In a Dark Time: Author Erik Larson on an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin


Robin Lindley is a Seattle attorney and writer who contributes to Crosscut, the History News Network, Real Change, and other publications, with articles on history, law and justice, medicine, news media, and the arts. Previous versions of this interview appeared in Crosscut and in Seattle's Real Change

In a dark time the eye begins to see.
Theodore Roethke

Berlin, 1933.  On January 30, German President Paul von Hindenburg swore in Adolf Hitler as chancellor of a coalition government.   On February 27, the Reichstag (legislature) building burned and communists were blamed, although some suspected agents of Hitler.  After the fire, the government suspended basic civil rights, and the Nazis used anti-communist hysteria to attack their enemies.  In March, an enabling act made Hitler’s government a legal dictatorship and Nazis moved brutally against their political foes and Jews.  Within weeks, the Communist Party dissolved and the Social Democratic Party was banned.  Stormtroopers ransacked union offices across Germany in May.  By July, the Nazi Party became the only legal political party in Germany.

Also in July, a new American ambassador stumbled onto this seething scene.  William E. Dodd, a history professor without foreign service experience, set up residence across from Berlin’s Central Park, the Tiergarten (“garden of beasts”], with his wife Mattie, son Bill and his flamboyant daughter Martha. 

Dodd initially hoped to reason with Hitler while Martha had a parade of affairs with prominent Nazis, including the first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels.  Within a year, however, both were disillusioned by the terror and violence of the new Germany, vividly evinced by the massacre of Hitler’s political enemies on the weekend of June 30-July 2, 1934—“The Night of the Long Knives.”

In his new book, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin (Crown), acclaimed nonfiction author Erik Nelson recounts the rise of the Nazis through the eyes of William and Martha Dodd, articulate contemporary witnesses to a deepening darkness in Germany as Hitler consolidated power. 

Larson exhaustively researched the papers of the Dodd family and their associates as well as Hitler and other German leaders in archives and the Library of Congress.  By the time he finished the book, Larson said, he suffered “a low-grade depression.” He hadn’t realized how much the darkness of Hitler’s rule “would infiltrate my own soul.”

Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews and Booklist each honored In the Garden of Beasts with starred reviews for Larson’s elegant writing and meticulous research.  In the New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote that, although other books recount the period, “there has been nothing quite like Mr. Larson’s story of the four Dodds, characters straight out of a 1930s family drama, transporting their shortcomings to a new world full of nasty surprises.”  She concluded that “Mr. Larson’s powerful, poignant historical narrative [tells] a transportingly true story.”  And University of Washington history professor emeritus and distinguished teacher Dr. Jon Bridgman said:  “Even though I know the history, I was carried by the narrative tension described by other readers. It’s a very impressive book.”

Erik Larson is also the author of the national bestsellers The Devil in the White City, Thunderstruck, and Isaac’s Storm.  He lives in Seattle with his wife and three daughters.


Lindley:  You’ve written wide-ranging books of history.   What drew you to Berlin in 1933 and the early days of the Third Reich under Hitler?

Larson:  The process of finding a topic for me is rather difficult.  When I finish a book, all the other ideas that were possible candidates have withered away, and I start with a blank slate.  So I wander around and try to figure out what the next book will be, and it’s a difficult time because I like being productive.

About five or six years ago, I was looking for my next idea.  I wanted to jump start my thinking so I went to a bookstore and browsed the history section to see what resonated.  I found William Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which I had always meant to read.  It’s fairly intimidating: about 1200 pages of tiny print, no photographs.  I started reading and got caught up in it because it reads like a thriller.

As I was reading, I realized that William Shirer had actually been there from 1934 and until the U.S. got involved in the war [and] met these people face-to-face: Hitler, Goebbels, Goring, Himmler, Heydrich.  He talked with them at a time when nobody knew how this all would turn out.

I started to think, “what must that have been like” in 1933 Berlin.  Say you’re in café enjoying a cup of coffee with a friend and Hitler is driven by in an open car. Would you have felt a chill?  Would you have been thrilled?  I got more and more interested in that.

