"In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin" by Erik Larson (Crown, 448 pages, $26)
Erik Larson is the author of a number of nonfiction books, most notably the New York Times best seller "The Devil in the White City." Larson's latest effort follows the short diplomatic career of William E. Dodd, who became America's first ambassador to Hitler's Germany during spring of 1933. Told in humdrum prose, this long book is a prosaic history of a mild-mannered but amiable fellow who found himself somewhat overwhelmed, both by historical circumstance and by the prejudices of a class-based State Department, which viewed Dodd as unworthy.
Dodd himself was a native Virginian who wound up at the University of Chicago teaching southern American history and eventually heading the history department. His wife, Mattie, was a devoted nonentity, his son a do-nothing.
However, daughter Martha was by all accounts a promiscuous and somewhat naive (if those two words belong together) Southern belle, who managed to have affairs in Berlin with communist spies, the head of the Gestapo, and various society types, embarrassing the American diplomatic corps, undermining her father's stature as ambassador to Germany, not to mention causing endless amusement among the German elite.
The atmosphere and history of the early Nazi era (1929-34) has been told many times and well. Somehow, Larson manages to dilute the drama of many events in a morass of boring sentences. Even the Night of the Long Knives (June 30, 1934), during which Hitler murdered his Sturm Abteilung enemies and assorted other dissenters, thus consolidating his powers, is reduced to melodrama.
Dodd deserves some pity. As an anti-Semite, he found himself worried about Germany's new laws proscribing Jewish professions and reducing Jews to a class of hunted vermin. As a scholar, he was mostly interested in finishing his work on "The Old South," which he never did. As a father, his daughter's scandalous affairs pricked his conscience and pride. And as a diplomat, he was scorned by his own State Department and the German Foreign Ministry.
At the end, Dodd had something of an epiphany, arguing strenuously that America should lead resistance to the Nazi revolution, and preached, once back in America, against isolationism. Precious few listened. He died, not long after his wife, sick and alone, at home in Virginia in 1941.
For those interested in early Nazi Berlin, a horribly fascinating period, books by William Shirer, Ian Kershaw or Richard J. Evans are exciting and deeply researched. Books by these historians make Larson's book look like a notorious weakling on the beach.
But then, "In the Garden of Beasts" has already climbed the best-seller list.