BOOK REVIEW: Eric Larson’s ‘In The Garden of Beasts’ — U.S. Ambassador to Nazi Germany — Reads Like a Spy Thriller

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen

BOOK REVIEW: Erik Larson's 'In The Garden of Beasts,' --  First U.S. Ambassador to Nazi Germany and His Family -- Reads Like a Spy Thriller

Erik Larson’s “In The Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, And An American Family In Hitler’s Germany” (Crown Publishers, 464 pages, $26.00) is an especially relevant book on this day, Nov. 11, 2011,  with the wide release of Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar,” a biopic of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

Much of the book by an acclaimed master of the nonfiction narrative genre (“The Devil in the White City,” “Isaac’s Storm”) deals with Ambassador William E. Dodd’s free-spirited and flamboyant beyond belief daughter Martha (1908-1990). The FBI has a 10,800-page file on Martha, who spied for the Soviet Union with her second husband,  millionaire Alfred Stern. The FBI began surveillance of Dodd in 1948. The couple fled the country and Martha died in Prague, disillusioned by the Soviet invasion ofCzechoslovakia in 1968.
Larson devotes many pages to Martha Dodd’s affair with Boris Winogradov, a Soviet secret police agent attached to the USSR embassy in Berlin, who loved to take Martha for long rides in the country in his Ford convertible.  But Winogradov was only one in a long line of Dodd’s lovers. She was even romantically linked to Rudolf Diels, the then head of the Gestapo, the German equivalent of Winogradov’s NKVD (later KGB and today the FSB). She was romantically involved with many men as she initially admired what was happening in the first months of Hitler’s new order in Germany.

The father, who had studied in Germany and was fluent in the language and culture — after an initial period of denial and disbelief — soon became convinced of the evils of the Nazi regime, becoming one of the first Americans and diplomats to notice what was happening in the land of Beethoven and Goethe.

Erik Larson

Erik Larson

As Jewish persecution increased — confirmed by first-person testimony — Dodd telegraphed his concerns to a largely indifferent, essentially anti-Semitic State Department. Attacks on Americans of all religions visiting Germany became common, often prompted and carried out by members of the SA or Storm Troopers. Many of the attacks occurred because the visitors didn’t use the Nazi salute. One even involved Milwaukee-born German-American radio broadcaster H.V. Kaltenborn, but it — like the other attacks —  had little effect on the State Department, either, Larson relates.

Dodd, born in Clayton, NC,  was a mild-mannered history professor from the University of Chicago when new President Franklin D. Roosevelt tapped him for the post in the summer of 1933, just months after Adolf Hitler’s election as chancellor. Dodd came to Germany with his wife, son Bill and Martha — and the family’s old Chevrolet.

William E. Dodd (1869-1940) was an unlikely choice to serve as ambassador to one of Europe’s most important countries. He wasn’t wealthy — at a time when the posts went to millionaires who could afford to entertain lavishly. He was fluent in German, having earned his Ph D from the University of Leipzig in 1900. He earned his undergraduate degree from Virginia Tech. He was a friend of President Woodrow Wilson, in whose cabinet FDR had served as assistant secretary of the Navy.

Larson’s title refers to Berlin’s famous park, the Tiergarten, a favorite place to visit for the Dodds, which translates to “Garden of Beasts”. William Dodd would often meet other diplomats in the Tiergarten to avoid the wiretapping they were sure the Gestapo had in place in embassies and residences.

As a residence he chose a four-story rental house at Tiergartenstrasse 27A, across the street from the park. In New York it would be the equivalent of a house on Fifth Avenue or Central Park West, across the street from Central Park. The house was owned by a Jewish banker, who resided in the fourth, or attic, level. The rent was a bargain at $150 a month for Dodd’s space, appealing to a man who despised opulence during a Depression and who had to live and support his family on a salary of $17,500 (at a time when Americans who were employed would be delighted to earn $3,000 a year).

If anyone had any doubts about the future of Germany under Hitler, the events of June 1934, when Hitler went after his real or perceived opponents with the ferocity of a wild beast, were a sledgehammer blow to the head sufficient to convince even the most skeptical observers.

On June 30, 1934, in an action called “Operation Hummingbird” (kolibri, in German, later used in the as the name of an ultralight German portable typewriter, the Groma Kolibri), Hitler struck the  longtime old Nazis of the SA, or Storm Troopers, along with former officials of the Weimar Republic, antedating Hitler’s election in January 1933.

Hitler’s main target was Capt. Ernst Röhm, a friend of Hitler’s but a threat to his regime because he
wanted to merge his SA with the Reichswehr, or German army. Hundreds of people were killed or imprisoned in the new concentration camps. The events, which included the murder of  Röhm, were quickly dubbed “The Night of the Long Knives.” Among the dead was the former chancellor, Gen. Kurt von Schleicher and his wife.

Dodd stayed on in Germany until late 1937, when he was forced out of the post. On his arrival in New York in early January 1938, he told reporters of the horrors of Nazi Germany — horrors which were confirmed again on Nov. 9-10, 1938, on the anti-Jewish Kristallnacht pogrom.

About the Author

Erik Larson is the author of the national bestsellers “Thunderstruck”, “The Devil in the White City”, and “Isaac’s Storm”. His website is:


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