'In the Garden of Beasts': The dark diary of an American family in Nazi Berlin

'Believable and highly satisfying'

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Erik Larson's latest takes its title from the Tiergarten (literally, "animal garden"), the lovely 630-acre park of trees, walks and bridle paths in Berlin that formerly was a royal hunting preserve.

At the time of his book -- 1933-34 -- the "beasts" are the ruthless Nazi leaders who do the hunting, and their game is their fellow Germans.

Mr. Larson attempts here what he did in "The Devil in the White City," the story of a serial killer during the 1893 Chicago World's Fair: To create a sense of what it must have been like to live through the times and events under study.

We cannot know for sure how accurate he has been, for historical research has no infallible measure for re-creating a sense of the past, but what he has produced is believable and highly satisfying.

By Erik Larson.
Crown ($26).

The American family is that of William E. Dodd, professor of history at the University of Chicago, who was appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt ambassador to Germany. Dodd moved to Berlin with his wife Martha and adult son and daughter in the summer of 1933, living near the Tiergarten, a few months after Adolf Hitler and his National Socialists had come to power.

At a time when the foreign service was a rich man's club, the choice of Dodd, a plain man from a poor background, was highly unusual. The wealthy sophisticates in the foreign service resented his appointment, mocked his frugal style (he actually tried to live on his $17,500 salary!) and continually worked to undermine him.

While the author employs an extensive variety of sources, the two main players are Dodd and his 20-something daughter, also Martha. What they observe and report is the Nazis' steadily increasing control over, and therefore brutalization of, every aspect of German life.

Dodd had been a graduate student at the University of Leipzig at the turn of the century. He knew the language and loved the country and was appalled at what was going on, especially the Germans' strange indifference to atrocity, and attempted to speak out. This activity too drew the ire of the State Department clique that wanted him to maintain a constipated neutrality.

Martha was something of a pistol. Popular and flirtatious, she had many lovers, including but not limited to Gestapo chief Rudolf Diels, a Russian secret agent and visiting American author Thomas Wolfe.

Like her father, she displayed more than a whiff of anti-Semitism and, at first, was inclined to give Hitler the benefit of the doubt. Within a few months, however, all doubts as to the growing horror of the regime were erased.

Mr. Larson focuses on Dodd's first year, writing essentially a chronicle of the mounting tension, beginning in January 1934 and culminating six months later in the "Night of the Long Knives" or the Rohm Purge, when the Nazis swept through the country slaughtering those perceived as enemies, many of them one-time friends and allies.

It was clear that the murders of his friends had cost [Hitler] "no effort at all," a Gestapo man wrote later.

Two things this book does exceptionally well. One is to demonstrate clearly the murderous rivalry among Nazi leaders, not excluding Hitler and his henchmen.

"There is nobody among the officials of the National Socialist party who would not cheerfully cut the throat of every other official in order to further his own advancement," wrote German journalist Bella Fromm.

The other is that those leaders were irrational almost to the point of psychosis. The French ambassador told Dodd, "The Germans hate us so and their leadership is so crazy."

Dodd remained until the end of 1937. Upon his return to the United States he began a private citizen's campaign of alarm, particularly concerning the fate of Jews.

He was replaced as ambassador by another member of the rich man's club, who praised Hitler and accused the "Jewish-controlled" American press of singing "a hymn of hate."

Roger K. Miller is a novelist, freelance writer and reviewer who lives in Wisconsin. First Published May 29, 2011 4:00 AM


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