The Berlin of 1933 was not the bombed-out, war-torn capitol so thoroughly documented in the many histories of World War II. Instead, this Berlin was one of excitement and color, tinged by anxiety but still full of promise, especially for the new U.S. Ambassador and his 24-year-old daughter.
Erik Larson, author of the fantastic Chicago history “The Devil In The White City,” explores that fleeting moment in history through the eyes of Chicagoan William Dodd and his daughter Martha during their first year in Germany. His new book, "In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin,” was released this week, and has already made Amazon.com's Top Ten list. Larson will discuss the new book in Chicago next week. Earlier this week, between speaking engagements in Kansas City, Larson caught up with us from his room at The Raphael Hotel, chatting about the book that took him three years of research to write.
CB: How did you find the main characters of your book, Chicagoans William Dodd and his daughter, Martha?
EL: I mean, the way the whole thing got started was that I was looking for an idea and reading William Shirer's "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich." I was following my own advice and reading voraciously and promiscuously when I was looking for an idea. That book had always been on my list of book to read, and I was instantly enthralled. One-third of the way through the book, I realized that Shirer had been in Berlin from 1934 on, and he actually met all these people. I wondered what it would be like to be there in that time period and feel the gathering darkness of the city without the benefit we all have of knowing how it turned out. Those years between 1933 and 1934 turned out to be crucial because that's when Hitler became chancellor and in August of 1934, president and chancellor. And he then he decreed henceforth he would be fuhrer, with absolute power. I was looking for characters through whose eyes I can tell that story. At some point, I came across Dodd's diary and at some point after that, I came across Martha's memoir...So once I found them, and I got a sense of the interesting characters. Then it was a question of finding as much about them as I could.
It seems like the differences between Martha and her father really allowed you relate a well-rounded picture of what was happening in Berlin at time, right?
Martha at first was enthralled with the whole Nazi thing, and Dodd was this hapless professor with the expectation that Berlin would be rational...The fact that they were these two people with very different viewpoints was like "Devil in the White City" not just being about Holmes and not just being about Burnham. There's something about the two together. If I had hung the entire book on Dodd, it might have been interesting, but it would have lapsed into a diplomatic history. I find diplomatic histories the dullest of histories. And just the fact that they were father and daughter...Through Martha's eyes, I was able to take a look at the Berlin that so many people of that era saw. She was in a Berlin that was infinitely captivating and charismatic. It was a world-class capital and world-class city. We're accustomed to seeing it in shades of gray and black and white, but she saw it for what it was. It was full of color, with geraniums on every balcony. It was just a very, very lively and normal city, so that was her initial experience of it, and that was very important to pass along. That was a factor in how people perceived Hitler and the Nazis. I can't underscore how often there were accounts of people going into Berlin and not finding at all what they expected of it.
It's not the first time Chicago has appeared in your books, though it's less of a setting than in "Devil in the White City" and more of a context in which we can view the Dodds. How do you think Chicago in the 1930s informed their experience in Berlin?
I think the salient point is that Dodd was a professor of history and chairman of the department at the University of Chicago. Chicago was, for him and Martha, a fairly cozy environment. They were employed, both of them, at a time when the Depression was underway. They were among the lucky ones with a nice place in Hyde Park. They had a good life....Whether that is Chicago or the overall experience of the University of Chicago, [Dodd] brought certain beliefs and observations to Germany, expectations that these [Nazi] guys would not be the fruitcakes that they actually were. As for Martha, she grew up with a privileged childhood and a privileged young adulthood and given extreme freedom by the Dodds in Chicago. Whether that played on how she viewed and treated the Nazis, I don't really know.
How much did the prevailing anti-Semitism of the time affect what could be done about to stop the atrocities that eventually occurred under the Nazis?
I think the anti-Semitism at the time blunted, to some extent, the energy with which they were willing to seek a resolution to Hitler's excesses. It really is pathologic to think about: You have the Dodds, who have anti-Semitic leanings. He obviously had. It wasn't that he hated Jews or wouldn't associate with Jews, but he did have this sort of ambient, low-grade acceptance of the stereotypes that were in play back then.
Why was Dodd so stuck on using logic and reason to change the Nazis from within? Did his professorial background have anything to do with it?
I think part of it was the professorial background, and part of it was Dodd's nature. People's perception of the nature of Hitler was to perceive him as a maniac in some quarters, yes, but not as a maniac that really mattered. The perspective of Dodd and others was that it could not endure, that the [Nazi] government would not last because people would surely rise up and throw them out...Dodd really hoped and expected to influence the flow of events in Nazi Germany by quiet persuasion, by trying to get to, if not Hitler, then the rational man behind him, which we know was futile from the get-go.
As a people, we have said "never again," to the Holocaust, but there are so many modern-day events, from the Rwandan genocide to despots like Ghadaffi, in which swaths of people are abused and killed. What have you learned about what can be done to prevent or stop human atrocities?
If there's something to come away with from all this, it's that you really have to be on your guard, as we are, thankfully in this country, thanks to the Constitution, thanks to the Supreme Court and the types of political currents that ebb and flow, we have bedrock protections. The message from this era is that you do have to be watchful. When things begin to start slipping, you have to tighten up again and go back to square one because things happened very quickly when Hitler came into office...The one place where I do think our culture today has to be extremely careful is this whole thing about illegal aliens. Because any time you start defining a significant block of the population as "others," or as less than you, you start getting into dangerous waters. How you frame a debate is very important. When you call someone an "illegal alien," you've already stacked the deck against them...The Nazis hijacked the Jewish thing early on by defining it as "the Jewish problem" and started looking for a solution. These are not just words.
Erik Larson's Chicago-Area Appearances:
11:30 a.m., May 23; Union League Club, 65 W. Jackson in Chicago 6 p.m. May 23; Harold Washington Library Center, Chicago Public Library, 400 S. State St. in Chicago 12 p.m. May 24; University Club of Chicago, 76 E. Monroe St. in Chicago 7 p.m. May 24; Barnes & Noble, 55 Old Orchard Center in Skokie
Check out Larson's website for appearances in other cities.