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


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Leni Riefenstahl: Triumph of the Will


The Dodd Family

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


Cindy Knoke‘s review

Dec 28, 12  ·
5 of 5 stars false
Eric Larsen is a meticulous researcher and writer.  His book “Devil in the White City,” a non-fiction account of a serial killer on a spree during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair was a tour de force, but “In the Garden of Beasts,” may be his greatest accomplishment to date. This book, relying on historical records and eye witness accounts, details the experiences of William E. Dodd and his family living in Hitler’s Berlin from 1933-38, when Dodd was the first US ambassador to Berlin under Hitler’s regime.
Dodd, an unassuming professor from the University of Chicago, who had received his Ph.D. from the University of Leipzig thirty years before, was somewhat ill prepared to be an ambassador. He was more at home at his farm or in a classroom than in an international embassy.  He was viewed as a middle class, penny-pincher, who scrupulously monitored embassy expenses.  This made him the butt of jokes and ill will among embassy staffers, most of whom were independently wealthy.  His penurious ways also made him the butt of jokes among the Nazi elite.
Despite this awkward fit, Dodd was a remarkable person, who sent a series of astutely accurate reports back to President Roosevelt during his tenure, documenting escalating atrocities against Jews under Hitler’s regime, restrictions in civil liberties, press censorship, violence and incarceration against opponents and German citizens, and the alarming increase in martial law.
When Dodd assumed the Ambassadorship, Hitler was Hindenburg’s Chancellor. Hindenburg died a year later, the same year that Hitler and his supporters staged a coup to route out their substantial German opposition led by Eric Rohm. It was after this violent and bloody coup, “The Night of The Long Knives,” that Dodd commenced his campaign to inform President Roosevelt and the American leadership about the atrocities occurring under the Nazi regime. His remarkable and accurate reports were essentially ignored by American leadership preoccupied by the depression, and unable to get their minds around what was occurring in Europe. Dodd was relentless in his unpopular campaign despite this resistance.
As if all of this wasn’t challenging enough, Dodd who served in Berlin with his wife, son Bill and daughter Martha, had his hands full with…umm…vivacious Martha. Martha, 22 years old when she arrived in Berlin, had already been secretly married and divorced. She wasted no time upon arrival in Berlin to involve herself in the Third Reich social whirlwind. It was impossible for me to keep track of her sexual liaisons, but she had affairs with an Luftwaffe Officer; Rudolf Diels, the head of the Gestapo; a Russian spy stationed in Berlin; a French Diplomat; American personnel; the poet Carl Sandburg; a Nobel Laureate and many more. Keeping track was difficult for the reader, and possibly for Martha herself.
Originally Martha was a Third Reich supporter, but after The Night of the Long Knives, her politics turned sharply left and anti-Nazi. The violence and imprisonment of her friends who opposed Hitler shocked her. The ambassador’s residence phone was tapped by the Nazis,  and servants were paid to spy and eavesdrop on the family. Her mother nearly had a nervous breakdown due to stress.
So Martha, being Martha,  decided to convert to communism, and spy for Russia with her lover, the Russian spy.
Martha’s fascinating life is way too complicated for me to try to explain. You must read the book. She did continue to spy for Russian against the US through the Cold War, even after marrying Alfred Stern, heir to the Sears Roebuck fortune.
This review is just the tip of the iceberg. You must read the book. The denouement of the ambassador and his family’s tenure in Germany is absolutely fascinating reading, as is the denouement of Martha’s Dodd’s peculiar life.
No one could make up a story like this because it would not be credible. You will learn so much about this period in German history, and for that alone this book is invaluable. The full story of Martha’s life is mind-boggling as well.
But in the final analysis, it is steady, relentless, William Dodd, trying to alert the US to what was happening in Europe that impressed me.
Highly recommend this remarkable book.

79 thoughts on ““In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin.”

