Erik Larson revisits the dark side: interview

Erik Larson talks about Nazis, American naiveté, anti-Semitism, and how he got the idea for "In the Garden of the Beasts," his recent book about life in Hitler's Germany.

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    Larson says that writing about the experiences of the US ambassador and his daughter in Nazi Germany was like telling "a Grimm fairy tale, with two innocents in the dark forest and things get darker and darker."
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Maybe it's because it rains a lot in the Northwest. Whatever the reason, Seattle writer Erik Larson admits he can't stay away from darkness.

His 2003 true-crime masterpiece and huge bestseller, "The Devil in the White City," tracks a Chicago serial killer around the time of the stunning 1893 World's Fair. Galveston is devastated by a hurricane in Larson's "Isaac's Storm," while "Thunderstruck" is a second tale of murder.

This time around, Larson tackles the most universally detested villains of the 20th century: the Nazis.

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Larson's latest, "In the Garden of Beasts," tells the story of an unlikely 1930s US ambassador to Germany, his sexy and ever-gallivanting young daughter, and their interactions with leaders whose inhumanity only slowly becomes crystal-clear.

The book (which we'll review soon) is yet another Larson page-turner, a vivid glimpse at how these two Americans reacted to the unfolding horror around them in Berlin and beyond.

In an interview this week, I asked Larson about the impetus for his book, the early charm of the Nazis, and their lessons for us today.

Q: How did you come across this subject for your book?

I was hard up for ideas. Whenever I finish a book, I start with a blank slate and never have ideas lined up. I thought I'd go to a bookstore and see what moved me.

I found a book facing out that I'd always meant to read: William Shirer's "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich." About a third of the way through, I suddenly finally caught up to the fact that Shirer had been there in Berlin, from 1934 on, and was finally kicked out when the US entered the war.

He had met all these people, Hitler and Goebbels and all those we know to be absolute monsters, before they became monsters. I began to wonder what that would have been like to be in Berlin, early in Hitler's reign, and to have met these people. What would you have thought if you hadn't known how things would have turned out?

I started deliberately looking for characters, ideally outsiders and ideally Americans. So I just started reading widely, as I tell my students to do: read voraciously and promiscuously. I started reading the big histories and the small histories, the memoirs and so forth. At some point, I found the diary of William E. Dodd.

Here's a guy who by all rights should not have been an ambassador to Germany, but was. He arrived very poorly equipped to deal with things. And his daughter Martha arrives and falls in love with the so-called Nazi revolution at first.

I liked the fact that here were these two naive Americans arriving in Germany with different agendas. It was like I was writing a Grimm fairy tale, with two innocents in the dark forest and things get darker and darker.

Q: With her great interest in the opposite sex and her flirtatious lifestyle, Martha Dodd has been called a kind of Carrie "Sex and the City" Bradshaw in Berlin, although Martha seems much more intelligent and seductive to me. Is that comparison fair to her?

I've also heard her compared to Paris Hilton. But Martha was a complex character. That seems to be coming through to readers. Some readers are critical of her and me for writing about her: They see her as flighty and kind of promiscuous and all of that. But a lot of people see her as a compelling character. She was liberated at a time when that wasn't always the case for women.

I'm the father of three daughters, and I thank God I don't have a daughter who's like Martha. On the other hand, she's obviously a smart woman and sexy in her own way.

Would I have liked to have dated her? You bet. Would I have sought her out as a good friend? I don't know.

Q: What surprised you as you researched your book?

I was never concretely aware of the extent of anti-Semitism in the United States and in the upper levels of the State Department. That did startle me, and I was startled by Dodd's own brand of not-so-low-grade anti-Semitism, like when he complains that he has too many Jews on his staff. And when he tries to come to terms with Hitler. In his second conversation with him, he says we have a Jewish problem of our own in America, but we've chosen to solve it in a more humane way with things like quotas.

Hitler doesn't buy it, and flies into a rage. He says that "if the Jews keep it up, I will seek an end to all of it." This is very early, in 1933.

Q: How did the Nazis manage to fool people into imagining that they weren't dangerous?

There was a real disparity between what people saw, felt, and experienced in Berlin and in the rest of Germany. These visitors would come to Berlin and be charmed and go away feeling like nothing was wrong.

That was part of the magic of Berlin, and part of a latent attempt by the Nazis to try to burnish their public image. There were lapses when the storm troopers would beat up Americans on the street, but this is something that the Nazis were trying to avoid.

There was also this sense at the time that Hitler's government could not survive, it was too crazy. Dodd certainly felt that way. That was a big factor. And you turn around and suddenly Hitler has survived, and he's in power more firmly than before.

Q: Is there a lesson to be learned from your book?

At the very end of the book, after the index, there's a little quote by Christopher Isherwood. If there's any message, that's it.

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Here's the Isherwood quote: "I walked across the snowy plain of the Tiergarten [the grand "Garden of Beasts" urban park in Berlin] – a smashed statue here, a newly planted sapling there; the Brandenburger Tor, with its red flag flapping against the blue winter sky; and on the horizon, the great ribs of a gutted railway station, like the skeleton of a whale. In the morning light it was all as raw and frank as the voice of history which tells you not to fool yourself; this can happen to any city, to anyone, to you."

By the way, Larson says he hasn't sold the movie rights to the new book yet, although Leonardo DiCaprio snapped up "The Devil in the White City" last year. But "In the Garden of Beasts" is so cinematic that it shouldn't be long before it hits the big screen. My own casting imagination suggests that William H. Macy and Evan Rachel Wood would be perfect in the lead roles.

Randy Dotinga is a regular contributor to the Monitor's book section.

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