Q&A with Erik Larson
BRIAN LAMB: Erik Larson, author of ”In the Garden of Beasts,” I want to show you a picture and get your immediate reaction.
ERIK LARSON: Hitler Hitler in practicing for one of his one of his amazing speeches.
LAMB: It’s in your book. Why?
LARSON: I had that in a at the start of one segment. And, first of all, I have very few photographs, and we can talk about why, but I have that at a particular place in the book, because it signals what’s coming next. The madness is intensifying at this point.
LAMB: What did you learn about Mr. Hitler you didn’t know before you started your book?
LARSON: I didn’t it’s not so much what I learned. Well, I learned that his favorite movie was ”King Kong.” I hadn’t known that. It’s not so much what I learned about Hitler that I didn’t know before. It’s what I learned about what people thought of Hitler in these early days that really I found very striking.
LAMB: What do you see there?
LARSON: I see Hitler and his one-time friend and ally/thug, Captain Ernst Rohm, in a moment of really kind of it’s hard to describe their looks. And the reason I included that in the book was because it just somehow captured their kind of malignant thuggishness.
LAMB: What about Ernst Rohm?
LARSON: Yes, he was he was Hitler’s friend and enforcer, essentially, at the beginning of their rise to power. He was the chief of the storm troopers, a million man-plus paramilitary force. And when Hitler needed something done, there was Captain Rohm to coerce those who were resistant to getting it done.
LAMB: What’s the timeframe of your book?
LARSON: Most of the action takes place in 1933, ’34, so very early days after the time when Hitler was appointed chancellor and including the point where he becomes the absolute leader, the fuehrer of Germany in the summer of 1934.
LAMB: There are three things I want to ask you about in the book and to define them. There’s the SA, the SS and the Gestapo.
LARSON: Yes, yes.
LAMB: How do they differ?
LARSON: OK. The SA, that is the shorthand, those are the storm troopers. Those are the folks who are commanded by Captain Ernst Rohm. The SS, technically, the SS was part of the SA, but not really. It was a very, elite group of men who were supposed to be, well, initially, Hitler’s select guard.
The Gestapo, a different entity entirely, in 1933 the Gestapo was founded to become to be a secret police agency to keep tabs on political opposition and so forth. Brand-new as of April 1933.
LAMB: Here’s a photograph of a man named William Dodds. Who is he in your book?
LARSON: Yes, William E. Dodd was the became the America’s first ambassador to Nazi Germany. Prior to that he was a professor of history at the University of Chicago, mild-mannered guy. This photograph actually became the subject of some mirth in the State Department, where people, senior men, were not really very pleased that Roosevelt went directly and hired Dodd to this position.
This photograph shows Dodd dwarfed by a tapestry behind him and by his desk, and those who were his opponents in Washington felt it was really kind of a funny photograph.
LAMB: This is a picture of his daughter, Martha. Her role in your book?
LARSON: Yes, it’s not her best shot, I’d have to say, but there’s a glam shot in my book that makes her look good.
LAMB: We have another one that we’re going to show, yes. The one in your book.
LARSON: Yes, Martha was his daughter. And the reason that I found her yes, there she is in her glory the reason I half the reason I did this book is Martha, because when she arrived in Berlin with the family, she was in love with what she referred to as the Nazi revolution.
She was enthralled by the Nazis, which really struck me as a completely surprising thing, given what we all know in hindsight. I mean, how could you actually be enthralled with the Nazi revolution? But there she was. And that was not an unusual position for somebody to have.
LAMB: Go back to William Dodd, who was a professor at the University of Chicago in 1933. You said that he was the first ambassador to the Nazi regime.
LAMB: How did Hitler become Chancellor and then the ultimate Fuehrer of the country?
LARSON: Yes, Hitler interestingly, I guess, I didn’t really know this before I went into this book, but Hitler was appointed Chancellor early in 1933 in essentially a deal, a political deal. Those who engineered this deal felt that they could control him and were, obviously, proven wrong.
