Erik Larson’s latest historical narrative nonfiction book, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, will hit the stores May 10. Larson is something of a pioneer and a prince of his genre—and we’re wondering how long he’ll hang out on the bestseller lists this time. The Seattle author has written three New York Times bestsellers, including The Devil in the White City, which stayed on the Times‘ hardcover and paperback lists for more than three years and won a PNBA Award, an Edgar Award for nonfiction crime writing and was a finalist for a National Book Award. Isaac’s Storm, which The Washington Post called “the ‘Jaws’ of hurricane yarns” was also honored by Northwest booksellers in 2000.
Larson has been a staff writer for The Wall Street Journal and a contributing writer for Time Magazine. He has written for The Atlantic, Harper’s, The New Yorker and other publications. He lives in Seattle with his wife and three daughters. For a more personal account of his life, there’s a great chunk of a first-person narrative bio here, and Larson blogs here.
Thom asked him a few questions.
You’ve said that you wrote In the Garden of Beasts to find out what it was like to live in Berlin during the first year of Hitler’s reign. It was a difficult question to answer because the people of Berlin self-censored out of fear. Do you think you succeeded in learning what it was like to live in Berlin that year? Did people’s fear define life in Berlin? What I sought mainly was to try to get a sense of what an outsider living in Berlin would have seen, felt, and heard, as a way of trying in microcosm to see what the world beyond Germany’s borders saw as Hitler and his deputies consolidated their power.
Fear was ever-present under Hitler but was experienced along a continuum. In these early days, ordinary Germans felt it as a kind of background phenomenon. They knew they had to watch what they said, but they also understood that if they toed the line, they’d be okay, and, initially, at least they saw Hitler as a kind of savior. Jews, on the other hand, felt great fear, much of the time. My two main characters—U.S. ambassador William E. Dodd and his wild daughter, Martha—came to find that fear crept into their lives as well, like a fog that grayed their days and dulled their nights.
Can we in America imagine such fear? Certainly there are segments of our population who feel greater fear of government authority than others—an African-American male during a traffic stop, for example. But no matter how nasty the political battles of recent months and years have been, we all still know that we have that rare luxury of being able to say whatever the hell we please—as was recently reinforced when the Supreme Court ruled that the vile speech of Westboro Baptist Church members at military funerals was protected by the constitution.
My high-school studies of World War II gave me the impression that America, from the beginning, had opposed the Nazis, and, especially, their repression and hatred of the Jews who lived in Germany. However, the first few chapters of your book revealed (at least to me) that most people in the United States, including most people in our federal government, did not oppose what Hitler was doing. The U.S. government, in fact, enabled it by refusing to allow even the legal number of Jews to emigrate from Germany and acquiesced to Germany’s demand that each of those who applied for emigration present two letters from Nazi officials attesting to the individual’s integrity. How much of America’s complicity with Hitler did you know about before you began your research for this book? My book focuses mainly on the events of the Dodds’ first year in Berlin, which corresponded more or less with Hitler’s first full year in power. The character of this early time tends to get overlooked and in our perceptions get blended in with all that came later.
In that first year, no one really knew what to make of Hitler. Certainly many in America loathed him and his party; others thought him to be a dynamic leader struggling to restore German honor. A mass anti-Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden in New York drew 20,000; soon afterward a counter rally of Americans who were pro-Nazi also drew 20,000. What came through most clearly in this time, however, was that an overwhelming majority of Americans, whether they liked Hitler or not, wanted the United States to avoid entangling itself in the affairs of foreign lands. Within the U.S. government, there was a widely held belief that Hitler and his party were simply too extreme to last for long.
What most surprised me was the extent to which senior men in the State Department harbored an outright dislike of Jews. I was stunned to learn that one very senior State Department officer referred to Jews as “kikes.”
How and why did you choose Ambassador Dodd as your central character? Really the book has two central characters, Dodd and his daughter. When I set out to find a way to experience the early days of Hitler’s rule, I had never heard of either Dodd. To get a feel for the era I read as many memoirs and diaries as possible and at some point stumbled across Dodd’s diary and, later, a memoir of Martha. I also learned that both had left box upon box of papers with the Library of Congress.
I liked the fact that Dodd was this mild-mannered professor of history who, much to his surprise and everyone else’s, was suddenly picked to be America’s first ambassador to Nazi Germany. I also liked how the experience of each Dodd in that first year provided a natural narrative framework. Both brought different viewpoints that reflected the views of many people back home and around the world. Dodd disliked the Nazis but wanted to give them a chance, and hoped that as they became more confident of their power they would also become more mature as leaders. Martha, however, was thoroughly enthralled with the “Nazi revolution” from the beginning.
The events of their first year in Berlin soon caused both to undergo a personal transformation of the kind one would expect of characters in a fictional work, only in this case, of course, it’s all true. For me, as a writer, it’s very satisfying to encounter characters who exhibit forward motion.
