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“By far his best and most enthralling work of novelistic history….Powerful, poignant…a transportingly true story.” —New York Times
“Reads like an elegant thriller…utterly compelling… marvelous stuff. An excellent and entertaining book that deserves to be a bestseller, and probably will be.”
“The most important book of 2011.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
“A dazzling amalgam of reportage….Reads like a suspense novel, replete with colorful characters, both familiar and those previously relegated to the shadows. Like Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories or Victor Klemperer’s Diaries, IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS is an on-the-ground documentary of a society going mad in slow motion.” —Chicago Sun-Times
“Fascinating...A master at writing true tales as riveting as fiction.” —People (3 1/2 stars)
“Larson has meticulously researched the Dodds’ intimate witness to Hitler’s ascendancy and created an edifying narrative of this historical byway that has all the pleasures of a political thriller….a fresh picture of these terrrible events.”
—New York Times Book Review
“Larson, a master of historical nonfiction, has written a fascinating book that, although carefully researched and documented, reads like a political thriller...highly recommended to anyone interested in the rise of the Third Reich and America’s role in that process.” —Jewish Book World
“Larson's strengths as a storyteller have never been stronger than they are here, and this story is far more important than either "The Devil in the White City" or "Thunderstruck." How the United States dithered as Hitler rose to power is a cautionary tale that bears repeating, and Larson has told it masterfully.”
—Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Larson has done it again, expertly weaving together a fresh new narrative from ominous days of the 20th century.” —Associated Press
“Mesmerizing...cinematic, improbable yet true.” —Philadelphia Inquirer
“Compelling...the kind of book that brings history alive.” —USA TODAY
“[G]ripping, a nightmare narrative of a terrible time. It raises again the question never fully answered about the Nazi era—what evil humans are capable of, and what means are necessary to cage the beast.” —Seattle Times
“A stunning work of history.” —Newsweek
“Tells a fascinating story brilliantly well.” —Financial Times
“A cautionary tale not to be missed.” —Washington Times
“Highly compelling...Larson brings Berlin roaring to life in all its glamour and horror...a welcome new chapter in the vast canon of World War II literature.”
—Christian Science Monitor
“Terrific storytelling.” —Los Angeles Times
“Vivid and immediate...a fascinating and gripping account.” —Washington Independent Review of Books
“Gripping...a story of stunning impact.” —New York Daily News
“Larson is superb at creating a you-are-there sense of time and place. In the Garden of Beasts is also a superb book...nothing less than masterful.” —Toronto Globe and Mail
“Harrowingly suspenseful.” —Vogue.com
“Larson has taken a brilliant idea and turned it into a gripping book.” —Women's Wear Daily
“A gripping, deeply-intimate narrative with a climax that reads like the best political thriller, where we are stunned with each turn of the page.” —Louisville Courier Journal
“Electrifying reading...fascinating.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Larson's books are tightly focused and meticulously researched, but they also are rich in anecdote and detail from the homey mundane to the tragic, the absurd and the downright funny. His prose has an austere, compassionate lyricism. His narratives have novelistic pull...his psychological perception and empathic imagination lend flesh to the documents, music to the ballrooms. He gives a throbbing pulse to the foolish and the wise, the malignant and the kind.” —The Oregonian
“A masterly work of salacious nonfiction that captures the decadent and deadly years of The Third Reich.” —Men's Journal
“Even though we know how it will end — the book's climax, the Night of the Long Knives, being just the beginning, this is a page-turner, full of flesh and blood people and monsters too, whose charms are particularly disturbing.” —Portsmouth Herald
“Larson’s latest chronicle of history has as much excitement as a thriller novel, and it’s all the more thrilling because it’s all true.” —Asbury Park Press
“Larson succeeds brilliantly…offers a fascinating window into the year when the world began its slow slide into war.” —Maclean's
“Larson's scholarship is impressive, but it's his pacing and knack for suspense that elevates the book from the matter-of-fact to the sublime.” —Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