Lindley:  And you focus on this American family in Berlin: the Dodds.

Larson:  Yes.  My favorite library in the world is the Suzzallo Library (on the University of Washington campus in Seattle).  I haunted the library and started reading.  I teach writing and advise my students to read voraciously and promiscuously. 

I came across William E. Dodd [and] read his diary and was absolutely fascinated.  I had never before heard of Dodd, the U.S. Ambassador to Germany, this history professor who was picked out of the blue by Roosevelt.

I was intrigued by that aspect, but it was with (Dodd’s daughter] Martha’s memoir that I realized these might be the people through whose eyes I could tell this story because they were both naïve and innocent in their way.  

I look at the story as a non-fiction Grimm Brothers fairy tale:  the two innocents enter the forest and it gets darker and darker and darker.  And I wanted to capture the sense of darkening in that period.

Lindley:  That’s a powerful metaphor.  President Roosevelt chose Dodd as ambassador but he was a very unlikely choice, wasn’t he?

Larson:  He was definitely an unlikely choice, and that led to subsequent trouble for him with the obvious conspiracy by some in the State Department to get him out of that job.  But Roosevelt had difficulty finding a new ambassador.  Clearly, Roosevelt’s administration did not think at that point that Hitler and Germany were a serious problem to be dealt with.  If they had been, more care would have been taken in appointing Dodd to the post.

Personally, I think Dodd was a good choice because he had his own moral compass.  We now know nobody could have done much about Hitler, but at least Dodd did not suck up to or cave into the Nazi demands.  He was exactly what Roosevelt said he wanted: a model of American values.

Lindley:  And Dodd had no foreign policy or State Department credentials?

Larson:  None whatsoever.  He had no credentials for the job.

Lindley:  Dodd initially believes he can moderate Hitler and he also displays his own anti-Semitism.

Larson:  When he arrives, Dodd doesn’t like the Nazis or the Third Reich, but his attitude is—as he wrote in a letter—to let them try their scheme and see what happens. 

And Dodd brings his own brand of anti-Semitism that was very common in America in that era.  He had his own feeling that there was a “Jewish Problem.”
In one meeting with Hitler, he tries to find common ground.  He said in America we have our own Jewish problem, but try to solve it differently and more humanely, referring to university quotas and so forth.  That’s an astonishing moment when he’s sitting with the guy who ultimately launches the Holocaust.

Lindley:  Dodd also described Hitler as unhinged during one meeting.

Larson:  I believe that was the same conversation.  Hitler loses it and says if this doesn’t stop, I’m going to put an end to all of the Jews.  And that’s ultimately what happened.  Dodd’s diary was published in 1939 before the Holocaust began, so it’s not someone editing his diary to make himself look smarter than he was.  And also [Dodd reported] the same thing in his dispatches in 1934.

Lindley:  You vividly portray the blatant violence against Jews and even beatings of American visitors in Berlin in 1933.

Larson:  In the months immediately following Hitler’s appointment as chancellor and after the Reichstag fire [February 1933] there was a spasm of outright violence, mostly against communists and Social Democrats, but also against Jews.  By the time Dodd arrived [July 1933], the physical violence against Jews had pretty much come to a halt.  Even George Messersmith, the (U.S.) Consul General, noticed this, and he was a very skeptical man, so we can take this as an accurate account.   But there was a quieter and in many ways more destructive campaign underway against Jews in the background.

The surprising thing in terms of violence for me was the Americans who were beat up in Berlin in random, sporadic attacks involving a perceived lack of respect for an event such as a stormtrooper parade.  Even though the government had stated that Americans were not obligated to offer the Hitler salute in the presence of the stormtroopers, the stormtroopers didn’t quite see it that way.  And if somebody happened to be on the street and failed to acknowledge a stormtrooper parade with the Hitler salute, they stood a good chance of being roughed up by those storm troopers.

Lindley:  And you found the diary of Dodd’s adventurous daughter Martha especially important.  What had she done before she arrived in Berlin with her family in 1933?