  1. Excellent review, Cindy. Have you read THE BOOK THIEF (Nazi Germany/fiction) by Michael Zusack? A young girl abandoned by her mother, narrated by “Death”… Also, an excellent read. Happy reading! Bette

  2. Cindy, this is an excellent and thorough review. Do you think Martha was really in love with the Russian? And he with her? Or was it just an elaborate game? Those are questions I had. I also liked this book very much, and had wanted to read more by Erik Larsen after reading Devil in the White City.

    1. You know, it would be interesting to read more about her. I will look into this. I did do some more research on her after finishing the book. I remember she had affairs at the request of Russia and that her Russian spy lover was executed. She was most likely a sexual compulsive. Her Russian spy portfolio referred to her as a “bohemian,” sexually promiscuous person. It was not flattering at all.
      I really don’t know the answer to your question and it is sparking an interest in me to find out. My intuitive reaction is that, she is intimacy avoidant, which is common with sexual compulsives. They are afraid of, not comfortable with, genuine intimacy. She certainly thought she was in love. Whether it would have lasted? Who knows.
      One clue would be to look at her subsequent relationships, and she if she ever was capable, of a commited relationship.
      I am curious now and will do this & get back to you.
      Thank you for the thought provoking question.

      1. I did my reserarch:

        1. Martha Dodd embraced Naziism for a time. She had many love affairs with Nazi personnel, including Rolf Diels the head of the Gestapo, and a senior luftwaffe officer.
        2. She then embraced Stalinism and spied for Russia while living in Berlin, thus betraying her father and country at the same time. She appeared attracted to totalitarian regimes and people.
        3. Stalin at the least knew of her personally.
        4. Despite her “love” for Boris Vinagradov, she married Stern, a US millionaire, while he was still alive. They divorced.
        5. She continued to work as a spy for the Soviets for many years after returning to the US. She reportedly had sex with people at their direction to supply information.
        6. She was indicted for espionage. Fled to Prague. Sought permission to return to the US, but was denied.
        7. Honesty was not something she valued. I found this quote:

        “It is in the nature of Stalinism for its adherents to make a certain kind of lying – and not only to others, but first of all to themselves – a fundamental part of their lives. It is always a mistake to assume that Stalinists do not know the truth about the political reality they espouse. If they don’t know the truth (or all of it) one day, they know it the next, and it makes absolutely no difference to them politically For their loyalty is to something other than the truth.”

        So did she love Boris? If love is demonstrated by one’s actions, loyalty, honesty, kindness, then it is quite possible she was not capable of it.

      2. Wow! Thanks for this information about Martha Dodd! It seems as though a book could be written just about HER life! I guess you are right about her motivations, but from Larsen’s representation, it still seems to me that she did love Boris, in her own way. Marriage didn’t seem to be a barrier to relationships for her, unconventional as she was for her time. She married Stern for her own reasons, but it was probably not love. Even married, it wouldn’t have stopped her from having other relationships, including with Boris, since it never had before. I wonder what her parents thought about the life she led, spying for the Soviets. Perhaps she kept it a secret and the truth wasn’t known until later.

  3. One of my 2012 books! It was a page tuner and delivered in every way. It is a stern reminder that we live with decisions and there are watershed moments in our lives that demand our full and complete participation! We move forward but decisions set the pathway. Sometimes these decisions have ramifications that cannot be foreseen. I rather liked Martha’s courage and resourcefulness. She reminded me of Lady Hamilton of Lord Nelson fame. I think that she loved her Russian spy – she spent years following him. It is tragic how she was used by those who knew her weak points. And she did have those, to be sure!! Recall that at that time, there was a more significant double standard between men and women, which clouded the notes/judgment of those who analyzed her. History is written by the victors, as they say…I understand that there is a movie being planned with Tom Hanks as the ambassador. I hope it comes together…

    1. I definitely want to find out more about her. I know she had an interesting marital history, but I don’t remember the facts. Going to read more.
      Dodd was the one that impressed me. He was stubbornly un-fashionable. He was right & he risked ridicule to keep making the same point. Hitler must be stopped.
      Just an incredible book. Not at all surpised, and very pleased, that you read it and liked it.
      The other book about this era that was stellar was written by a Canadian. Back to you later with the title/author…can’t remember! ):
      So glad to have met you in 2012 & Happy New Year!