He became the he didn’t possess all powers initially. He was chancellor. President Hindenburg had ultimate say over whether the government would survive or not. But in the following August of 1934, when Hindenburg died, it was then that Hitler engineered not really a coup, but essentially seized through various machinations ceased the powers that Hindenburg had had and became the absolute ruler of Germany.
LAMB: We have a photograph of William Dodd and his wife, Mattie. What role did she play in this story?
LARSON: Yes, Mattie, you know, obviously, she was William E. Dodd’s wife. She was in my book, she actually is kind of takes kind of a background position, really, because, sadly enough, there just is not a lot of material out there about her.
She’s kind of a stabilizing force in the family, a very, very charming, soft-spoken Southern woman, who finds herself in the midst of this cauldron of the Nazi regime and found herself really, she really disliked a lot of a lot of the Nazis but also, curiously, liked others.
I mean, like, for example, she was the hostess of the family, of course, and one of the senior officials, the head of the Reichsbank, she loved having him come to parties, because he was always willing to fill an empty seat at the table, if somebody canceled out on a dinner party or something. So it seems that she liked some of the higher-ups, but she was just really unhappy with all the trappings and the kind of malevolence of the Nazi regime.
LAMB: You wrote on a blog that you have that anybody can look at. And when did you start that?
LARSON: Anybody who wants to spend a nice, boring afternoon, they can feel free to check my blog.
LAMB: When did you start the blog? Because you said in one of your blog posts that you were late to the game.
LARSON: I was very late to the game. I started this I started my website, launched a website in January of this year. And I started it because I felt that, you know, I wanted to communicate information about this book as its launch approach and also because I wanted to I wanted people to know that I’ve written more than one book.
LAMB: Early in July you wrote this. ”Once again I’m stranded in the, quote, ’dark country of no ideas’, end quote, as a friend of mine once described it, that place that place where I end up after completing a book.”
I want you to go back to the dark place before this book.
LARSON: Yes, yes.
LAMB: Where was that dark place, and how did you get out of it?
LARSON: Yes, yes. Well, let me just explain, first, what that means. I mean, whenever I finish a book, and I don’t know why this is the case, but whenever I finish the book, I have I do not have a backlog of ideas to immediately go to. It’s like all the other ideas that I ever entertained have disappeared, and I start with a blank slate. I don’t know why that is. For a lot of writers that is not the case.
And it is kind of for me a very hard place to be, because I want to feel productive, and yet I have nothing to really work on. It’s really a process at that point of putting myself in the way of luck, trying to find this next book I do.
So this goes back to probably five or six years ago, not to say that I’ve been working on this for five or six years. This book took probably about four years altogether. But about five or six years ago, after completing my previous book, ”Thunderstruck,” I was again in this dark country. I was trying to think of something to work on.
And really just to jump start my thinking, I went to a bookstore in Seattle, where I live, and just started browsing the history section and just kind of seeking what covers of books would appeal to me, what covers were sort of an immediate turnoff to me, what bored me, just to kind of get my mind thinking in different channels.
And I came across the book face up on the shelf that I always meant to read, 1,200 pages, tiny print, kind of intimidating, no photographs, and that was William Shirer’s ”The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.” Decided I had nothing better to do, took the book home, started reading, loved it.
But what really lit my imagination was the fact that Shirer, the author, had actually been there in Berlin in these early days. He came in 1934, had met these characters we know today to be icons of evil Hitler, Goebbels, Gφring, all these people in social context as well as formal context.
What occurred to me then is what would that have been like to have met these people when you didn’t know the ending, when you didn’t know what was coming down the pike. How would you have appraised them? How would you have viewed them at that time?
I started thinking about that more and more, and I went through tried on some other book ideas, but I kept coming back to this idea. Wouldn’t that be interesting? So I started looking for characters through whose eyes I could tell that story ideally, outsiders; ideally, Americans and that’s when I stumbled upon William E. Dodd, the first ambassador to Nazi Germany and his daughter.
LAMB: Where did you stumble on him upon him?
