28 – In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson

In 1933, America and the world was gripped in economic crisis known later as “The Great Depression”.  Fresh off his campaign promises of “change” (he may have used the term “hope” as well), newly elected President Roosevelt now faced the difficult task of making good on such promises.  Americans were eager to restore the economy, and even more eager to avoid any military involvement around the world.
Meanwhile, in Germany, a charismatic leader was rallying the German people and infusing a level of nationalistic pride rarely seen in history.   Of course, we now know how the story of Hitler and the Nazis progressed and ended, but in 1933 the fate of world history was still very much “up in the air”.
In the Garden of Beasts gives the readers a vivid and unique insiders look at 1933-34 Berlin through the stories of two principle characters; newly appointed Ambassador to Germany William Dodd and his young adult daughter Martha.
Knowing how the story ends so tragically, as I read this book, it was hard not to cringe whenever the Ambassador, other members of the State Department, the president, or the American people would somehow think the best of Germany and the Nazis. Dodd, a history professor by trade, eventually does connect the dots and is able to see the terrifying direction the Nazi party will eventually lead the world… though it was either too late, or too few western democracies were willing to face reality.
As for Martha, she basically ‘sleeps’ her way through Berlin, with a variety of illicit affairs and trysts.  Most notably, she had prolonged and overlapping love affairs with the head of the Gestapo as well as the Russian ambassador to Germany.  In my opinion, these retellings in the book were too long and uninteresting.
As is common with history books, there are many lessons to be learned and applied in our day… but will we choose to learn from the past, or will we choose to put our heads in the sand as most of America and other western democracies did while Hitler scrambled to gain absolute power.

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