    1. Thank you. I am making a pie, influenced by you! I will call it Petit4’s Pie, if it works out. It’s chocolate silk, with Peruga dark chocolate carmelized almonds, which I am grating into the pie, and shaving onto the whipping cream. I got this idea from you. So if it’s delish, I will post it, and name it for you! If it’s not wonderful, I won’t do it!
      Happy New Year!

  4. Was given this book as a gift, Cindy, but it’s been sitting on the shelf for almost a year. Haven’t read it yet, as I don’t normally read that much about Hitler, having studied WWII both politically and militarily extensively. Hitler was just a huge horror story from beginning to end. Really sick.

  5. Ol’ Martha sounds like she was a real pistol! What a great picture of a really raucous “rally,” lol–those Nazis knew how to party-down in an exceptionally orderly fashion!

    1. God! Every time you put finger to keyboard you completely crack me up! If there was a place where one could post, “what people have to say about my blog,” this would be the quote I would go with! You must never stop blogging. I would get depressed.
      Happy New Year Becky!

      1. Thank you, Cindy, but I did fail to mention that your review was very informative, and like all of your reviews, makes even a person who isn’t an avid reader want to read these books. I was so busy visualizing the story and looking at the pictures that I forgot to mention this in my last comment! You have a fantastic New Year as well, Cindy!

  6. My German grandmother was swept up in the Hitler movement. She told me how the love turned to horror, as they then left Germany just before WWII. The times were complicated and I can not imagine the stress and the bravery shown by so many. Sounds like a fine book to add to my (long) list. Happy New Year to you and your family!

    1. Yes one thing that so frustrates me is the blame of the everyday German person. They had as much say as you & I did about the Vietnam war. Hitler obliterated Germany. The German people experienced untold suffering, as did all of the world.
      So glad to have met you this year and very much appreciate your support.
      Happy New Year to you & yours!

  7. Cindy first off I want to say Thank you for the book review. I don’t get to read AT ALL due to the small animal child living in my home who thinks EVERYTHING is his!! (he’s lucky he’s cute)
    Secondly and more importantly I want to tell you how much your support has ment to me. I always see you on the blog encouraging me and sending me good ju ju and I REALLY appreciate it. I hope you have a VERY Happy New Year !!! & A thousand thank yous!

    1. You know, it is effortless to support a talented blogger like you! You enhance my life. Happy New Year!
      Give your sweet little boy a kiss for me.
      PS- Everything in the house IS his!

  8. JulieG

    You made the book sound so interesting, I had to ordered it! I’m looking forward to reading it and learning more about history. Hope the coming new year is a happy one for you!

  9. JulieG

    You made the book sound so interesting, I had to ordered it! I’m looking forward to reading it and learning more about history. Hope the coming new year is full of happiness for you!

    1. How nice of you! I am sure you will enjoy the book and get so engrossed, you won’t even realize you’re learning a lot. Thank you for the kind comment and Happy New Year to you!

  10. Along these same lines, I downloaded to my Kindle a book I’d read about, Life Goes On by Hans Keilson. He was only 23 when he wrote this autobiographical novel that (quote) “paints a dark yet illuminating portrait of Germany between the world wars.” It’s about a Jewish shop owner, a textile merchant and a decorated WWI vet along with his family, and the troubles these people encounter as the German economy collapses and politics moved toward fascism. It was banned by the Nazis in 1934. Keilson emigrated to Holland and lived the rest of his life there. He died at the age of 101!

    In case you are interested…I’ll let you know how it is. Have a Happy New Year, Cindy!