LARSON: Yes, Dodd I started reading I started reading all the as many personal memoirs and diaries from that era as I as I could and at some point came across William E. Dodd’s diary, published diary, and read that. And I liked I liked it very much. I liked I liked Dodd as an individual.
I liked his story, the fact that out of the blue he became the ambassador to Nazi Germany, when really there was no good reason for him to be an ambassador. He had no diplomatic training, nothing, so I really liked that.
But I wasn’t I wasn’t so enamored of him at that point that I wanted to hang an entire book on him. It was when I stumbled across his daughter’s memoir, which was, you know, probably soon after that. That was when I realized, yes, these might be my characters. These might be the people I want to follow into Nazi Germany, because they both had such different orientations at first, but they both undergo what I see as very compelling personal transformations.
And as you know, you know, I mean, in fiction you can’t write a good novel without having a character be transformed in one way or another. In nonfiction, since you have to go with what you’ve got, it is it is relatively rare to find people, let alone two people in the same family, who undergo a very satisfying real life transformation.
LAMB: You’re still in that dark spot of looking for ideas right now for the next one.
LARSON: Now that this book is done, yes, I’m looking for the for the next. And I’ve killed off a couple of ideas thus far, so...
LAMB: How many affairs did Martha have that you could find, and why was it how could you why were you able to find all these affairs?
LARSON: First of all, I don’t I don’t know how many affairs she ultimately had. I can talk about some of the key affairs, and she had she had quite a few affairs.
She was she was well, addressing first the how does one know, first of all, she tells us. She tells us in her memoir and in her papers at the Library of Congress. She makes a lot of reference to a lot of reference to the people she knew and became involved in affairs with.
She was one of these people who, you know, we all have met them, and we probably all to some extent dislike them, because we want to be like them. She’s one of these people who had immense personal charm vis-a-vis the opposite sex.
You go through her early papers, you find even when she was in what would have been late high school, early college, she was courted by people who ordinarily would be courting older and maybe more sophisticated women. I mean, she was she just had that thing.
LAMB: Let me interrupt just to show a picture of Carl Sandburg, because you learn early in your book that she did she have an affair with him?
LARSON: She had an affair with him. And in fact, one of the one of the delights of my of the research process, and I always do my own research, and a large part that’s because of moments I’m about to describe.
I was going through Martha’s papers at the Library of Congress, and she has, I believe, the total is 70 linear feet of documents at the Library of Congress. And in one file, as I was going through all of her papers, I came across in a in a clear plastic archival envelope, I came across two locks of Carl Sandburg’s hair tied each at one end with a thick, you know, like black coat thread.
And I just found that absolutely charming. There they were, two locks of Carl Sandburg’s hair. And I can I can report that his hair really was quite blonde and actually quite course as well.
LAMB: And you put it on your blog, but you didn’t put it in the book.
LARSON: Well, I mentioned I think I mentioned his locks somewhere.
LAMB: I’m talking about the photograph. I mean, you didn’t the photograph is not in your book, but...
LAMB: Let me just stop you there to also ask you. You made a comment earlier about the decision on what photographs to run and what not to run.
LAMB: We showed an earlier photo, say, of Martha, but you didn’t put that one in the book.
LARSON: I didn’t put that in the book, because, well, for a couple of reasons. I wanted to have I wanted to have her more glamorous image in the book, because I think that more captures how she came off to the people she encountered in real life.
Now, in photographs in photographs it’s very hard. You could see the one photograph of Martha and find yourself thinking, ”This woman was attractive? She had all these affairs? What was this?”
LAMB: Like this one right here.
LARSON: Yes, right. But she was I think the glamorous photograph really sort of captured better the sense of what people saw who encountered her on a daily basis in Berlin in that period.
LAMB: What about your I mean, we’re going to show some photographs that aren’t in your book. What was your overall philosophy of what to run and what not to run?
LARSON: Photographs? I have a very sort of peculiar view of photographs in books. Frankly, if it were entirely up to me, I would have no photographs in the book whatsoever, because it is my goal well, as strange as it may sound, it is not necessarily my goal to inform. It is my goal to create a historical experience with my books.
