First aired on The Sunday Edition (14/8/11)
It's a favourite parlour game of armchair historians. What if Napoleon's armies had conquered Russia and taken over all of Europe? What if you knew in advance that J.F.K. or Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi was about to be assassinated? What if you were the American ambassador to Nazi Germany when Adolf Hitler took power, before the breakout of the Second World War? What would you do?
For author Erik Larson, the last question isn't so much a "what if" as a "what really happened." Larson is a former journalist and the author of In the Garden of Beasts, a portrait of William E. Dodd's tenure as the American ambassador to Berlin from 1933 until 1937.
Larson knew he wanted to tell the story of Berlin during that time, he just wasn't entirely sure how to tell it or whose perspective to tell it from. So he simply began to hunt. "I really wanted to get a sense of what people in this time were experiencing first hand," Larson told The Sunday Edition guest host Piya Chattopadhyay in a recent interview. "I quite deliberately began searching for this American outsider."
He found William E. Dodd, an unassuming professor of history who was thrust into the role of ambassador after several others turned it down. Nevertheless, Dodd's story alone wasn't enough to compel Larson to write about him.
The story didn't click for Larson until he came across the memoirs of Dodd's "wild and compelling" daughter, Martha. Martha was the black sheep of the family. At 24, she had broken two engagements and was in the process of ending her marriage when she joined her family on their trip to Berlin. There, she entered another passionate love affair, this time, with the "Nazi revolution" that was sweeping Germany.
This made the story for Larson. A father, sent to Berlin to represent "American liberal family values," and a daughter searching for her next adventure, both knowing that something momentous was happening in Germany, but neither quite knowing what they were getting themselves into. None of the briefings, interviews or news stories could prepare them.
"There were elements of the classic horror movie to it," Larson said. "He had no conception, truly, of the depth of evil that he was actually going to encounter."
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin
by Erik LarsonBuy this book at:
"The time is 1933, the place, Berlin, when William E. Dodd becomes America's first ambassador to Hitler's Germany in a year that proved to be a turning point in history. A mild-mannered professor from Chicago, Dodd brings along his wife, son, and flamboyant daughter, Martha. At first Martha is entranced by the parties and pomp, and the handsome young men of the Third Reich with their infectious enthusiasm for restoring Germany to a position of world prominence. Enamored of the "New Germany," she has one affair after another, including with the suprisingly honorable first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels. But as evidence of Jewish persecution mounts, confirmed by chilling first-person testimony, her father telegraphs his concerns to a largely indifferent State Department back home. Dodd watches with alarm as Jews are attacked, the press is censored, and drafts of frightening new laws begin to circulate. As that first year unfolds and the shadows deepen, the Dodds experience days full of excitement, intrigue, romance -- and ultimately, horror, when a climactic spasm of violence and murder reveals Hitler's true character and ruthless ambition. Suffused with the tense atmosphere of the period, and with unforgettable portraits of the bizarre Göring and the expectedly charming -- yet wholly sinister -- Goebbels, In the Garden of Beasts lends a stunning, eyewitness perspective on events as they unfold in real time, revealing an era of surprising nuance and complexity. The result is a dazzling, addictively readable work that speaks volumes about why the world did not recognize the grave threat posed by Hitler until Berlin, and Europe, were awash in blood and terror."
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