Larson:  By age 24 she had had an affair with [celebrated American poet] Carl Sandburg.  She had two broken engagements.  She was in the midst of a divorce from a dead marriage to a New York banker.  She was a very appealing, attractive woman, and having been married, presumably knew all about sex. 

She arrived in Berlin ready for adventure and Berlin was a city that was very willing to deliver adventure.  You have to look at Berlin through her eyes: Berlin is a vibrant city full of color.  I tend to think of Berlin in this era as black and white and shades of gray from the bleak world of newsreels and photographs, but that’s obviously not the world that Martha encountered.  Nice days were gorgeous in Berlin.  There was something about the weather and the light.  And every balcony seemed to have window boxes full of {geraniums}.  At Christmas, there were Christmas lights everywhere and Christmas trees in the squares.  Dodd comments that “you’d almost think the Nazis believe in Jesus.”

She finds this world completely at odds with the picture of Germany sketched by newspapers in America.  She feels Germany has been maligned by reporters.  She goes off and leads a very exciting life romantically and socially.  She goes to parties and clubs and dancing every night.  For her, this was a very interesting place.

Part of the narrative tension people feel in reading the book is because of what we know now.   So when Martha dates the first chief of the Gestapo [Rudolf Diels], we’re like, oh man. It’s like horror movie.  You want to say don’t go down in that basement. 

Lindley:  And she dates other prominent Nazis as well as the mysterious Russian official, Boris Vinogradov.

Larson:  What both [Dodd and Martha] supply is that, in the course of their first year, by August of 1934, they are both completely disillusioned and Hitler is in absolute power.  Both undergo this powerful personal transformation—the kind of thing you’d expect in a novel, but here you have it in real life.  This dark Grimm’s fairy tale unfolded in real life and got darker and darker until that weekend in June [1934] when darkness began to descend on Germany and the rest of the world.

Lindley:  Dodd doesn’t say much about Martha’s notorious life style with her dating of  prominent Nazis, including the Gestapo chief.

Larson:  Dodd gave her a lot of leeway.  She was an adult who had been married and had a job.  I’m a father of three daughters.  We as fathers think we know something about our daughters, but we don’t want to know everything.  I think Dodd was like fathers everywhere and in every time.

There is startlingly little censure in his papers or hers, possibly because Martha was the person who turned these papers over to the Library of Congress.  She could have done some deft editing.  Even in Dodd’s diary and in her memoir, there’s very little indication of hostility or censure, although there is a telling reference in Martha’s memoir.  She talks about a dinner at the house when Dodd mentioned an atrocity by the Nazis and Martha defended the Nazis, and he grew irritated at that.  There is that, but their worlds were independent even though they lived in the same house.

Lindley:  Dodd and Martha both evolve and are sick of the Nazis within a year, although the reasons are different for both of them.

Larson:  It’s very different.  Dodd had grown more and more jaded by Nazi pathology, the strange thinking he would encounter day to day from the Third Reich.  But he also encountered people far up in the Third Reich like Foreign Minister {Konstantin von] Neurath and the head of the Reichsbank {Hjalmar] Schacht who seemed not to care for Hitler.  And Dodd thought the Hitler regime could not last through that June 30 massacre.  He believed, as did many, that this had to be the final straw and the populace of Germany would not allow this to stand.  But if anything, Hitler’s mystique simply grew.  And then came the death of [German President] Hindenburg [in August 1934], which Dodd thought would get the populace to finally stand up, but it didn’t.  At that point, Dodd was completely disillusioned. 

For Martha, it was a slow revelation.  She writes that the first person to show her the dark side of Germany was Rudolf Diels, the Gestapo chief, who confirmed the reality of surveillance of not just the United States Embassy but of Dodd’s private residence on Tiergarten Street.  Then there were some emblematic themes. For example, the meeting with the writer Hans Fallada at his estate where she encountered, as she put it, “fear on a writer’s face for the time.”  I had never heard of this meeting between Dodd and Hans Fallada, but in the history of this era as Hitler gained power, this meeting is recognized as significant. 

I believe the biggest change for her came on the bloody weekend of June 30 [1934], and that tipped her over the edge, and the next thing she’s off to the Soviet Union.