My dream, my ideal is that someone picks up a book of mine, starts reading it, and just lets themselves sink into the past and then read the thing straight through and emerge at the end feeling as though they’ve lived in another world entirely.
Photographs, as valuable as they can be, are a distraction, I think, for in the reading process, if you will. If you have, you know, 10 photographs stuck in what they refer to as the signature at the heart of the book, to me it is like having a lighthouse in the fog. You want to turn back to those pages and that signature every time you come across a passage involving somebody you want to kind of find out about.
Because of that, because I don’t want a signature in the book, because the marketing folk at publishing companies insist on photographs, I’ve come to what I consider to be a happy medium. And that is at the start of each major section of the book that is what I referred to as a part, part one, part two, part three, that’s where you’ll find a photograph.
And that photograph does work. It’s not just stuck in there. It does work. It tells you something about what’s coming next in that part, ideally, propels you into it.
Also, you come across the photograph in the course of your reading. It’s not like you can find that photograph readily. You can’t thumb back to it. You come to it. You acknowledge it. You see it. You read it for what take the meaning of it. And then you move on.
And then the next part, a similar thing happens, and you’re propelled forward. So that’s my philosophy.
LAMB: Here is a photograph that’s not in the book also of another one of her affairs, Thornton Wilder.
LARSON: Yes, now, Thornton Wilder, I don’t think she had an affair with him. I think even at this point he was he had pretty much declared his interest in another direction. They were very good friends. They were very good friends in fact, actually carried a picture of him in a locket.
What is remarkable, though, is that she managed to have these friendships with such potent literary figures in that time, which also speaks to her compelling character.
LAMB: Who else?
LARSON: Well, Carl Sandburg.
LAMB: But she also had Thomas Wolfe. Was that an affair?
LARSON: Thomas Wolfe? Oh, Thomas Wolfe, of course. Thomas Wolfe her affair with Thomas Wolfe occurs pretty much after the action in the book. 1933, ’34 is when the book is centered. He comes into the picture fairly late in the program, but they had a really quite a hot and heavy affair, actually. And he was a frequent visitor to the embassy.
Who knows? Who knows how she was able to do it? But there, too, it was clearly a physical affair.
LAMB: Well, I read that Leonardo DiCaprio is going to play Dr. Holmes from your book, ”Devil in the White City,” which came out, oh, what was it, about eight years ago.
LARSON: Doesn’t seem like that, but yes.
LAMB: Yes, I mean, that was the last time you were here. And then as I read this book, Martha stuck right out as a possible future movie person.
LARSON: Yes, yes.
LAMB: Who would play it?
LARSON: Scarlett Johansson I don’t know, maybe, you know, or no, it’s hard to speculate, but it would be I think it could make a very interesting movie. Actually, I think it would be a better miniseries, frankly, sort of a sort of a dark ”Upstairs, Downstairs.”
LAMB: How many of your books have been made into movies?
LARSON: None as yet, but a lot of them have been optioned, but none made into movies yet.
LAMB: ”Isaac’s Storm?”
LARSON: Not yet.
LAMB: How big the seller was that compared to, say, ”Devil in the White City”?
LARSON: It was a huge seller, but ”Devil in the White City” pretty much dwarfed it in terms of sales.
LAMB: Did I read 2.3 million at least?
LARSON: Yes, yes, for ”Devil in the White City,” yes.
LAMB: And do you fight this as you write books? Do they all go back to this is not ”Devil in the White City”?
LARSON: You mean do I do I have to deal with the pressure of having had a book like ”Devil in the White City”?
LAMB: Yes. Yes.
LARSON: Yes. Yes, yes. And thank you for mentioning it.
LAMB: What kind but during that unusual position, no matter what book is sold, you get something for it.
