By Joe Tash
Before World War II and the horrors of the Holocaust, before the infamous reign of the Third Reich, Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany.
The year was 1933, and most of the world was oblivious to the gathering threat posed by the new regime. Berlin was a lively, colorful city, whose charisma and excitement may have obscured signs of impending doom. Hitler did not yet have an absolute grip on power, and observers thought his government would fall.
“What would that have been like, to have actually been there?” writer Erik Larson asked himself.
“In the Garden of Beasts,” Larson’s latest book (Crown Publishing), may be the closest that any of us will ever come to experiencing Hitler’s first year in power. The book, which came out in paperback on May 1, tells the story of William E. Dodd, who was appointed U.S. ambassador to Germany by newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933.
Larson, on a tour to support the book’s paperback release, spoke Wednesday, May 16, at the Santaluz Club’s literary luncheon.
Larson, 58, a former writer for the Wall Street Journal, has published six nonfiction books, including “The Devil in the White City,” a tale of the 1893 World Fair in Chicago, and a serial killer who used the fair as a lure.
The writer lives in Seattle with his wife, a physician, and three daughters. He was born in Brooklyn, New York.
In an interview before his talk, Larson said he was browsing through the history section of a bookstore, thinking about topics for a new book, when he came across “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” by William L. Shirer, a book he had long wanted to read. He picked it up, and in reading the book, decided his next endeavor would focus on the first year of Hitler’s rule.
He then sought a character, or characters, who could serve as a vehicle for telling the story. He came across Dodd, who took the ambassador’s post after a number of others had turned it down. Dodd moved to Berlin with his wife and two grown children, a son and a daughter.
In his research, Larson discovered that Dodd’s daughter at first found Berlin’s social life “intoxicating,” and she had published a memoir of her life there in 1939. Larson’s book chronicles one year in the family’s life, from their arrival in Berlin until mid-1934, when Hitler ordered the murder and imprisonment of hundreds of people suspected of disloyalty in an event dubbed “the night of the long knives.”
“That’s what changes the Dodds, their attitudes, forever,” Larson said.
While some thought Dodd, a mild-mannered history professor, might not be up for the job, according to Larson, “I think Dodd did the best anybody, frankly, could have done because he was not going to kowtow to the Nazis. He was not going to suck up to Hitler.”
“The Nazis wound up absolutely hating his guts. My point is, if the Nazis hate you, you did something right,” he said.
In the course of researching the book, Dodd spent countless hours poring through documents at the Library of Congress and the National Archives. He also traveled to Berlin to get a feel for the layout of the city, especially the government sector where Dodd lived and worked. The name of the book is a translation of the Tiergarten, Berlin’s central park, whose name translates to garden or park of the beasts.
The park was one of the few places in Berlin not under audio surveillance by the Gestapo, Hitler’s secret police, an important point in the story, Larson said.
The book is factually accurate, said Larson, but his primary goal was not to inform. “Rather, to create a historical experience. As vivid a sense of the past as possible.”
“So when you emerge from one of my books, ideally, my hope is that you emerge with this feeling that you kind of experienced in a very powerful way, that era,” he said.
Universal Studios and actor Tom Hanks’ production company have purchased an option for movie rights to the book, and Hanks has indicated an interest in playing Dodd, Larson said.
“I think that’d be great,” he said. “I have every expectation there will be a film and it will be a good one.”
People do seem to find resonance between the book and today’s political realities. Depending on the point of view of the reader, Larson said, they may see different threats. For example, he said, the Left is concerned about right-leaning groups, while Jewish congregations are worried about Iran.
If the events of 1933 Berlin do provide a lesson, it’s that, “You’ve got to be vigilant. Things can change quickly,” Larson said. But he added, “The reason I did the book is because I thought it was a great story.”
For more information, visit www.eriklarsonbooks.com. “In the Garden of Beasts” is available at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.