In the Garden of Beasts
by Erik Larson
In this chilling piece of non-fiction, Erik Larson introduces us to William Dodd, who is a professor from Chicago. In 1933 Dodd becomes the newly-named American ambassador to Nazi Germany. His family—especially his daughter, Martha—is thrust into the astonishing and horrifying uprising of the Third Reich. As Dodd begins to realize what is occurring around him, those in the United States continues to look the other way. This is a startling account of how the world fell to pieces right before our eyes.
1. William Dodd went to Germany believing that Hitler would have a positive influence on Germany. Why were so many at first enamored of Nazism and willing "to give Hitler everything he wants"?
2. How would you describe German society at the time of the Dodd Family's arrival in Berlin? Talk about the ways in which Germany appeared to be a modern, civilized society...and, of course, the way in which that appearance was at odds with reality.
3. What was it that made Dodd begin to suspect the rumors he had been hearing about Nazi brutality were true?
4. Why did Dodd's—and numerous others'—warnings about Hitler fall on indifferent ears in the US? What was the primary concern of the US in its relationship with Germany? Was the US stance one of purposeful ignorance...or of sheer disbelief?
5. Did America's own anti-semitism play any role in dismissing the growing chorus of concern ?
6. What do you think of William Dodd? What about him do you find admirable? Were you mildly amused or impressed by his sense of frugality?
7. What was Dodd's reputation among the "old hands" at the State Department? What role does class play in how he was viewed by his diplomatic peers?
8. What about Martha? What do you find in her character to admire...or not? Did she purposely allow herself to be blinded by Udet and Rudolf Diels...or was she truly dazzled by their charms? Her promiscuity could have made her a serious liability. Were you surprised that her parents seemed untroubled by her multiple love affairs, or that they didn't try to reign in her behavior?
9. How does Erik Larson portray Hitler in his book? Does he humanize him...or present him as a monster? How does he depict Goebbels and Goering...and other higher-ups in the Nazi party?
10. How does the fact that you know the eventual outcome of Nazi Germany affect the way you experience the book? Does foreknowledge heighten...or lessen the story's suspense. Either way...why?
11. What were events/episodes you find most chilling in Larson's account of the rise of Nazism?
12. What have learned about the period leading up the World War II that you hadn't known? What surprised you? What confirmed things you already knew?
13. Is this a good read? If you've read other books by Larson, how does this compare?
Additional Discussion Questions
- Does Larson do a satisfactory job in keeping all the pawns clear and in play?
- What were your feelings on the Dodd family?
- Did you understand how Martha could have a romantic idea of Nazi Germany? Why or why not?
- Were there any surprises in the history that you did not know about?
- How do you think Ambassador Dodd could have handled his position better?
- What was your reaction to the Roosevelts’ camp’s responses to Dodd’s concerns?
- Did this book reshape your thoughts on diplomacy in any way? Why or why not?
- How do you feel the United States could have handled the situation differently?
- What does In the Garden of Beasts reveal about human nature?
Nazi German Timeline