In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin

Crown Publishers  2011


Erik Larson, the bestselling author of The Devil in the White City, focuses his meticulously researched new book on the first few years of Hitler’s ascendancy to power as experienced by the newly appointed American ambassador to Berlin and his family. William E. Dodd was a professor of American history at the University of Chicago when President Roosevelt appointed him to that important post. Dodd took his family to Berlin, including his twenty-four-year-old beautiful, charming, and sexually adventurous daughter Martha. Martha Dodd was ultimately entranced by the Nazi revolution—the pomp and energy of the new Germany, the handsome young men of the Third Reich, the lush parties and the intrigue of Berlin. Many men courted her and found her eagerly responsive. Her lovers included Rudolph Diels, the young first chief of the Gestapo; the writer Thomas Wolfe, when he came to Berlin; a German flying ace; a French diplomat; and most important, Boris Winogradrov, who was connected to the Soviet Embassy. “I tried in a self-conscious way to justify the actions of the Nazis, to insist that we should not condemn without knowing the whole story,” she wrote in her memoir. To a friend she said, “We sort of don’t like the Jews anyway.”

In this opinion she echoed the general sentiment that prevailed at home. Public opinion was isolationist and there was a rising tide of anti-Semitism that manifested in the emergence of fascist movements, violence, intimidation, and opposition to opening the doors to German-Jewish refugees. The State Department was filled with anti-Semites like William Phillips, Undersecretary of State, and Wilbur J. Carr, an Assistant Secretary of State, in charge of the consular services, who were inclined to let the Nazis have their way with the Jews. Her father, increasingly skeptical and outraged by what he was witnessing, voiced his concern to a largely indifferent State Department and watched with alarm as Jews were arrested, the press censored, and drafts of new laws that discriminated and ultimately disenfranchised Jews were proposed and implemented. William Dodd, who at first thought that Hitler could be controlled, soon realized that they were living in a “garden of beasts” intent on war, domination, and destruction.

Eventually, Martha also became disillusioned with the Nazis and was recruited by Soviet intelligence, a relationship that continued when she returned to the United States in 1938. She became prominent in Communist causes and fled to Mexico in 1953 when subpoenaed by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Larson, a master of historical nonfiction, has written a fascinating book that fleshes out many of the key players in Hitler’s ascendancy to power through the lenses of these “innocents abroad” as they come to realize the dangers of the gathering storm. He provides new insight into the question of how ordinary Germans willingly allowed themselves to be brought in line with Nazi ideology and policy. The book, although carefully researched and documented, reads like a political thriller. It is highly recommended to anyone interested in the rise of the Third Reich and America’s role in that process.

Discussion Questions

Courtesy of Random House. Guide compiled by Amy Clements. Click here to view the complete Reading Group Guide.

  1. 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?
  2. 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”?
  3. 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? 
  4. 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? 
  5. 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? 
  6. 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? 
  7. Dodd was repeatedly reminded that his biggest 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?
  8. 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?
  9. . In the Garden of Beasts captures the years when outsiders refused to believe Hitler was anything 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?
  10. How was it possible for Dodd and Messersmith to have such different perceptions of the same circumstances?
  11. Discuss Martha’s relationship with Boris. What allure did the Soviet Union have for her? Why was she drawn to travel there?
  12. Discuss the Dodds’ evolving attitudes toward Jews. Would you have hesitated to protect the Panofsky family (the Dodds’ landlords)?
  13. What was the effect of the power struggles within Hitler’s regime? How did paranoia both help and hinder Hitler’s cause?
  14. 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”?
  15. Which aspects of life in Berlin surprised you the most as you read the Dodds’ story? How does this version compare to others you’ve read?
  16. What was Hitler’s formula for establishing control, despite limited military and economic means? How did the slow buildup of popular support occur? What was the role of random arrests, propaganda, and a minority scapegoat?
  17. The book’s subtitle is “Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin.” What family dynamic was at play in the Dodd household overseas? Against this backdrop, what forms of love thrived?
  18. Discuss the book’s epilogue, “The Queer Bird in Exile.” What does Martha’s legacy as a fighter for equality say about her spirit, and her temperament? How did she finally overcome her naïveté? How would you have been affected by an experience like hers in Berlin?

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