“[A] brilliant tour de force of nonfiction writing...Larson, as always, conjures magic with the details, and often injects a welcome dollop of dark humor...In the Garden of Beasts serves as both a serious, insightful look at history, and a stern warning against national complacency when you’re being run by a dictator who is both vicious and undeniably off his rocker.” —Dallas Morning News
“Like slipping slowly into a nightmare, with logic perverted and morality upended….It all makes for a powerful, unsettling immediacy.” —Vanity Fair
“A master of nonfiction storytelling...Larson once again gathers an astounding amount of historical detail to re-create scene after vivid scene...a stunning, provocative immersion...a call to citizens in all nations to investigate the motives of power brokers and government officials, to stand our ground when we see others' moral compasses going awry.” —Dallas/Fort Worth Star-Telegram
“No other author...has the ability to actually live up to that old adage of making history come alive. What Larson is doing is creating a world that no longer exists on the page...[He] not only succeeds but is able to turn what one would expect to be tedium into page-turning brilliance.” —Digital Americana
“Narrative nonfiction at its finest, this story drops into 1933 Berlin as William E. Dodd becomes the first U.S. ambassador to Hitler's Germany—a tale of intrigue, romance, and foreboding.” —Kansas City Star
“One of the most popular history books this year...offers something for both serious students of the 1930s and for lovers of charming stories.” —St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Erik Larson tackles this outstanding period of history as fully and compellingly as he portrayed the events in his bestseller, The Devil in the White City. With each page, more horrors are revealed, making it impossible to put down. In the Garden of Beasts reads like the true thriller it is.” —BookReporter.com
“In this mesmerizing portrait of the Nazi capital, Larson plumbs a far more diabolical urban cauldron than in his bestselling The Devil in the White City...a vivid, atmospheric panorama of the Third Reich and its leaders, including murderous Nazi factional infighting, through the accretion of small crimes and petty thuggery.” —Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
“An excellent study, taking a tiny instant of modern history and giving it specific weight, depth and meaning.” —Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
“A brilliant and often infuriating account of the experiences and evolving attitudes of the Dodd family during Hitler’s critical first year in power. With the benefit of hindsight, of course, the Dodds seem almost criminally ignorant, but Larson treats them with a degree of compassion that elevates them to tragic status.” —Booklist (Starred Review)
“Larson writes history like a novelist...conveying quite wonderfully the electrically charged atmosphere of a whole society turning towards the stormy dark.” —The Telegraph
Praise for Erik Larson
“A ripping yarn of murder and invention.” —Los Angeles Times
“Larson’s gift for rendering an historical era with vibrant tactility and filling it with surprising personalities makes Thunderstruck an irresistible tale.” —The Washington Post Book World
“Gripping….An edge-of-the-seat read.” —People
DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY
“[Larson] relentlessly fuses history and entertainment to give this nonfiction book the dramatic effect of a novel….a dynamic, enveloping book.”
—The New York Times
“A hugely engrossing chronicle of events public and private. Exceedingly well-documented, exhaustive without being excessive, and utterly fascinating.”
“An irresistible page-turner that reads like the most compelling, sleep-defying fiction.” —Time Out New York
“A gripping account…fascinating to its core, and all the more compelling for being true.” —New York Times Book Review
“Superb...Larson has made the Great Hurricane live again.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Gripping….The Jaws of hurricane yarns.” —Newsday
Larson has meticulously researched the Dodds' intimate witness to Hitler's ascendancy and created an edifying narrative of this historical byway that has all the pleasures of a political thriller: innocents abroad, the gathering storm…The story of prewar Germany, of the Jews, of book burnings, of the Reichstag trial, of the Night of the Long Knives, of the Nuremberg rally, of the unfolding disaster is old news. But Larson has connected the dots to make a fresh picture of these terrible events.
