William E. Dodd was an unassuming history professor from the University of Chicago when, in June 1933, he received a phone call asking him to take up the post of US ambassador in Berlin. He had two hours to decide on his answer. No one else wanted the job at that time and in that place. Overworked in academe, Dodd wanted time and space to write his comprehensive history of the southern US states . . . He accepted the position.
In the Garden of Beasts is a riveting account of Dodd’s time in Berlin during the period when Hitler was coming to power. The book follows him as, at first unable or unwilling to believe what is happening, he slowly begins to accept the enormity and horror of the situation. ‘The Cassandra of American diplomats’, as he is later styled, he speaks his mind, predicts with accuracy what is likely to occur, and is for the most part simply mocked. It doesn’t help his situation that his daughter, Martha, not quite divorced from her American husband back home, is more than able and willing to carry on concurrent affairs with the head of the Gestapo and a Soviet Embassy official among several others.
The book is thoroughly researched and there are pages of references and footnotes tucked away discreetly at the back where they do not interfere with the absolutely crackling pace of the narrative. On occasion it’s easy to imagine that what you’re reading is a thriller; on occasion it’s easy to laugh at the pompousness and ridiculousness of some of the characters – until you stop to remind yourself that these are the insane Hitler and Himmler and Göring.
Even if you think you’ve read all there is to read on this period, this book is so fresh and engaging it will add another dimension. Unreservedly recommended.