In the Garden of Beasts is quite simply a great read. Written by popular historian Erik Larson it is the true and haunting story of a real American family trapped in a time and place of ultimate horror. It is also a vivid portrait of Berlin during the first years of Hitler’s reign. Chicago history professor William E. Dodd, who in 1933 became America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s regime, and his scandalously carefree daughter, Martha, along with his son and spouse are an odd fit among the extravagance and moral decadence of the Nazi elite. Dodd’s increasing concerns about Hitler’s ambitions are ignored by the State Department. His 24 year old daughter Martha, on the other hand, is hypnotized by the life style of a soon to be changed Berlin’s salon society. The rise of Nazi Germany is a oft told tale in history. For this reason, In the Garden of Beasts is simply amazing because it tells the story in a way that brings it all down to the level of the actions of real people acting in an unfamiliar situation. Each step along the way is such that we say to ourselves "oh my god someone must stop this before it’s too late."
Naive and diplomatically inexperienced, Ambassador Dodge eventually saw the darkness at the end of the road. The Nazi psychopaths had taken over a country, had begun killing people out of hand and the world did nothing.
Dodd mistakingly thought he could exercise a "moderating influence over Hitler and his government."
Martha was newly divorced from her first husband and out for a good time. This included a French diplomat, the head of the Gestapo and a Soviet spy... among others. This all amidst Jews and other "undesirables" being stripped of their livelihoods, property and basic civil rights. In one nightmarish mob scene, Martha and two male traveling companions witnessed the near-lynching of a woman who had a relationship with a Jewish man.
Hitler himself told Dodd that "If they (Jews) continue their activity, we shall make a complete end to all of them in this country." .
The Tiergarten was Berlins Central Park and zoo. The Dodds lived right adjacent to it. They took walks there. They admired the beautiful landscape. And met the animals who terrorized the world.