Innocents abroad in Hitler's 'Garden of Beasts': a talk with Seattle author Erik Larson

Larson discusses his latest nonfiction book, the exhaustively researched story of a novice American ambassador and his family caught up in the mayhem of Berlin during the rise of the Third Reich.

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Erik Larson

Larson discusses his latest nonfiction book, the exhaustively researched story of a novice American ambassador and his family caught up in the mayhem of Berlin during the rise of the Third Reich.

Berlin, 1933. On January 30, German President Paul von Hindenburg swore in Adolf Hitler as chancellor of a coalition government. On February 27, the Reichstag (legislature) building burned and Communists were blamed, although some suspected agents of Hitler. After the fire, the government suspended basic civil rights, and the Nazis used anti-communist hysteria to attack their enemies.

In March, an enabling act made Hitler’s government a legal dictatorship. In July, the Nazi Party became the only legal political party in Germany.

Also in July, a new American ambassador stumbled onto this seething scene. William E. Dodd, a history professor without foreign service experience, set up residence across from Berlin’s Central Park, the Tiergarten (“garden of beasts”), with his wife Mattie, son Bill, and flamboyant daughter Martha.

Dodd initially hoped to reason with Hitler, while Martha had a parade of affairs with prominent Nazis, including the first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels. Within a year, however, both were disillusioned by the terror and violence of the new Germany, vividly evinced by the massacre of Hitler’s political enemies on the weekend of June 30, 1934, the Night of the Long Knives.

In a new book, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, nonfiction author Erik Larson recounts the rise of the Nazis through the eyes of Ambassador Dodd and his daughter Martha, witnesses to a deepening darkness in Germany as Hitler consolidated power.

Larson exhaustively researched the papers of the Dodd family and their associates as well as Hitler and other German leaders in archives and the Library of Congress. By the time he finished the book, Larson said, he suffered “a low-grade depression.” He hadn’t realized how much the darkness of Hitler’s rule “would infiltrate my own soul.”

Reviewers praise Larson’s elegant writing and meticulous research. In The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “there has been nothing quite like Mr. Larson’s story of the four Dodds, characters straight out of a 1930s family drama, transporting their shortcomings to a new world full of nasty surprises." UW history professor emeritus and distinguished teacher Jon Bridgman said: “Even though I know the history, I was carried by the narrative tension described by other readers. It’s a very impressive book.”

Larson, whose prior books include The Devil in the White City, Thunderstruck, and Isaac’s Storm, lives in Seattle with his wife and three daughters. Here's what he had to say in an extensive interview about his new work.

Lindley: You’ve written wide-ranging books of history. What drew you to Berlin in 1933 and the early days of the Third Reich under Hitler?

Larson: About five or six years ago, I was looking for my next idea. I wanted to jump-start my thinking, so I went to a bookstore and browsed the history section to see what resonated. I found William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which I had always meant to read. It’s fairly intimidating: about 1200 pages of tiny print, no photographs. I started reading and got caught up in it because it reads like a thriller.

As I was reading, I realized that William Shirer had actually been there from 1934 and until the U.S. got involved in the war, [and] met these people face to face: Hitler, Goebbels, Goering, Himmler, Heydrich. He talked with them at a time when nobody knew how this all would turn out.

I started to think, what must that have been like in 1933 Berlin? Say you’re in café enjoying a cup of coffee with a friend, and Hitler is driven by in an open car. Would you have felt a chill? Would you have been thrilled?

Lindley: And you focus on this American family in Berlin: the Dodds.

Larson: I came across William E. Dodd [and] read his diary and was absolutely fascinated. I had never before heard of Dodd, the US Ambassador to Germany, this history professor who was picked out of the blue by Roosevelt.

I was intrigued by that aspect, but it was with [Dodd’s daughter] Martha’s memoir that I realized these might be the people through whose eyes I could tell this story, as a nonfiction Grimm Brothers fairy tale: the two innocents enter the forest and it gets darker and darker and darker. And I wanted to capture the sense of darkening in that period.

Lindley: President Roosevelt chose Dodd as ambassador but he was a very unlikely choice, wasn’t he?

Larson: He was definitely an unlikely choice…. Clearly, Roosevelt’s administration did not think at that point that Hitler and Germany were a serious problem to be dealt with…. Personally, I think Dodd was a good choice because he had his own moral compass. We now know nobody could have done much about Hitler, but at least Dodd did not suck up to or cave into the Nazi demands. He was exactly what Roosevelt said he wanted: a model of American values.

Lindley: Dodd initially believes he can moderate Hitler and he also displays his own anti-Semitism.

Larson: When he arrives, Dodd doesn’t like the Nazis or the Third Reich, but his attitude is — as he wrote in a letter — to let them try their scheme and see what happens. And Dodd brings his own brand of anti-Semitism that was very common in America in that era. He had a his own feeling that there was a “Jewish problem.”

In one meeting with Hitler, he tries to find common ground. He said in America we have our own Jewish problem, but try to solve it differently and more humanely, referring to university quotas and so forth. That’s an astonishing moment when he’s sitting with the guy who ultimately launches the Holocaust.

Lindley: Dodd also described Hitler as unhinged during one meeting.

Larson: I believe that was the same conversation. Hitler loses it and says if this doesn’t stop, I’m going to put an end to all of the Jews. And that’s ultimately what happened. Dodd’s diary was published in 1939, before the Holocaust began, so it’s not someone editing his diary to make himself look smarter than he was. And also [Dodd reported] the same thing in his dispatches in 1934.

Lindley: You vividly portray the blatant violence against Jews and even beatings of American visitors in Berlin in 1933.