LARSON: But the thing is the thing is, you know, having had successful books puts you in a position where, yes, almost anything I propose would be taken seriously. But there’s a danger there. So, really, all the pressure is on me to come up with a winning idea that I feel passion well, ”passion” is a is a strange word that I feel sufficiently compelling to spend the next four years or more with.
But also, I have to be very much aware that there is an inclination to acquire whatever idea I put forward. So the pressure is entirely on me to come up with something that I can live with in that in that time.
Do I feel is it daunting to try to feel like I have to do as well or better with the next book as I did with ”Devil in the White City?” Yes. Yes, it’s huge pressure.
LAMB: Let’s go back to the book and show some more photographs. And tell us who this man is right here.
LARSON: Ah, yes. This is one of my favorite characters in the book. This is this is Rudolf Diels, Rudolf Diels, who was the very first chief of the Gestapo. The Gestapo was formed in April of 1933.
I have to emphasize first, because Diels lasted in that job for one year and was replaced by Himmler, who brought in his protιgι, Reinhard Heydrich, and then the game changed completely. They were as thoroughly evil as any human being could be.
Rudolf Diels was he, to me, really embodies the complexity and nuance of this period, which is really the message of this book was how complex how complex this era was, how hard to divine what was coming down the pike and how easy in other ways, but how hard it seemed to really piece what the what the future was going to be because of what was happening in ’33, ’34.
He embodies this complexity, this sense of nuance, because (a) he was not a member of the Nazi party. He was viewed by Dodd and by other diplomats in Berlin as one of the best men of the Nazi regime. He was the man you went to if you wanted to extract a foreign national of yours from Dachau, let’s say, which at this time, by the way, was not a camp for Jews. It was a camp for political opponents.
And Diels was also a very he was a very romantic figure. He was very handsome, at least from the cheekbones up. From the cheekbones down, as the photograph showed, he was pretty heavily scarred.
And this was from a practice common among students of when he was a young man, common of young men of his generation, called bare blade dueling, where they would fight with actual swords, sharp swords, the point being to sow mark your opponent that you became the victor, and everybody would be sowed up and presumably sent off to class. I mean, it was purely meant to demonstrate one’s courage and one’s manhood.
So here’s Diels, horribly scarred from the cheekbones down, very handsome, though, to women. Martha was really taken with him, obviously, and they became involved in what appears also to have been a physical affair.
LAMB: How early in their arrival over there, 1933?
LARSON: The exact date, you know, when they when they first became an item, if you will, is not known, at least not to any extent that I could find. But it was pretty obvious that by the fall of 1933, they were involved.
LAMB: Just to complicate things, I don’t think we’ve found a picture of Boris.
LAMB: You have Rudolf Diels over here from the running the Gestapo.
LAMB: And then who’s Boris and what’s the relationship to...
LARSON: Yes, Boris is another one of the characters that I found I found very compelling, Boris Vinogradov. When Martha meets him, and this happens a little after she’s become involved with Rudolf Diels, she, by the way, was not opposed to seeing numerous men at the same time. She was really kind of far ahead of her time, I guess, in that respect.
Boris was tall, 6’4”, I think, if I recall correctly, 6’4”, very handsome, Russian, very charming. She meets him she meets him at a party, and as far as anybody can tell, it seemed to be love at first sight for both of them. They become involved in a very important love affair for her, one of the she would describe it later as one of the three great loves of her life.
When she becomes involved with Boris, however, she appears not to recognize something that everybody else in Berlin seems to know. And that is that it’s very likely that Boris is an operative, or at least in some way allied with the Soviet intelligence apparatus, the NKVD, precursor to the KGB. And eventually, this becomes a very important part of the story.
LAMB: There are so many names and so many connections in all that. When you went after this story, where did you go? Did you go to Germany? Did you...
LAMB: I mean, places like how did you how did you educate yourself? And then you were a Russian major, as I remember, in...
LARSON: Russian and Russian history, yes.
LAMB: So you hadn’t touched the German history part of this?
