Erik Larson has a penchant for blending evil and wonder. He got the mix precisely right in The Devil In The White City, where the story of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair proves just as fascinating as the gruesome deeds of contemporaneous serial killer H.H. Holmes. The weakness of In The Garden Of Beasts: Love, Terror, And An American Family In Hitler’s Berlin is that none of the good that Larson covers can stand up to one of the greatest evils the world has known.
The author of The Devil In The White City returns with another novelistic history about evil deeds, this time in Nazi Germany.In The Garden Of Beasts primarily follows William E. Dodd, America’s ambassador to Hitler’s Germany from 1933 through 1937, and his daughter, Martha. Larson shows that Dodd was ill-suited for the position: The Chicago history professor had no experience as a diplomat, but asked for a post because he was looking for a low-commitment job to provide an income while he worked on a series of books. Roosevelt offered the job to at least four other people before settling on Dodd. The ambassador accomplished little before he was recalled, and large chunks of the book focus on Dodd’s battles with his critics and general distaste for the formal functions of high diplomacy. Meanwhile, Martha used her newfound status to develop a collection of admirers and sexual partners, including representatives of France and the Soviet Union and multiple high-ranking Nazi officials.
In spite of Larson’s best efforts, Dodd and Martha don’t make particularly compelling protagonists. Both seem hopelessly naïve, with Martha’s anti-Semitism leading her to flirt with Nazism while Dodd repeatedly expresses his belief that Hitler sincerely wants peace and is working to rein in the brutality unleashed by his followers. Larson’s attempts to seize on Dodd’s few moments of import feel exaggerated. When Dodd upsets Germany’s vice chancellor with a comment on World War I history, Larson introduces it by writing “even a mere bit of conversational sparring across a banquet table could become the stuff of minor legend.”
The book is at its best when it shifts its focus off the Dodds to the people who surrounded them during their time in Berlin. Larson provides surprisingly intimate portrayals of Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, Röhm, and other Nazi figures, and striking descriptions of the creeping paranoia that spread through all spheres of German society. The facts alone would be enough to build a feeling of suspenseful dread, but Larson indulges in unnecessary melodramatic foreshadowing.
Dodd eventually came to believe Nazi Germany was a major threat to world peace, and he made his case in speaking engagements across the United States. But again, he proved ineffective in motivating the isolationist country to get involved. In the end, the main lesson of In The Garden Of Beasts is how evil prevails when good fails to act.