In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin Summary

Erik Larson

Extended Summary

George Messersmith, the American Consul General in Nazi Germany, learns of an attack on an American by Nazi soldiers. He realizes that Germany is gearing up for a war of conquest, but he cannot make the government in Washington understand this. The new ambassador is due to arrive soon.

In 1933, William E. Dodd, a Democrat from North Carolina, is seeking a change from his professorship at the University of Chicago to finish his book series on the Old South. Franklin D. Roosevelt is seeking for someone to fill the position of ambassador to Germany and is having difficulty finding anyone who will accept it. He approaches Dodd, who accepts the position so he can have one last time with his entire family: his wife; his son, Bill, Jr.; and his daughter, Martha (who is in the midst of divorcing her husband). The family sails to Germany and establishes themselves in a luxury hotel in Berlin. Dodd gives himself the mission to convince America that the bleak picture the press has painted of Nazi Germany is inaccurate, that in fact the people are pleasant and the country is beautiful.

Martha meets Sigrid Schultz, an American correspondent, who gives Martha a negative view of Germany under the Nazis. Martha cannot agree with Schultz based on what she observes and the people she meets. George Bassett, her husband, arrives in Berlin and agrees to a divorce.

Dodd is torn between his desire to view Germany positively and his intention to intercede for the Jews in the midst of their persecution. He hears of some American citizens, like Philip Zuckerman, who are beaten by the Nazis. Consul General Messersmith is frustrated at Dodd’s rosy view of Germany. Martha meets some highly placed Nazis, such as Gestapo Chief Rudolf Diels. The most highly placed Nazi is Ernst Hanfstaengl, commonly called “Putzi.”

The Nazis have targeted another correspondent, Edgar Mowrer; they want him out of the country. Mowrer asks Dodd to intercede for him so he can remain, but Dodd tells him he has no wish to get mixed up in Germany’s affairs. A scientist named Fritz Haber requests Dodd’s help to get him out of Germany. Dodd hesitates, and Haber manages to get to England. He later dies in Switzerland of heart complications.

The Dodds find a place to rent in Berlin. It is a four-story mansion belonging to Alfred Panovsky, a Jewish banker. The Dodds may rent the first three floors; Panovsky and his mother will live on the fourth floor. Although the house is more opulent than Dodd feels comfortable with, it is large enough that he can entertain in the manner to which he is accustomed. He is at this point still an unofficial ambassador because he has not been able to present his credentials to Hindenburg, the president of Germany, because of the latter’s ill health.

The Dodd family goes on a driving tour of Germany accompanied by a new friend of Martha’s, Quentin Reynolds. They first stop in Wittenberg and then go on to Leipzig, where Dodd went to graduate school. From there, the younger members go on to Nuremberg while the parents return to Berlin. On his return, Dodd is faced with another attack on an American citizen. He receives an official apology, but Messersmith believes these incidents will continue. At Nuremberg, Bill, Martha, and Reynolds encounter an incident of anti-Semitism: an Aryan woman is dragged through the streets for associating with a Jewish man. Reynolds reports this on his return to Berlin, but he does not name the Dodds in order to protect them. Dodd receives an invitation to a Nazi party rally in Nuremberg, but he fears that his attendance would imply approval of Nazi policies. He speaks to the other ambassadors, and it is agreed that none of them will attend.

In August, President Hindenburg is finally well enough to receive Dodd’s credentials. This opens the floodgates of diplomatic duties and parties that tax Dodd’s nerves and health. He must also deal with continued attacks on Americans, this time on H. V. Kaltenborn, a correspondent who had denied that the Nazis were attacking innocent people. The Consul General Messersmith pressures Dodd to post a travel warning, but Dodd resists.

Whereas Dodd dislikes the social aspects of his job, his daughter, Martha, is involved with several men, even Nazi officials. She is linked with Rudolph Diels, chief of the Gestapo, but it is her relationship with the Russian Boris Winogradov that will be most influential in her future. Winogradov is ostensibly a secretary with the Soviet embassy, but in actuality he is an operative with the secret intelligence agency of Communist Russia.

Dodd confronts the Foreign Minister, Neurath, with...

(The entire section is 1907 words.)