LARSON: No, no. This was all this was all new to me. Well, you know, when you study history and when you study European history, you know some of it. And in fact, I was before I started this, I was a victim well, ”victim” is a strong word, but I think I think most of us tend to view this period, 1933 to 1945, as one homogeneous bloc of horror and Holocaust, right?
And what really surprised me is how many distinct phases and how things evolved from this ’33, ’34 period onward. I just found that this education was to me to terrifically interesting, and I just I just went about it the way one would do anything of this kind. You start at the outside. You start with the tertiary works, the great the great works of scholarship.
And let me say right here that, you know, I wrote this book about this one very narrow, but very important period through the eyes of these two Americans. I am not a Hitler scholar. I am not the go-to guy on the history of World War II and so forth.
But there are some scholars who have written tremendous works I mean, Sir Ian Kershaw, Richard Evans and some of the old classics, Alan Bullock’s ”Hitler: A Study in Tyranny,” Shirer’s books, ”Berlin Diary,” ”The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” and so forth.
You start with those and start kind of getting a feel for the territory and start working in. And then you start looking at memoirs, personal memoirs and things like that, not just of my principals, Dodd and Martha, but of the people they knew and who knew them and who made references to them in their works.
And then the fun stuff starts. And that’s when you go plunging into the archives, like the Library of Congress, the National Archives. One real surprise to me was how valuable an archive in Madison, Wisconsin, became for me on this subject.
At the Wisconsin Historical Society Archive on the campus of the University of Wisconsin, I found there some wonderful materials about and by people who knew and were friends with the Dodds in Berlin. And that kind of thing is absolutely invaluable, when you get somebody else telling you about the key actors in your in your book. And that was Madison, Wisconsin, of all places.
LAMB: Again, you go back to 1933. Connect all these dots. You have Dodd in the American embassy in Germany. Hitler is the Chancellor, but not the top dog.
LARSON: Not the top dog yet. Pretty close to top dog, but not totally.
LAMB: Back in the United States you have FDR in the White House.
LAMB: And then you have the State Department.
LAMB: What’s the ”Pretty Good Club?”
LARSON: ”Pretty Good Club” is a term that one diplomat, Hugh Wilson, the man, actually, who eventually replaced Dodd in Berlin, he came up with to describe to describe the diplomatic corps of the Foreign Service, the nature of it, that it was very clubby.
It tended to the typical ambassador was very wealthy. The typical Foreign Service senior guy was typically wealthy, had gone to all the right schools Harvard, Princeton, so forth. They all kind of came from the same world. They knew each other. Many were many were independently wealthy. Most ambassadors, in fact, prior to Dodd, were independently wealthy.
And there was this the clubby idea extends even to the fact that if you weren’t of that class, of that character of person, you were an outsider. And Dodd was very much an outsider. He did not go to those schools. He did not have independent wealth.
And this became a serious source of, initially, low grade and then later, ultimately, career ending conflict within the State Department between the Pretty Good Club and Dodd.
LAMB: Well, you paint a picture of Dodd sitting in Germany, relating to FDR, who’s his friend, and to the State Department, and the State Department constantly undermining him as he tells FDR we’ve got problems here.
LARSON: Well, yes. FDR’s MO in terms of appointments was often to make a direct appointment himself underneath without consulting much the person who was in charge of whatever department he was appointing somebody to. So in the case of the State Department, we had Secretary of State Cordell Hull, but it was Roosevelt who appointed Dodd to be ambassador to Germany without consulting Hull, without him having really much to say at all.
So Dodd had this connection, this direct connection to Roosevelt, and Dodd would write handwritten letters to Roosevelt, telling him the real situation in Germany. And yet below that, you had you had three senior guys in particular in the State Department, who it’s not so much that they weren’t paying attention, it’s not so much that they didn’t accept what Dodd was telling the world well, was telling Roosevelt and them quietly.
It’s almost as though they felt that Germany was kind of more an irritant than the important center it would become even in just a year’s time. So that was it was very it was very interesting from the lines of conflict and force within the State Department vis-a-vis Dodd. I was really startled by that, actually.
