Martha Dodd was a young, beautiful American living in Berlin in 1933. The daughter of the U.S. Ambassador, she cavorted in elite circles of German society and fell in love with top Nazi officials.
Not until the first spasm of Hitler’s vicious executions did she turn against her suitors and become a Soviet spy.
She is just one of the true-life characters in Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts, the Chautauqua and Literary Scientific Circle selection that embodies Week Three’s theme of “American Intelligence: Technology, Espionage and Alliances.”
Larson was a staff writer forThe Wall Street Journal and a contributing writer for Time magazine, and his articles have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Bazaar andThe Atlantic. He received his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University and wrote threeNew York Times bestsellers, including 2003’s The Devil in the White City, the story of the serial killer who stalked Chicago during the 1893 Columbian Exposition.
Larson’s newest book, In the Garden of Beasts, is a narrative history of the American ambassador stationed to Germany in the first years of Adolf Hitler’s regime.
The book was named for the Tiergarten, Berlin’s equivalent of Central Park. Translated as “big animal garden,” it was a centerpiece in the hub of Nazi rule.
Larson was first struck with the idea to write about Nazi Germany while ambling through a bookstore. He spotted William L. Shirer’s 1960 history The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, a work he always wanted to read. Shirer was present in Germany from as early as 1934, collecting interviews and living among officials who would become some of the most despised figures of the 20th century, Larson said.
It made him start to wonder, what if he were there in Berlin in the first years of Hitler’s regime? Would he be able to predict it?
He started searching for historical characters and arrived at the diary of William E. Dodd, an unassuming history scholar appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as U.S. ambassador — a man far from the president’s first choice. Dodd brought his wife, son and daughter with him to Berlin in 1933, and like so many others at the time, he knew little of Hitler’s growing stranglehold on the country.
“I do think that Dodd embodied much of the complexity and nuance of the age,” Larson said. “His naiveté when arriving in Berlin was not that unlike what others brought to the party, but here was a guy who was put into this very important, or what we recognize in hindsight as this very important post,” Larson said. “That’s what kind of drew me to him, because then we could look at the world through a sort of blank slate appreciation of it.”
The Dodd family entered a Germany already transformed by “coordination” — that is, the alignment of its citizens by the Nazi’s strict social order. The Nazi Party provided what post-World War I Germans craved: order, national pride and employment. Many were quick to adopt allegiance.
In the book, Larson wrote that “change came to Germany so quickly and across such a wide front that German citizens who left the country for business or travel returned to find everything around them altered, as if they were characters in a horror movie.”
The excitement of change was so pervasive that even Dodd’s daughter, Martha, was swayed, and she initially came to support the Nazis. A recent divorcée, Martha was intelligent, good-looking and single. Because of her charm and her father’s social status, she gained entry into the upper crust of Berlin society, where she had a number of affairs with high-ranking Nazi officials, including the young chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels, a man with a handsome face marred with knife scars.
Almost everyone knew but her father, who was busy with the demands of the embassy, attending endless formal dinners and reporting to Roosevelt. Unlike many other ambassadors, Dodd was frank about his opinions. He gave a thinly veiled speech condemning Germany’s quick adoption of the Hitler regime, to the disapproval of officials back home.
Yet most distressing to Dodd were the growing attacks on American citizens, many of whom were beaten for failing to align with Nazi custom.
“They were very clever about various coercive methods of getting people to fall into line,” Larson said. “For example, insisting on the Hitler salute … was a very visible marker whether you supported the regime or not, and if you didn’t offer the salute, there was a coercive vehicle, the Stormtroopers, to make you by force fall into line.”
Researching for the book, Larson said he was most surprised by the outright anti-Semitism displayed by members of the U.S. State Department. It is easy to see the failure of the world to take decisive action when even the U.S. was in the fog of what Larson called an “ambient anti-Semitism.”
The Jewish population of Germany at the time was about 1 percent, yet they were increasingly blamed for the country’s problems. Even Dodd held a laissez-faire attitude about Hitler stripping the rights of Germany’s Jews — disapproving yet unconcerned.
It was not until the first major outbreak of Hitler’s violence that the Dodds finally saw the true face of Nazi Germany. The Night of the Long Knives is the climax of the book. It came on June 30, 1934, when Hitler ordered massive political executions to purge his brownshirts, who had become hard to control.
Larson said writing In the Garden of Beasts was difficult for him because it was so easy to become swept up in the tragedy. As a journalist, he recognizes the sorrow of his subjects but remains objectively unattached, as was the case in grim story of The Devil in the White City, but this was too compelling, he said.
“I find it very odd and quite powerful that when you steep yourself in Nazi mythology for four years, day in and day out, it really does take a toll; at least it did on me,” Larson said. “I found myself dealing with what I’d call a low-grade depression, which lifted entirely once I was done with the book.”
Erik Larson is the author of three New York Times
best-sellers, including Thunderstruckand Isaac’s Storm. His The Devil in the
White City remained on the Times’ hardcover and paperback lists for a combined
total of more than three years, won an Edgar Award for nonfiction crime writing
and was a finalist for a National Book Award; the option to make a movie of the
book was acquired in November 2010 by Leonardo DiCaprio. Larson graduated summa
cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied Russian
history, language and culture. He received a master’s degree in journalism from
Columbia University. After a brief stint at the Bucks County Courier Times,
Larson became a staff writer for The Wall Street Journal, and later a
contributing writer for Time. He has written articles for The Atlantic,
Harper’s and The New Yorker.