  11. Frank’s mother is from Austria — she really doesn’t talk much about living there during this period of time, but she left her whole family behind when she married Frank’s father and moved to the states, not knowing a word of English. I wonder if she would enjoy this book or if it would just bring back thoughts she would rather not think about? I would love to get her take on this book….I have bookmarked your post so I can refer to it when I ask her if she would like a copy since she is an avid reader. Again, I really think this book review is especially good, Cindy — thanks for posting it!

    1. I would like to discuss this with you in more depth when I return from our trip. I have another book that she might like more about the experiences of German/Austrian women and children in the post war period. It is painful, buried history. The best might be to ask her if she is interested. I talked to my uncle in depth for the first time last year about his experience as a POW in WWII and he is 87! So I know these are sensitive subjects for those who were traumatized.

      1. It’s so hard to tell if and how traumatized they are when they don’t talk about it, and I don’t really blame them. I would love to have been a fly on the wall when you had that talk with your uncle — it was sure to be fascinating and sad at the same time! Have a great trip and I look forward to hearing about the other book — it sounds fascinating as well!

      2. What’s the name of this book, Cindy? I’d like to read it!

        Also did you ever hear of the “Lebensborn”? During the Nazi period, young unmarried women of Aryan descent and appearance were encouraged (with money, etc) to move into these homes (the Lebensborn), where they would mate with Aryan Nazi soldiers, in order to produce children suitable for the Third Reich! Basically they became sort of prostitutes whose clients were “selected” for them. I read a book about this once, but can’t remember the name of it.

      3. I keep remembering at odd times to get back to you with the title of the book. It is:

        On Hitler’s Mountain: Overcoming the Legacy of a Nazi Childhood (P.S.) [Paperback]
        Irmgard A. Hunt

        It is a sobering view of the suffering of the German people during the whole tragedy. I hadn’t heard of the Lebensborn, but it sounds consistently traumatic. Sorry for the delay with this, your request kept popping into my head at odd times. Let me know what you think of the book if you read it & thank you for the thought provoking discussion~

    1. I’ve written the name down, and hope to be able to search around and get it — I haven’t talked to Frank’s mom yet, since she has been doing poorly and appears to be declining health-wise. Somewhere we have a cassette tape of Frank’s mom telling about her life, and I am bound and determined now to find it. If she is feeling better by Easter I want to talk to her and see if she’s interested and still able to read these two books. I’ll read them myself if she doesn’t want to!
      I didn’t see this comment until today — I’m not at all sure how it got past me.

  12. You have convinced me . I will read this. I am fascinated by human nature and the most fascinating aspect is my own. How would I act under the same circumstances? I am so aware of choice now. I teach children about choice and the long from escalation of consequence from Kindergarten onwards. Certainly I will read this one – thanks for the intriguing review.
    I am intrigued also to know do you have work on Psychotherapy we can read? Jo

  13. I just had a thought! Is there a way I could ask you to review my book? Or do you have a book and we could swap reviews? I will see if I can find you on GoodReads.Jo

  14. drag0n1ady

    I finally am getting back to you, Cindy, regarding Life Goes On. It wasn’t what I thought, as it dealt mainly with the author’s father’s struggles to maintain his retail business in the 1930s. However, the sequel to it, Death of the Adversary, also by Hans Keilson, is about his experience with the resistance (he was Jewish also) and the impact of the Nazi era on his family. I’ve downloaded it to my Kindle, but currently reading a non-fiction book on North Korea – also horrifying!

    1. Sounds interesting. Add it to my book list. Check out, “Hitler’s Children,” a documentary about the lives of Hitler’s elite’s offspring. Made by a third generation holocaust survivor. It is so powerful and moving. Won a bunch of awards, deservedly. Thank you for the update~

  15. I love History Cindy and hope to read this book. I want to read Hitlers Children too…Your reviews are super! I enjoy doing them as well. You top mine in a heart beat. Do you post to Amazon? If not you should. Jackie

    1. Hi Jackie, great to meet a fellow non-fiction reader. Occasionally I do post to Amazon, although not enough time in the day. Hitler’s Childrens was a must read book when considering victimology in WWII. A privelege to meet you here in blogsville & cheers to you~

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