LAMB: I want to show some more photographs of Germans, well-known in this country Joseph Goebbels.
LARSON: Yes, yes, the head of the Ministry of Public Enlightenment, the propaganda chief of the Reich. Interestingly, in ’33, ’34, Goebbels was a coveted party guest. He was a coveted guest at diplomatic functions, because he had a great sense of humor, or was perceived to have a great sense of humor, a vicious sense of humor. But I found that really intriguing startling, actually.
LAMB: Could these could you learn in all this whether they could speak English?
LARSON: Well, I never tried to learn that. I believe some did speak English. Hitler never spoke English and made it a point of speaking of speaking German. Dodd spoke German quite well.
LARSON: Martha, halting, but she learned quite a bit of German as she went along.
LAMB: Heinrich Himmler next. What about him? What did by the way, these three in a row all committed suicide, all with cyanide, at the end of the war, or somewhere in the process after the Nuremberg trials, but Mr. Himmler?
LARSON: Yes, Himmler, a former chicken farmer who became he became a senior police official in Munich, had ambitions to run all the secret police operations throughout Germany, ultimately replaced Diels as head of the Gestapo or as head of the entire apparatus that included the Gestapo. Thoroughly mundane human being, thoroughly evil human being.
LAMB: What evidence do you I know this is a silly question, but what evidence how did you find out how evil he was?
LARSON: Well, history tells us that. I mean, during this period during this period the interesting thing is that you would no one knew exactly how awful this guy was going to be, so one has to be very careful. In my book Himmler plays a fairly mild, fairly minimal role, only because he doesn’t take prominence until after in Berlin until after, let’s say, March of 1934.
But, you know, Himmler, the Gestapo after that, the role in the Holocaust, I mean, that’s all know and obvious. At this time, however, he was just considered to be sort of a rather mundane individual, you know, always the same kind of bland appearance, looked like a schoolteacher more than a more than a, you know, this evil police agent.
LAMB: Gφring? On the screen.
LARSON: Gφring was he was very large, fat. He was a former World War I flying ace. He was said to have had tremendous courage. The time the Dodds arrive, Gφring is considered one of the better men also of the regime. That is to say, at the it’s more of a relative thing at that point, relative to Hitler, relative to Goebbels. People could stand Gφring much more readily.
Dodd found him to be fairly reasonable, rational at first, although Goebbels I mean, Gφring Gφring was seemed at heart to be kind of a flamboyant nine-year-old boy who happened to have a lot of power. You know, he was a very strange character.
There’s a there’s a charming moment, I think, when Mrs. Dodd, Martha’s mother, is at a function at the Italian embassy. It’s a concert, and there are all these little gilt chairs set out in the room for people to sit in to listen to this concert.
Gφring, again, who’s quite large, sits in the chair directly in front of her and just absolutely overwhelmed the chair. And she spent her time at that concert terrified that his chair would break and Gφring would come collapsing into her lap. It’s just kind of a kind of a nice little moment.
LAMB: Putzi, if that’s the way you pronounce it.
LARSON: Yes, Ernst Sedgwick Hanfstaengl, nicknamed Putzi very compelling character, total surprise to me. I had not known of his existence until I started the work on this book. He is he is a giant. He’s well over six feet tall. He, too, weighs a lot, but it’s because he’s just so tall.
An overwhelming personality. He was also a very talented piano player, talented in a sense. He had a broad repertoire, but he played with a certain kind of vehemence that may have probably meant that he wasn’t all that you wouldn’t want to hear a concert, necessarily, by Putzi.
He played piano at night for Hitler late at night, was reputed to play late at night to kind of help Hitler calm his nerves at the end of a long day. And Hitler would listen to him play and perhaps even weep at times by the passion that Putzi was putting into the into the music.
One interesting note about Putzi is that his mother was American. He was a Harvard graduate himself, but not a member of the ”Pretty Good Club” in any sense of the term.
LAMB: What was the story about Martha and Hitler and the somebody attempted to...
