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Fear and Ineptitude   Leave a comment

It’s difficult to imagine a more unlikely, unqualified person to serve as the U.S. ambassador to Germany as William E. Dodd during Hitler’s rise to power. It’s equally hard to visualize that his daughter’s scandalous behavior never, well, caused a scandal.

Erik Larson’s In the Garden of  Beasts chronicles one of the four years Dodd spent in Germany first trying to ignore the problems, later attempting to convince others of the threats, fear and destruction caused by the Third Reich. He was equally inept at recognizing the potential dangerous behavior exhibited by his daughter Martha, who was attracted, it seemed, to any man who looked in her direction.

Larson relies on numerous letters, memoirs, newspaper articles, personal diaries and other accounts to piece together his narrative. The result is a well-constructed look at a fascinating time in world history. Beginning with Dodd as a professor at the University of Chicago, Larson tracks his path to Berlin, with brief stops through his backstory as a son of a poor North Carolina farming family. Although Dodd’s wife and son also moved to Germany, Larson’s focus is on the senior Dodd and Martha. He because of his position and his eventual, ineffective efforts to share his concerns/fears to greater powers; she because of the disreputable manner in which she socialized.

Larson’s descriptions of pre-World War II Berlin are riveting, as are his references to Dodd’s frugality. For example, Dodd insisted on shipping the family Chevrolet to Germany to save costs. Even in the face of the ensuing events, this is endearing.

In the Garden of  Beasts
Three-and-a-half Bookmarks
Crown Books, 2011
488 pages, including end notes, bibliography and index

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