Lindley:  I know the basic outlines of the story, but I found as I read the book I wanted someone to stop Hitler.  Why aren’t the allies or America or even Germans resisting the Nazis and standing up to Hitler?

Larson:  That’s a great thing.  I hadn’t counted on that, but I love it that readers are feeling that.  Do something.  Stop this mess.  And that’s very satisfying for me. 

Two models of narrative fiction are like touchstones for me.  One is Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember [on the sinking of the Titanic] and the other is Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August [on the weeks leading to that start of World War I].  When I read both books and, especially in the case of the Titanic, I find myself hoping against hope that this time the Titanic will not sink. 

I can’t say that when I was writing that I counted on the level of tension.   Why won’t somebody do something?  Why is Martha dating the first chief of the Gestapo?  Why is Dodd taking Hitler seriously on his claim that he wanted peace?

I’m counting on the rising tension because of what we know now versus what actually happened.  I like the book about the Titanic and other, but I didn’t think I was on that path with this book.

Lindley:  Your book brings history to life.  And Dodd had adversaries in Germany but also had anti-Semitic enemies in the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C., although President Roosevelt liked Dodd.

Larson:  Roosevelt was fundamentally content with Dodd.  Roosevelt told Dodd at their first meeting that he wanted an American liberal to stand as a model of American values in Berlin, and that was precisely what Dodd delivered.  Also, Dodd and Roosevelt maintained a direct and fairly open line of communication, and that was what Roosevelt wanted.  He was notorious for hiring people who should have been hired by department chiefs so he could establish direct links to them.

Dodd was very much an outsider at the State Department and to the culture of ambassadors.  From the beginning, he was perceived to be an unusual choice, a bad choice, and then a distasteful choice by the guys at the State Department.  They began to try to get him out, and succeeded ultimately at the end of 1937.

Lindley:  There’s resonance for today in your book.  Before 1933, most saw Hitler as head of a group of right-wing thugs and didn’t take him seriously.  And there were concerns here not long ago about the violent rhetoric of the radical fringe of the Tea Party movement.

Larson:  When I’m asked about resonance now, a certain number refer to the Tea Party, and a certain number have Obama in mind.  If you want to do an experiment, Google the words Obama and Hitler in the same search, and you will find yourself in a subculture that is very creepy and strange.

Back when I conceived it five or six years ago—and this has nothing to do with why I did the book—I like, anybody in any party—Democrat, Republican or Tea—was getting concerned about a slippage of certain fundamental, bedrock civil liberties:   the right to confront your accusers; the right to know the evidence against you. 

Lindley:  Those are good ideas.

Larson:  Shockingly, for the first time since Watergate, the National Security Agency—a federal agency—was spying on Americans.  We had U.S. attorneys being fired for their political beliefs.  Political agents [were placed] in departments in the U.S. government to monitor adherence to the political ideology of the governing administration.  Throw on the torture too.  And anyone of any political standpoint has to take a moment to think these are not healthy [developments].

I hasten to add that I didn’t have any fundamental concerns because we have terrific checks and balances in this country.  Look at the Supreme Court in the decision on the crazy outfit [the Westboro Baptist Church led by Rev. Fred Phelps] that protests soldiers’ funerals.  The Supreme Court decision said they’re allowed to do that because it’s freedom of speech, and from this particular Court.  On the one hand, you may feel that’s disheartening because these people are horrid, but at the same time, when you’re defending freedom, you sometimes have to do the unpopular thing, and that’s the message of that decision.

If there’s any message to the book, it’s you’ve got to watch your freedoms carefully and be mindful of when they slip.  Weimar Germany went from a freewheeling, wide-open democracy to the darkest of tyrannies in a breathtakingly short time with the cooperation of the populace. 

And read the quote by Christopher Isherwood after the index, at the very end of the book.  

(Here’s that quote—from Isherwood’s Down There on a Visit—on the ruins of Berlin at the end of the Second World War, just twelve years after Hitler came to power: 

"I walked across the snowy plain of the Tiergarten—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.")