Review of In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family In Hitler’s Berlin


In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family In Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson

The Fascinating Martha Dodd And the Men She Slept With would be a more accurate title to this book. While about the entire family of US Ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, who served from 1933 to 1937, Martha steals the show. She was twenty-four years old when she accompanied her father, mother, and older brother to Berlin in 1933. (The book is only about the family’s first year in Berlin.) She had been secretly married and was now getting secretly divorced. She seemed as innocent as a preacher’s daughter but she had taken an early interest in sex and was quite talented in its delights.

She especially enjoyed being “seduced” by worldly men only for them to discover when the clothes came off that Martha was no blushing young girl. “I rather enjoyed being treated like a maiden of eighteen knowing all the while my dark secret.”

Martha was first engaged at age twenty-one although she broke that off after a few months and took up with a local novelist whom she threw over for a Chicago businessman, James Burnham. No sooner had she become engaged to said gentleman, then she met a banker from New York, Mr Roberts, at a social occasion at the home of her parents. Martha found Mr Roberts irresistible. But Martha was one smart person. Although she carried on with Mr Roberts in New York, she remained engaged to Mr Burnham in Chicago.

Finally she married Mr Roberts. However, being a trifle uncertain about their marriage, the two kept it a secret from everyone. I think you might predict what the result of this early ambivalence was. When she went to Germany in 1933, she and Mr Roberts were getting an amicable divorce. This was good because in Berlin she seduced the head of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels, or he seduced her. Either way, they both had a talent for the sensual and it didn’t take long for them to disrobe. Along with him, Martha carried on with a French diplomat, with a senior general in the Luftwaffe, with the heir to the Prussian throne, with various newsmen, diplomats, visitors from the US, and different men high in the German government and Nazi Party.

Martha Dodd

“This was not a house, but a house of ill-repute” said the Dodd’s stuffy German butler. (He was on the payroll of the Gestapo but so clumsy at spying everyone knew it.) Martha didn’t slink around to cheap hotels to have affairs. If your place wasn’t convenient, then her place was fine. It is a measure of the sexual repression of the era and the fear of uninhibited female sexuality that what she did caused various small scandals.

Finally, Martha became infatuated with a Russian diplomat and by all accounts they fell in love. This wasn’t good since Boris was an agent of the NKVD (later KGB). And this is where I began to have some doubts about the facts of this book. Erik Larson is a talented writer and thorough researcher. I’ve read several of his other books, Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History and The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, both of which I give three stars or even 3.5. But he skips over something which countless authors and historians have written about: Martha Dodd spied on the US for the Soviets at the behest of her lover, Boris. While Larson certainly mentions this as a possibility he doesn’t make an effort to reconcile what he is writing with the vast number of historians who insist Martha Dodd was an out and out agent of the Soviet NKVD who spied on her father.

In fairness, the book isn’t about Martha. It’s about her father and her family and the first year of their life together in Berlin. Yet the author depicts her as just a naughty girl. Although she could be vapid, mildly anti-Semitic, selfish, vain, and annoying, Martha was also fascinating, artistic, clever, and a keen observer. Martha came to see the true nature of the Hitler régime and of the terrible nature of anti-Semitism. She later married a wealthy Jewish businessman, Alfred Stern. Because of their sympathy and work for the Soviet Union, both were under surveillance by the FBI and in 1957 a Soviet defector accused them both of espionage against the US. They were indicted and fled the country living variously in the USSR, Cuba, and Czechoslovakia. Martha settled in Prague for the last decades of her life and died there in 1990. Espionage charges against her were finally dropped in 1979.

Martha Dodd was a sexually liberated woman in an oppressive time and certainly a woman who had an independent mind and an independent life. This is still threatening to people today, including it seems, the author of the book in question. Unfortunately, Martha Dodd somehow missed the similarity between the Third Reich and the Soviet Union, which is just as replete with unspeakable atrocities. It’s hard to understand. But she was a very unusual woman and it’s worth reading the book just to get to know her.

New York Times
29 August 1990Martha Dodd Stern Is Dead at 82; Author and an Accused Soviet Spy
by Glenn FowlerMartha Dodd Stern, an American author who in the 1930’s and 1940’s wrote popular books about Nazi Germany and later fled behind the Iron Curtain when she and her wealthy husband, Alfred K. Stern, were accused of being Soviet spies, died on Aug. 10 in Prague, friends reported. She was 82 years old and had lived in the Czechoslovak capital for more than three decades.

Victor Rabinowitz, a New York lawyer who received word of Mrs. Stern’s death, said that although the cause of her death was not reported, she had recently suffered an intestinal blockage.

Martha Dodd came to public attention in 1939 when her first book, Through Embassy Eyes, was published. It told of her four years in Berlin beginning in 1933 when her father, William E. Dodd, was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as Ambassador to Germany after Adolf Hitler’s rise to power.

Then in her 20’s, she was at first favorably impressed by the new leaders of Nazi Germany but her later disillusionment was reflected in her book.

In 1938, a year after her return to the United States, she married Mr. Stern, a former chairman of the Citizens Housing and Planning Council of New York who had inherited through an earlier marriage part of the fortune of Julius Rosenwald, the Chicago philanthropist.

In 1941, after her father’s death and nine months before the United States entered World War II, Mrs. Stern and her brother, William E. Dodd Jr., published the Ambassador’s diaries. Critics said that by failing to edit the comments of Germans who were opposed to Hitler they endangered the anti-Nazi underground.

Subject of McCarthy Investigation

In the last days of the war Mrs. Stern published Sowing the Wind, a novel that dealt with the moral degradation of Germans under the Nazi hierarchy.

In the early 1950’s she and Mr. Stern became persistent targets of Senator Joseph R. McCarthy in his anti-Communist investigations. The couple moved to Mexico City in 1953, and four years later Boris Morros, an American counterspy, testified to the House Committee on Un-American Activities that the Sternses were part of a Soviet spy network.

When they were indicted on espionage charges in 1957, the couple fled to Prague, where they settled. They later traveled to the Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries and to Cuba but never returned to the United States. Mrs. Stern did translations of books and articles. Mr. Stern died four years ago at the age of 88.

Mrs. Stern is survived by a son, Robert, who lives in Prague.

[Images courtesy of The Penniless Press Online.]

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website:

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