This book was a great read as it has all the elements necessary for an exciting suspense novel. The story covers the first year of service (1933-1934) of the newly arrived American Ambassador to Germany, William E. Dodd, and is told from his and his family’s perspective. We witness Hitler’s solidification of power, the Nazi subjugation of Germany, the obsessive anti-Semitism of the 3rd Reich, the strained relationship between Ambassador Dodd and the German government, the suspicion, hatred and jealousies among Nazi’s top officials, and the class-based dislike and distrust of Dodd by key American Foreign Service officials.

We are privy also to the numerous romantic affairs of Dodd’s beautiful, flirtatious and naive 24-year old daughter, Martha, as she cavorts with top Nazi and Gestapo officials, French diplomats, Soviet agents, and famous literary figures. A close Hitler intimate, Ernst “Putzi” Hanfstaengl, tried to make a romantic match between Martha and Hitler himself. Reflecting on Martha’s unorthodox behavior, one American Embassy staffer snapped that Dodd’s residence wasn’t just the Ambassador’s house; it was a “house of ill repute.”

Unless one understood that this book was actual history painstakingly researched by Erik Larson (based in part on Dodd’s and Martha’s diaries) one would have to assume that this was a work of fiction. However, the book is history.

William E. Dodd was a late choice by FDR to represent the United States in Germany after many others refused the position. At the age of 64 Dodd needed a change from the hum-drum of academic affairs and wanted some position that would enable him to finish his 3 volume history of the American South before he died (he did not complete it). He thought that going to Belgium or the Netherlands as the US Ambassador would give him time to do so. Since no one FDR wanted for Berlin was willing to serve there, the job fell to Dodd.

Dodd was a mild-mannered professor of history at the University of Chicago and a close friend of former President Woodrow Wilson. He prided himself on being a Jeffersonian democrat. He was principled, rational, modest, and decent. Unlike his Foreign Service colleagues, he was not wealthy, and he eschewed luxurious living to their chagrin.

Dodd had spent his student years studying in Leipzig, was a German speaker, and loved pre-Nazi Germany. It did not take long for him to see the Nazi menace for what it really was. We see his growing revulsion to the Nazi regime, to Hitler and everyone around him. In contrast, the politically naïve and bon vivant Martha was easily seduced by the new Germany, its charm and the people she met, and she refused to accept first-hand testimony of Nazi tyranny and brutality by her literary friends until personal experience disillusioned her too.

Though Dodd himself held anti-Semitic views like many of his era, he was deeply distressed by the Nazi persecution of Jews and advocated that FDR publicly condemn it. His State Department bosses, however, who were bonafide anti-Semites, advised FDR against speaking out arguing that offending Germany would cause it to renege on its payment of debt to the United States.

Though the book does not deal at all with the moral questions of how an entire nation could become passive in the face of tyranny and how otherwise decent Germans could become partners in the Nazi evil, it offers a unique window into the heart of the “beast.” The book’s title is taken from the name of a park in an exclusive neighborhood of Berlin called Tiergarten (lit. “animal garden” or “garden of the beasts,” which recalled a time when the area was a hunting preserve for royalty).

The book would make a great feature film, and I would not be surprised if it is already optioned.

For more, see this review in The Seattle Times (May 7, 2011)