For Erik Larson, the research in which he delves and delights for each project more than rubs off in readership appeal and enticing and informative enjoyment. “I love looking for pieces of things in far-flung archives,” he once said in an interview. “…You don’t have to make it up.”
Moreover, his vision has always focused on compelling narrative history of incidents and eras, as showcased in his Edgar Award winning The Devil in the White City, about the architect and age of the great Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, which served as the backdrop for the account of a serial killer who exploited the exposition to ensnare his victims. In Isaac’s Storm Larson chronicles how the massive Galveston hurricane of September 1900 killed as many as 10,000 in that Texas city alone, leading to larger new assessments about the causes and effects of such destructive and deadly natural forces. And by imposing scientific stratagems on murder at the turn of the 20th century London, Larson enhances the true crime tale in Thunderstruck centering on two disparate men, the genius Guglielmo Marconi, inventor of wireless transatlantic communication, and the notorious English killer Dr. H.H. Crippen.
With the absorbing yet unsettling In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, however, Larson “made no effort … to write another grand history of the age,” he declares. “My objective was more intimate: to reveal that past world through the experience and perceptions of my two primary subjects,” as the real-life figures embarked on “a journey of discovery, transformation, and, ultimately, deepest heartbreak.”
It’s the account of Berlin, starting in 1933, from the increasingly discerning eyes of two Americans, President Roosevelt’s ambassador to Germany, William E. Dodd, an academic historian who hoped Nazism would somehow lose steam, and Dodd’s daughter Martha, a 24-year-old free spirit who initially appreciated Nazism’s vitality and the social life and love affair after love affair she soon garnered. At first this new world seemed full of novelty and new horizons for both of them, but slowly — until the calamitous weekend that changed them forever – disenchantment and dark clouds of intrigue and dread fell over the whole Dodd family (which included Dodd’s wife Mattie, and a son, Bill).
As confirmation of Jewish persecution solidifies, as the press is censored, and alarming new laws enacted, William Dodd communicates his apprehensions to largely unresponsive State Department officials back home, who often undermine the efforts of their frugal and unostentatious “unfortunate misfit.” In addition, Larson — drawing on letters, diaries, memoirs, or other historical documents — backs up Dodd’s frustrating attempts to get some of the massive World War I debt owed to the U.S. by Germany, to empty promises and no avail by the foreign power, and little understanding by the State Department, who don’t comprehend early in the game that Germany’s money is being poured into military might and mass slaughter.
Any progress Dodd makes seems to come at a one-step-forward, two-steps-back pace. A rare leave of absence turns into a working U.S. vacation of sorts when he subdues a Jewish anti-Hitler rally in Chicago down to a quiet roar – but more than that, it promises to bring moderation on the part of Hitler’s government, who had been up in arms over the prospect of the protests. Any progress, however, is undone when Dodd gets word via wireless while midocean back to Germany: Joseph Goebbels, propaganda minister, had just given a speech in which he called Jews “the syphilis of all European peoples.”
In the same year, 1934, Dodd had a second meeting with Hitler, set up by the State Department to discuss growing Nazi propaganda being unleashed in the United States, but Hitler, after blaming the problem on “Jewish lies,” went off on his own anti-Semitic tangent. Dodd fought the good fight, pointing out how Jews have assimilated in America, but Hitler was having none of that:
“Hitler shot back that ’59 percent of all offices in Russia were held by Jews; that they had ruined that country and that they intended to ruin Germany.’ More furious now than ever, Hitler proclaimed, ‘If they continue their activity, we shall make a complete end to all of them in this country.’
“It was a strange moment. Here was Dodd, the humble Jeffersonian schooled to view statesmen as rational creatures, seated before the leader of one of Europe’s great nations as that leader grew nearly hysterical with fury and threatened to destroy a portion of his own population. It was extraordinary, utterly alien to his experience.
But William Dodd, while a sense of moral repulsion and futility deepened, was already well on his way to realizing that his early withheld judgment about Hitler and the Nazis had lapsed – foreshadowing an ultimate consensus that would vindicate his on-target and more critical assessments of the political and ethical repercussions of Nazism. The romanticized evaluations and infatuations would linger longer for daughter Martha, however, as camaraderies and companionships carried on among her many international inamoratos, from Gestapo leaders (Rudolf Diels) to Soviet spies (Boris Winogradov).
Intriguingly, trysts might have also included the Fuhrer himself when her fascination with Nazis led to a friend setting up a meeting at a restaurant between Martha and the Chancellor. He kissed her hand. His manner was gentle – “‘excessively gentle,’ she wrote – ‘more that of a shy teenager than an iron dictator. Unobtrusive, communicative, informal, he had a certain quiet charm, almost a tenderness of speech and glance,’ she wrote.’”
Of course Dad spoils the magic of the moment that night, over dinner, when he tells Martha “to be sure to take note of exactly where Hitler’s lips had touched her hand, and he recommended that if she ‘must’ wash her hand, that she do so with care and only around the margins of the kiss.”
Eventually, too, Martha comes to feel an intense revulsion over dictatorial laws and violence, over what she used to dismiss as isolated incidents. Now realizing that Hitlerism is a spreading pattern of malevolence, that “the German persecution of Jews was a national pastime,” she no longer “felt so inclined to defend the ‘strange beings’ of the fledgling revolution whom she once had found to entrancing.” In addition to noting observations of everyday strain in the Dodd home, where “the horror increased” and “we lost even the faintest resemblance to a normal American family” — by the spring of 1934, Martha was able to cast a wider net:
“…what I had heard, seen, and felt, revealed to me that conditions of living were worse in pre-Hitler days, that the most complicated and heartbreaking systems of terror ruled the country and repressed the freedom and happiness of the people, and that German leaders were inevitably leading these docile and kindly masses into another war against their will and their knowledge.”
In the Garden of Beasts is no less complicated and heartbreaking for being a harrowing, dark story made darker for its veracity, and for occurring relatively recently. A visceral and vivid read, it’s a page-chaser that Larson keeps alive by jumping from figure to figure, scene to scene in a largely untapped historical territory – the author’s specialty – that’s nevertheless thrilling for spotlighting not only the tensions and hindsight of pre-war buildup, but also dramatic for its heroic focus on a single man who became one of the few people in U.S. Government to sound the alarm about the ambitions of Hitler and the dangers of America’s isolationist position. And if you like your humor black, there’s a little of that, too.
Thorough and cohesive, In the Garden of Beasts amasses details about oppressive everyday life – and nothing was too trivial: The Ministry of Posts ruled that when trying to spell a word over the telephone a caller could no longer say “D as in David” because “David” was a Jewish name. At the same time Larson presents big picture perspectives and portraits based on primary-source impressions of Hermann Göring, Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, as well as Hitler. An apt overall summation might be culled from Larson’s citation of Thomas Wolfe — also a lover of Martha Dodd — when he wrote, in summing up his life in Germany, “Here was an entire nation … infested with the contagion of an ever-present fear. It was a kind of creeping paralysis which twisted and blighted all human relations.”
Or maybe Martha herself — after she had come to her senses — said it best, if not very diplomatically: “I had had enough of blood and terror to last me for the rest of my life.”