You portray Ambassador Dodd’s daughter as somewhat promiscuous and perhaps even foolhardy. My sense of western culture in the early 1930s is that that sort of behavior was somewhat “normal.” In that sense, was Martha fairly normal for her time (the early 1930s) and her age (her mid-20s)? Did Martha’s various liaisons with members of Hitler’s government and with other military and ambassadorial employees in Germany give Dodd access to other people’s ideas and impressions of the horrors to come in Nazi Germany? Did her promiscuity help or hinder the Ambassador’s work? I can’t say that promiscuity was “normal” in the 1930s. Perhaps regrettably, that’s outside my area of expertise. But I can definitely state that Martha liked sex and that she had numerous affairs, including with the first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels, one of the most interesting characters in the book, by the way (and nothing like the thoroughly evil Heinrich Himmler and his protege, Reinhard Heydrich, who replaced Diels in April 1934).
It’s very likely her affairs provided her with insights into Hitler’s government that her father found of value, and certainly she claimed that was the case. One example: Her association with Diels caused her to become convinced that the Dodds’ Berlin residence was fitted with eavesdropping devices, probably located inside telephones, and she conveyed this certainty to her father. He took it seriously enough that he took to covering his office phone so that any microphone hidden within could not pick up surrounding conversations.
Within the state department Martha’s scandalous behavior was a target of much criticism. The U.S. consul general in Berlin believed Martha’s behavior only harmed the ambassador, especially when she went around calling Gestapo-chief Diels “dearie” in public.
Because Dodd was not allowed to speak publicly against the Hitler threat until after his resignation as Ambassador to Germany and return to the U.S., in what sense was Dodd an effective ambassador? There’s a lot of debate about whether Dodd was a good ambassador or not. The question is, what would one have to achieve as ambassador in order to be considered “effective.” Could any ambassador have halted Germany’s march toward war? Certainly not—though Dodd for a time nursed the fantasy that he himself might be able to persuade certain members of Hitler’s government to follow a more reasonable, rational course.
Where Dodd succeeded, I think, was in becoming a visible symbol of American values and freedoms—exactly what Roosevelt had wanted.
Even when Dodd, out of sheer horror, began to withdraw from contact with Hitler’s senior men, he remained a visible reminder that not everyone was willing to cow-tow to Hitler. It made the Nazis furious, which is kind of a nice thing to have achieved.
As that first year progressed and Dodd’s own illusions began to fade, he became very clear in his correspondence with Roosevelt and the state department that Hitler was not just some passing phenomenon, but a real danger to world peace, and that if no one interceded, war was a certainty and America could not help but become involved. After being forced from his post, he took these warnings public, even stating—long before the Holocaust began—that Hitler wanted to exterminate the Jews.
In your final analysis, Ambassador Dodd comes across as a modest hero. Did you finish this book with any sense that the lessons Dodd learned in his service are applicable in today’s world? Do you see any modern day comparisons to his character? Hmmm. I haven’t really thought about modern comparisons. Dodd’s situation was so extraordinary, so without parallel. Though certainly there’s no shortage of challenging diplomatic situations today. For example, how does one proceed if one happens to be America’s ambassador to Egypt as the country is swept by revolution?
Starting with Isaac’s Storm, your style has been to use some of the devices of fiction (narrative arc, build-up of suspense, character development, etc.) to tell nonfiction stories. What other writers are doing this, and which ones do you most admire? Frankly, these “devices of fiction” are really just the tools of effective storytelling, whether the story happens to be true or purely the work of imagination. Let me just name some nonfiction works that I have found particularly worthwhile—Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember (about the Titanic); David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas and Mornings on Horseback; Melissa Fay Greene’s Praying for Sheetrock; Dava Sobel’s Longitude; and almost any of Tracy Kidder’s books, for example, House and, especially, The Soul of a New Machine, somewhat obsolete now, but a book that had a huge influence on my thinking about the art of writing nonfiction books.
What was the most important lesson that you learned while researching and writing In the Garden of Beasts? I discovered that immersing oneself in the history of Nazi Germany, even this early period, is emotionally a very taxing affair. I also learned this: We do have to be very very vigilant about our freedoms in this country, because freedom has a way of disappearing quietly and quickly, with all kinds of good reasons offered to justify its disappearance. And that our politicians and pundits on both sides of the fence really need to grow up a bit and stop calling each other Nazis, because to do so betrays a deep ignorance of the realities of Nazi Germany.
In the Garden of Beasts goes on sale May 10. Larson will talk at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park on May 21 at 6:30 pm, at the Seattle Public Library May 31 at 7pm, at University Book Store June 1 at 7 pm, at the Port Angeles Public Library June 22 at 7pm and as part of Village Books’ Chuckanut Radio Hour (with a live audience) June 23 at 7pm. See a full schedule of his events here.