This book is a must read for anyone interested in World War II history. It is not about the war. It is a very intimate account of Berlin during the pre-war years as seen through the eyes of our American ambassador, William E. Dodd and his daughter, Martha Dodd Stern. The majority of this work is based upon their personal diaries and correspondence. In addition, much research was done from State Department correspondence and other official’s diaries and writings. The time frame is 1933 to 1937, a critical period for Hitler’s rise to power. It provides a new, and different, perspective on how Hitler was allowed to gain control and power that eventually led to war.
Dodd was an historian and faculty at the University of Chicago when Roosevelt called upon him to be our ambassador in Germany. Since Dodd had gotten his graduate degree at Leipzig University, spoke fluent German, and had fond memories of Germany, he accepted the post. He soon found out that this was no longer the Germany he had lived in from 1897 to 1899 as a student.
Dodd brought his wife and two adult children with him, thinking this would be a great life experience and, perhaps, the last time that they would all spend time together. They rented a house across the street from the Tiergarten, literally translated to the garden of the beasts, hence the title of Larson’s book. The owners were Jewish and continued to live on the top floor of the mansion. In hindsight, we understand that the owners thought that living with the American ambassador would offer them some sort of safety. But at the time, Dodd thought it was rather odd.
Dodd was ill-trained (or not trained at all) for this position. He didn’t understand the complexities of international diplomacy. He was an outsider in the world of American diplomats. He was naïve about Germany and its current state of affairs. Dodd was more interested in writing his epic work about the antebellum South. To make matters worse, the State Department was more interested in recouping the debt Germany had incurred with the United States rather than Hitler and German politics.
The interesting aspects of this book are the accounts of personal interactions between Martha and a variety of personalities in Berlin at that time. It gives a fascinating look at the party scene and how many people, of all nationalities, seemed determined to ignore what was happening with Hitler’s rise to power. Martha actually appears to have been more involved with the Berlin political scene than her father merely by her social contacts (and conquests). It takes Martha quite a long time to become disillusioned with her idyllic Germany.
Dodd had a few contacts with Hitler directly. At first, Dodd reacts as most people involved in international government. He assumes that rational people will intervene and Hitler will be gone in a short period of time. After a few visits, Dodd reaches a different conclusion, one that not many in our government shared, that Hitler was a danger and action needed to be taken.
Mr. Larson’s usage of diaries and personal correspondence is really effective is allowing the reader to visualize and feel a sense of what happened during this time period. I strongly recommend this book to any interested in World War II, politics or historical biography.