Erik Larson’s bestsellers (Thunderstruck, The Devil in the White City, Isaac’s Storm) read like hyper-dramatic novels, yet they’re entirely true. The former Wall Street Journal reporter turns his historical prowess to 1933 Berlin, when mild-mannered Chicago academic William E. Dodd became America’s ambassador to Hitler’s Germany. Through the divergent perspectives of Dodd and his flamboyant daughter, Martha, readers experience the initial creeping chill of Nazi rule in In the Garden of Beasts.
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Why did it take Ambassador Dodd so long to realize Hitler’s diabolical nature?
A number of things came into play. On some level, he harbored this kind of ambient anti-Semitism, like a lot of Americans at the time. Martha did, too, which she talks about in her memoir. And Dodd had experienced a very different Germany when he was a young man studying for his doctorate. Back then, it was an interesting culture—for him, a very heady and lovely time. Dodd was also a historian and expected a certain level of sanity from statesmen. But he had never encountered deranged characters like these guys in Berlin. It took him a while to come to grips with their pathology.
Dodd also saw Germany as a nation that seemed to be getting its act together. Germany had gone through political chaos and an incredible inflationary period after the First World War, and at last things were getting under control. Dodd forgives some of the violence and oppression as if it were just youthful enthusiasm. That was a fairly common way of thinking about Nazi Germany. That these guys would become better rulers once the economy improved, and they became more confident of their power.
The thing about that time that I tried to capture, and didn’t have to work very hard at, was this growing sense of claustrophobia. There you are, in this outwardly vibrant city, but there’s this pall building all around you.
Still do all your own research?
I still do all my own research, although in this case I did have to use a translator.
What was your most startling revelation?
I was really surprised by the first Gestapo chief, Rudolf Diels…Diels went so against the stereotype. He wasn’t a member of the Nazi party, yet he was head of Gestapo. He had people tortured and killed, true, but he also had this interesting moral core that Dodd and Martha and others saw. It also seems pretty clear that Martha and Diels engaged in a physical relationship. The daughter of the American ambassador sleeping with the chief of the Gestapo? What the hell was that?
But the thing I found most intriguing was that, in this era, all the things that were to come to pass were just a glimmer. At one point, there was this draft of laws circulating that would govern the state of citizenship of Jews in Germany. Of course, down the road, these were going to be the Nuremburg laws. But this was just a draft, the first cold breath of the holocaust.
What’s the best part of the historical detective work?
The things that really appeal to me are tangible things that seem to reach out from the past as if to confirm that yes, all this really happened. In the case of Martha Dodd’s papers, the first file that I opened at the Library of Congress was filled with calling cards that she had saved from the people who had come to the house or who wanted to date her. Hundreds of them. I went through every one. Some had secret little notes. There were cards from Goebbels and Göring and other top Nazis. So here’s a card from Hermann Göring himself. His fingers had touched it. Who knows, maybe his fingerprints are on that card. His DNA is probably there. It’s an amazing connection to the past.
You’ve said that you went through a low-grade depression while being steeped in such dark subject matter. What motivated you to write this book in the first place?
I conceived the idea probably five or six years ago, though I didn't work on it solidly for that period. The first glimmer came after I read, for no particular reason, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer. What really struck me was that Shirer was there, he knew and spoke with many of these people, like Göring and Goebbels. And that just lit something in my imagination. What was it like to have lived in Berlin in that time? Would I have guessed, could anyone have guessed, what ultimately would happen?
And there was something else that also fed my interest in the subject, a kind of contextual influence. I don't care what your politics are, but I had become concerned, as anyone should have, about certain fundamental American civil liberties, the things we all learned about in high school civics courses. I mean, suddenly we had guys locked up in Guantanamo Bay who weren't allowed even to know the evidence against them. We had the National Security Agency monitoring domestic conversations. We had political agents placed in various government departments whose job it was to make sure those departments hewed to the governing political ideology. This all seemed creepy to me. Sure, some of these things could be rationalized as necessary for public safety—though not the political agent thing—but still, they constituted an erosion of certain bedrock principles.
So that was the context. And there I was, reading Shirer's book, and I began to wonder: How does a society slip its moorings? What happens? When do things reach the tipping point? I wondered, too, whether Berlin in 1933 could provide some lessons for us today, about how to be vigilant when things start to slip and slide down that slope.
That was a factor for me, though certainly not why I wrote this book. Rather it was just something in the mix. The main thing I wanted to do was to capture the feel of that gathering pall of darkness.