The New York Times Book Review
History books have to work much harder than they did of old. It's no longer enough that they are authoritative and well-researchedthey have to be entertaining, too. As entertaining as a novel, perhaps. Of course this is quite a tall order. But Larson fills it admirably…his book reads like an elegant thriller…utterly compelling, and while I was reading it there were several occasions on which I had to stop and check to make sure it really was a work of nonfiction. It isand marvelous stuff…an excellent and entertaining book that deserves to be a bestseller…
The Washington Post
…[Larson's] best and most enthralling work of novelistic history…There are hindsight-laden books that see the rise of Hitler as a parade of telltale signs. There are individual accounts that personalize the atmosphere of mounting oppression and terror. But there has been nothing quite like Mr. Larson's story of the four Dodds, characters straight out of a 1930s family drama, transporting their shortcomings to a new world full of nasty surprises…The Dodds' story is rich with incident, populated by fascinating secondary characters, tinged with rising peril and pityingly persuasive about the futility of Dodd's mission.
The New York Times
In this mesmerizing portrait of the Nazi capital, Larson plumbs a far more diabolical urban cauldron than in his bestselling The Devil in the White City. He surveys Berlin, circa 1933–1934, from the perspective of two American naïfs: Roosevelt's ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, an academic historian and Jeffersonian liberal who hoped Nazism would de-fang itself (he urged Hitler to adopt America's milder conventions of anti-Jewish discrimination), and Dodd's daughter Martha, a sexual free spirit who loved Nazism's vigor and ebullience. At first dazzled by the glamorous world of the Nazi ruling elite, they soon started noticing signs of its true nature: the beatings meted out to Americans who failed to salute passing storm troopers; the oppressive surveillance; the incessant propaganda; the intimidation and persecution of friends; the fanaticism lurking beneath the surface charm of its officialdom. Although the narrative sometimes bogs down in Dodd's wranglings with the State Department and Martha's soap opera, Larson offers a vivid, atmospheric panorama of the Third Reich and its leaders, including murderous Nazi factional infighting, through the accretion of small crimes and petty thuggery. Photos. (May)
Best-selling author Larson (The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America) turns his considerable literary nonfiction skills to the experiences of U.S. ambassador to Germany William E. Dodd and his family in Berlin in the early years of Hitler's rule. Dodd had been teaching history at the University of Chicago when he was summoned by FDR to the German ambassadorship. Larson, using lots of archival as well as secondary-source research, focuses on Dodd's first year in Berlin and, using Dodd's diary, chillingly portrays the terror and oppression that slowly settled over Germany in 1933. Dodd quickly realized the Nazis' evil intentions; his daughter Martha, in her mid-20s, was initially smitten by the courteous SS soldiers surrounding her family, but over time she, too, became disenchanted with the brutality of the regime. Along the way Larson provides portraits based on primary-source impressions of Hermann Göring, Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, and Hitler himself. He also traces the Dodds' lives after their time in Germany. VERDICT Larson captures the nuances of this terrible period. This is a grim read but a necessary one for the present generation. Those who wish to study Dodd further can read Robert Dallek's Democrat & Diplomat.—Ed Goedeken, Iowa State Univ. Lib., Ames
A sometimes improbable but nevertheless true tale of diplomacy and intrigue by bestselling author Larson (Thunderstruck, 2006, etc.).
William E. Dodd, the unlikely hero of the piece, was a historian at the University of Chicago in the early 1930s, tenured and unhappy, increasingly convinced that he was cut out for greater things than proctoring exams. Franklin Roosevelt, then in his second year in office, was meanwhile having trouble filling the ambassadorship in Berlin, where the paramilitary forces of Hitler's newly installed regime were in the habit of beating up Americans—and, it seems, American doctors in particular, one for the offense of not giving the Nazi salute when an SS parade passed by. Dodd was offered the job, and he accepted; as Larson writes, "Dodd wanted a sinecure...this despite his recognition that serving as a diplomat was not something to which his character was well suited." It truly was not, but Dodd did yeomanlike work, pressing for American interests while letting it be known that he did not think much of the blustering Nazis—even as, the author writes, he seems to have been somewhat blind to the intensity of anti-Semitism and was casually anti-Semitic himself. More interesting than the scholarly Dodd, whom the Nazis thought of as a musty old man, was his daughter Martha, a beauty of readily apparent sexual appetite, eagerly courted by Nazis and communists alike. The intrigues in which she was caught up give Larson's tale, already suspenseful, the feel of a John le Carré novel. The only real demerit is that the book goes on a touch too long, though it gives a detailed portrait of a time when the Nazi regime was solidifying into the evil monolith that would go to war with the world only five years later.
