In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin (2011) by Erik Larson
Having already listened to Devil in the White City and Thunderstruck, I knew that In the Garden of Beasts would be a gripping, compelling narrative. I mean, that's what you should expect from Erik Larson.
Of course, I wasn't disappointed. And while I've read a ton of WWII and Holocaust histories, literary nonfiction, and fiction, In the Garden of Beasts offers yet another, and fascinating, perspective on the build-up to war in the heart of Germany.
Here, Larson focuses on William E. Dodd (first U.S. ambassador to Nazi Germany) and his family during their tumultuous and terrifying sojourn in Berlin from 1933 until 1937. At first, this former history professor, his wife, and two adult children embrace the Germany they see and try to think positively about the changes occurring there. Dodd, who had spent time in Leipzig as a student, hangs on to the fond memories he has of that time, but eventually he and his family must admit that Nazi Germany is deeply disturbing.
They learn about the beatings, kidnappings, torturing, and murders of Jews and anyone else who winds up in the Gestapo's sights. When Dodd hears about Americans being harassed by Nazis, his protests are ignored by Hitler's government, while Roosevelt's administration issues vague protests of its own. Eventually, Dodd and his family believe that their house is bugged and that they live in constant danger, despite their diplomatic status.
Larson also focuses on Dodd's daughter, Martha, who continues her life of promiscuity (begun in the U.S.) by going out with a wide variety of men, including Nazis. Martha's activities quickly bring her to the attention of high-up Nazi officials, and pose potential problems for her father's credibility. And while she ultimately falls in love with an enigmatic Russian diplomat, Martha knows that their relationship cannot last.
What makes Garden so compelling is its shifting focus (on Dodd, Martha, specific Nazis) and Larson's expert description of Dodd's dawning realization that the Nazis were evil and that Germany was arming for war. We see here how American public opinion of Nazi Germany was shaped and how Dodd, upon his return to America in 1938, tried to convince others that Germany needed to be confronted. Few listened, though.
So if you're interested in this time period, or diplomatic history, or just great historical writing, read In the Garden of Beasts.