Larson: In the months immediately following Hitler’s appointment as chancellor and after the Reichstag fire there was a spasm of outright violence mostly against communists and Social Democrats, but also against Jews. By the time Dodd arrived, the physical violence against Jews had pretty much come to a halt.... But there was a quieter and in many ways more destructive campaign under way against Jews in the background.

The surprising thing in terms of violence for me was the Americans who were beat up in Berlin in random, sporadic attacks involving a perceived lack of respect for an event such as a storm trooper parade. Even though the government had stated that Americans were not obligated to offer the Hitler salute in the presence of the storm troopers, the storm troopers didn’t quite see it that way.

And if somebody happened to be on the street and failed to acknowledge a storm trooper parade with the Hitler salute, they stood a good chance of being roughed up by those storm troopers.

Lindley: You found the diary of Dodd’s adventurous daughter Martha especially important. What had she done before she arrived in Berlin with her family in 1933?

Larson: By age 24 she had had an affair with Carl Sandburg. She had two broken engagements. She was in the midst of a divorce from a dead marriage to a New York banker. She was a very appealing, attractive woman.... She arrived in Berlin ready for adventure, and Berlin was a city that was very willing to deliver adventure.

You have to look at Berlin through her eyes: Berlin is a vibrant city full of color.... Nice days were gorgeous in Berlin. There was something about the weather and the light. And every balcony seemed to have window boxes full of [geraniums]. At Christmas, there were Christmas lights everywhere and Christmas trees in the squares. Dodd comments that “you’d almost think the Nazis believe in Jesus.”

She finds this world completely at odds with the picture of Germany sketched by newspapers in America. She feels Germany has been maligned by reporters. She goes off and leads a very exciting life romantically and socially. She goes to parties and clubs and dancing every night. For her, this was a very interesting place.

Part of the narrative tension people feel in reading the book is because of what we know now. So when Martha dates the first chief of the Gestapo we’re like, oh man. It’s like horror movie. You want to say don’t go down in that basement.

Lindley: Dodd and Martha both evolve and are sick of the Nazis within a year, although the reasons are different for both of them.

Larson: It’s very different. Dodd had grown more and more jaded by Nazi pathology, the strange thinking he would encounter day to day from the Third Reich. But he also encountered people far up in the Third Reich like Foreign Minister [Konstantin von] Neurath and the head of the Reichsbank [Hjalmar] Schacht, who seemed not to care for Hitler. And Dodd thought the Hitler regime could not last through that June 30 massacre.... But if anything, Hitler’s mystique simply grew. And then came the death of Hindenburg [in August 1934], which Dodd thought would get the populace to finally stand up, but it didn’t. At that point, Dodd was completely disillusioned.

For Martha, it was a slow revelation. She writes that the first person to show her the dark side of Germany was Rudolf Diels, the Gestapo chief, who confirmed the reality of surveillance of not just the United States Embassy but of Dodd’s private residence on Tiergarten Street. I believe the biggest change for her came on the bloody weekend of June 30, and that tipped her over the edge, and the next thing she’s off to the Soviet Union.

Lindley: I found as I read the book I wanted someone to stop Hitler. Why aren’t the allies or America or even Germans resisting the Nazis and standing up to Hitler?

Larson: That’s a great thing. I hadn’t counted on that, but I love it that readers are feeling that. Do something. Stop this mess. And that’s very satisfying for me....

I can’t say that when I was writing that I counted on the level of tension. Why won’t somebody do something? Why is Martha dating the first chief of the Gestapo? Why is Dodd taking Hitler seriously on his claim that he wanted peace? I’m counting on the rising tension because of what we know now versus what actually happened.

Lindley: There’s resonance for today in your book. Before 1933, most saw Hitler as head of a group of right-wing thugs and didn’t take him seriously. And there were concerns here not long ago about the violent rhetoric of the radical fringe of the Tea Party movement.

Larson: When I’m asked about resonance now, a certain number refer to the Tea Party, and a certain number have Obama in mind. If you want to do an experiment, Google the words Obama and Hitler in the same search, and you will find yourself in a subculture that is very creepy and strange.

Back when I conceived it five or six years ago — and this has nothing to do with why I did the book — I, like anybody in any party, Democrat, Republican, or Tea, was getting concerned about a slippage of certain fundamental, bedrock civil liberties: the right to confront your accusers; the right to know the evidence against you.

Lindley: Those are good ideas.

Larson: Shockingly, for the first time since Watergate, the National Security Agency — a federal agency — was spying on Americans. We had US attorneys being fired for their political beliefs. Political agents in departments in the US government to monitor adherence to the political ideology of the governing Administration. Throw on the torture too. And anyone of any political standpoint has to take a moment to think these are not healthy.

I hasten to add that I didn’t have any fundamental concerns, because we have terrific checks and balances in this country. Look at the Supreme Court in the decision on the crazy outfit that protests soldiers’ funerals [the Westboro Baptist Church]. The Supreme Court decision said they’re allowed to do that because it’s freedom of speech.... On the one hand, you may feel that’s disheartening because these people are horrid, but at the same time, when you’re defending freedom, you sometimes have to do the unpopular thing, and that’s the message of that decision.

If there’s any message to the book, it’s you’ve got to watch your freedoms carefully and be mindful of when they slip. Weimar Germany went from a freewheeling, wide-open democracy to the darkest of tyrannies in a breathtakingly short time with the cooperation of the populace.

Editor's note: A version of Larson's interview appeared in Real Change on June 8, 2011. Crosscut apologizes for not having noted this earlier.  


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