An excellent study, taking a tiny instant of modern history and giving it specific weight, depth and meaning.
Read an Excerpt
Means of Escape
The telephone call that forever changed the lives of the Dodd family of Chicago came at noon on Thursday, June 8, 1933, as William E. Dodd sat at his desk at the University of Chicago.
Now chairman of the history department, Dodd had been a professor at the university since 1909, recognized nationally for his work on the American South and for a biography of Woodrow Wilson. He was sixty-four years old, trim, five feet eight inches tall, with blue-gray eyes and light brown hair. Though his face at rest tended to impart severity, he in fact had a sense of humor that was lively, dry, and easily ignited. He had a wife, Martha, known universally as Mattie, and two children, both in their twenties. His daughter, also named Martha, was twenty-four years old; his son, William Jr.Billwas twenty-eight.
By all counts they were a happy family and a close one. Not rich by any means, but well off, despite the economic depression then gripping the nation. They lived in a large house at 5757 Blackstone Avenue in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood, a few blocks from the university. Dodd also ownedand every summer tendeda small farm in Round Hill, Virginia, which, according to a county survey, had 386.6 acres, “more or less,” and was where Dodd, a Jeffersonian democrat of the first stripe, felt most at home, moving among his twenty-one Guernsey heifers; his four geldings, Bill, Coley, Mandy, and Prince; his Farmall tractor; and his horse-drawn Syracuse plows. He made coffee in a Maxwell House can atop his old wood-burning stove. His wife was not as fond of the place and was more than happy to let him spend time there by himself while the rest of the family remained behind in Chicago. Dodd named the farm Stoneleigh, because of all the rocks strewn across its expanse, and spoke of it the way other men spoke of first loves. “The fruit is so beautiful, almost flawless, red and luscious, as we look at it, the trees still bending under the weight of their burden,” he wrote one fine night during the apple harvest. “It all appeals to me.”
Though generally not given to cliche, Dodd described the telephone call as a “sudden surprise out of a clear sky.” This was, however, something of an exaggeration. Over the preceding several months there had been talk among his friends that one day a call like this might come. It was the precise nature of the call that startled Dodd, and troubled him.
For some time now, Dodd had been unhappy in his position at the university. Though he loved teaching history, he loved writing it more, and for years he had been working on what he expected would be the definitive recounting of early southern history, a four-volume series that he called The Rise and Fall of the Old South, but time and again he had found his progress stymied by the routine demands of his job. Only the first volume was near completion, and he was of an age when he feared he would be buried alongside the unfinished remainder. He had negotiated a reduced schedule with his department, but as is so often the case with such artificial ententes, it did not work in the manner he had hoped. Staff departures and financial pressures within the university associated with the Depression had left him working just as hard as ever, dealing with university officials, preparing lectures, and confronting the engulfing needs of graduate students. In a letter to the university’s Department of Buildings and Grounds dated October 31, 1932, he pleaded for heat in his office on Sundays so he could have at least one day to devote to uninterrupted writing. To a friend he described his position as “embarrassing.”
Adding to his dissatisfaction was his belief that he should have been farther along in his career than he was. What had kept him from advancing at a faster clip, he complained to his wife, was the fact that he had not grown up in a life of privilege and instead had been compelled to work hard for all that he achieved, unlike others in his field who had advanced more quickly. And indeed, he had reached his position in life the hard way. Born on October 21, 1869, at his parents’ home in the tiny hamlet of Clayton, North Carolina, Dodd entered the bottom stratum of white southern society, which still adhered to the class conventions of the antebellum era. His father, John D. Dodd, was a barely literate subsistence farmer; his mother, Evelyn Creech, was descended from a more exalted strain of North Carolina stock and deemed to have married down. The couple raised cotton on land given to them by Evelyn’s father and barely made a living. In the years after the Civil War, as cotton production soared and prices sank, the family fell steadily into debt to the town’s general store, owned by a relative of Evelyn’s who was one of Clayton’s three men of privilege“hard men,” Dodd called them: “. . . traders and aristocratic masters of their dependents!”
Dodd was one of seven children and spent his youth working the family’s land. Although he saw the work as honorable, he did not wish to spend the rest of his life farming and recognized that the only way a man of his lowly background could avoid this fate was by gaining an education. He fought his way upward, at times focusing so closely on his studies that other students dubbed him “Monk Dodd.” In February 1891 he entered Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College (later Virginia Tech). There too he was a sober, focused presence. Other students indulged in such pranks as painting the college president’s cow and staging fake duels so as to convince freshmen that they had killed their adversaries. Dodd only studied. He got his bachelor’s degree in 1895 and his master’s in 1897, when he was twenty-six years old.
At the encouragement of a revered faculty member, and with a loan from a kindly great-uncle, Dodd in June 1897 set off for Germany and the University of Leipzig to begin studies toward a doctorate. He brought his bicycle. He chose to focus his dissertation on Thomas Jefferson, despite the obvious difficulty of acquiring eighteenth-century American documents in Germany. Dodd did his necessary classwork and found archives of relevant materials in London and Berlin. He also did a lot of traveling, often on his bicycle, and time after time was struck by the atmosphere of militarism that pervaded Germany. At one point one of his favorite professors led a discussion on the question “How helpless would the United States be if invaded by a great German army?” All this Prussian bellicosity made Dodd uneasy. He wrote, “There was too much war spirit everywhere.”
Dodd returned to North Carolina in late autumn 1899 and after months of search at last got an instructor’s position at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia. He also renewed a friendship with a young woman named Martha Johns, the daughter of a well-off landowner who lived near Dodd’s hometown. The friendship blossomed into romance and on Christmas Eve 1901, they married.
At Randolph-Macon, Dodd promptly got himself into hot water. In 1902 he published an article in the Nation in which he attacked a successful campaign by the Grand Camp of Confederate Veterans to have Virginia ban a history textbook that the veterans deemed an affront to southern honor. Dodd charged that the veterans believed the only valid histories were those that held that the South “was altogether right in seceding from the Union.”
The backlash was immediate. An attorney prominent in the veterans’ movement launched a drive to have Dodd fired from Randolph-Macon. The school gave Dodd its full support. A year later he attacked the veterans again, this time in a speech before the American Historical Society in which he decried their efforts to “put out of the schools any and all books which do not come up to their standard of local patriotism.” He railed that “to remain silent is out of the question for a strong and honest man.”
Dodd’s stature as a historian grew, and so too did his family. His son was born in 1905, his daughter in 1908. Recognizing that an increase in salary would come in handy and that pressure from his southern foes was unlikely to abate, Dodd put his name in the running for an opening at the University of Chicago. He got the job, and in the frigid January of 1909, when he was thirty-nine years old, he and his family made their way to Chicago, where he would remain for the next quarter century. In October 1912, feeling the pull of his heritage and a need to establish his own credibility as a true Jeffersonian democrat, he bought his farm. The grueling work that had so worn on him during his boyhood now became for him both a soul-saving diversion and a romantic harking back to America’s past.
Dodd also discovered in himself an abiding interest in the political life, triggered in earnest when in August 1916 he found himself in the Oval Office of the White House for a meeting with President Woodrow Wilson. The encounter, according to one biographer, “profoundly altered his life.”
Dodd had grown deeply uneasy about signs that America was sliding toward intervention in the Great War then being fought in Europe. His experience in Leipzig had left him no doubt that Germany alone was responsible for starting the war, in satisfaction of the yearnings of Germany’s industrialists and aristocrats, the Junkers, whom he likened to the southern aristocracy before the Civil War. Now he saw the emergence of a similar hubris on the part of America’s own industrial and military elites. When an army general tried to include the University of Chicago in a national campaign to ready the nation for war, Dodd bridled and took his complaint directly to the commander in chief.
Dodd wanted only ten minutes of Wilson’s time but got far more and found himself as thoroughly charmed as if he’d been the recipient of a potion in a fairy tale. He came to believe that Wilson was correct in advocating U.S. intervention in the war. For Dodd, Wilson became the modern embodiment of Jefferson. Over the next seven years, he and Wilson became friends; Dodd wrote Wilson’s biography. Upon Wilson’s death on February 3, 1924, Dodd fell into deep mourning.
At length he came to see Franklin Roosevelt as Wilson’s equal and threw himself behind Roosevelt’s 1932 campaign, speaking and writing on his behalf whenever an opportunity arose. If he had hopes of becoming a member of Roosevelt’s inner circle, however, Dodd soon found himself disappointed, consigned to the increasingly dissatisfying duties of an academic chair.
Now he was sixty-four years old, and the way he would leave his mark on the world would be with his history of the old South, which also happened to be the one thing that every force in the universe seemed aligned to defeat, including the university’s policy of not heating buildings on Sundays.
More and more he considered leaving the university for some position that would allow him time to write, “before it is too late.” The idea occurred to him that an ideal job might be an undemanding post within the State Department, perhaps as an ambassador in Brussels or The Hague. He believed that he was sufficiently prominent to be considered for such a position, though he tended to see himself as far more influential in national affairs than in fact he was. He had written often to advise Roosevelt on economic and political matters, both before and immediately after Roosevelt’s victory. It surely galled Dodd that soon after the election he received from the White House a form letter stating that while the president wanted every letter to his office answered promptly, he could not himself reply to all of them in a timely manner and thus had asked his secretary to do so in his stead.
Dodd did, however, have several good friends who were close to Roosevelt, including the new secretary of commerce, Daniel Roper. Dodd’s son and daughter were to Roper like nephew and niece, sufficiently close that Dodd had no compunction about dispatching his son as intermediary to ask Roper whether the new administration might see fit to appoint Dodd as minister to Belgium or the Netherlands. “These are posts where the government must have somebody, yet the work is not heavy,” Dodd told his son. He confided that he was motivated mainly by his need to complete his Old South. “I am not desirous of any appointment from Roosevelt but I am very anxious not to be defeated in a life-long purpose.”
In short, Dodd wanted a sinecure, a job that was not too demanding yet that would provide stature and a living wage and, most important, leave him plenty of time to writethis despite his recognition that serving as a diplomat was not something to which his character was well suited. “As to high diplomacy (London, Paris, Berlin) I am not the kind,” he wrote to his wife early in 1933. “I am distressed that this is so on your account. I simply am not the sly, two-faced type so necessary to ‘lie abroad for the country.’ If I were, I might go to Berlin and bend the knee to Hitlerand relearn German.” But, he added, “why waste time writing about such a subject? Who would care to live in Berlin the next four years?”
Whether because of his son’s conversation with Roper or the play of other forces, Dodd’s name soon was in the wind. On March 15, 1933, during a sojourn at his Virginia farm, he went to Washington to meet with Roosevelt’s new secretary of state, Cordell Hull, whom he had met on a number of previous occasions. Hull was tall and silver haired, with a cleft chin and strong jaw. Outwardly, he seemed the physical embodiment of all that a secretary of state should be, but those who knew him better understood that when angered he had a most unstatesmanlike penchant for releasing torrents of profanity and that he suffered a speech impediment that turned his r’s to w’s in the manner of the cartoon character Elmer Fudda trait that Roosevelt now and then made fun of privately, as when he once spoke of Hull’s “twade tweaties.” Hull, as usual, had four or five red pencils in his shirt pocket, his favored tools of state. He raised the possibility of Dodd receiving an appointment to Holland or Belgium, exactly what Dodd had hoped for. But now, suddenly forced to imagine the day-to-day reality of what such a life would entail, Dodd balked. “After considerable study of the situation,” he wrote in his little pocket diary, “I told Hull I could not take such a position.”
But his name remained in circulation.
And now, on that Thursday in June, his telephone began to ring. As he held the receiver to his ear, he heard a voice he recognized immediately.