LARSON: Well, that was Putzi. That was Putzi. He had some pretty wild ideas, and at one point, according to Martha’s memoir, Putzi calls he up and he says, ”You know, I think I think that Hitler would be a much better human being, a much more moderate individual, if he if he simply had a good woman in his life.”
And he tells her in this phone call. He says, ”Martha, you are that woman.” And then he arranges this very strange encounter at the Kaiserhof, which is one of the places that Hitler liked to hang out.
Putzi orchestrates this meeting. He has he has Martha and himself sitting at one table. Hitler comes in, takes a seat at another table. Putzi arranges a meeting between the two of them. Hitler kisses Martha’s hand at least twice, apparently, during this encounter.
She sees him up close for the first time, judges him to be a very ordinary seeming man with a certain boyish charm, but what she’s most struck by is, as others have reported as well, is his eyes. They have this almost hypnotic quality that she when they make contact.
Nothing comes of the meeting. Obviously, she does not have an affair with Hitler. It’s just that one moment, and then it’s over.
LAMB: Go back to the beginning in ’33. Do I remember that Martha was 24?
LAMB: How old was her father?
LARSON: Let’s see. Dodd at this point was, I believe, 63 or 64 when they first arrived in 1933.
LAMB: How long does he live, by the way, in the very end?
LARSON: He died in 1930 what is it, ’9, ’39 before the war actually broke out and before America actually became involved in the war. He died, actually, of a neurological problem that, as best anybody can tell, was made much worse by his distress of his time in Berlin.
LAMB: I know I’m jumping way ahead, but there’s a picture in the book of a golf course...
LAMB: ... down here in Virginia. And I guess you took it.
LARSON: Yes, I took it. Yes, yes. I traveled out there to Stoneleigh, which is the site of Dodd’s old farm. Dodd was fancied himself a Jeffersonian Democrat to the core.
He believed in yeoman farming values, and he owned this farm, Round Hill, Virginia, that he just adored. He loved spending time on this farm. Every summer he would go and essentially pretend that he was a farmer. You know, he ran it as a working farm.
And then after his death at some point, the family sold the property, and it became, ironically, this quite nice golf course.
LAMB: You point out Martha was married early.
LARSON: Yes. Yes.
LAMB: For how long, and what happened to that marriage?
LARSON: Very brief marriage to a to a New York banker, and I should note that she was married to this to this guy after breaking two previous engagements. So at the age of 24, she has already been around the block numerous times. I mean, she had broken two engagements. She had the affair with Carl Sandburg. She had other love affairs with other younger men.
And she had gotten married to this New York banker and had kept this marriage a secret, actually, from her friends. The only people who knew about this marriage were, of course, the husband and the family and the families involved. But right there is evidence that there was a problem to begin with, and sure enough, soon that marriage began to fall apart.
Divorce proceedings were instituted, so by the time she arrived in Berlin at 24, she was in the midst of a divorce and was probably because of that feeling even more free when she got there.
LAMB: Dies in Prague years and years later.
LARSON: Dies in Prague years and years later, yes, the very I think I think the story is actually a tragic one for both of Dodd and his daughter.
In Martha’s case in Martha’s case in this first year, 1933 to ’34, and again that’s when most of the action of the book takes place, she undergoes this change from loving the Nazi revolution to feeling she should ally herself with Soviet intelligence and provide information to them against the Nazis.
LAMB: By the way, what was our relationship with the Soviet Union in 1933?
LARSON: At that point we had not yet at the start of 1933, we had not yet recognized the Soviet Union officially. Recognition followed soon after that. We weren’t exactly we weren’t opponents. We weren’t necessarily the best of friends. It was a fairly status quo kind of kind of relationship.
So Martha Martha continued her alliance with Soviet intelligence, as best anybody can tell. She tended to be more talk than action. At least, that’s my appraisal.
And then when the commie hunters started heating up their activities in Congress, they called her to testify, and she and her husband, a husband she married soon after her arrival back in America, Alfred Stern, not one of the characters she knew in Berlin, they fled to Mexico and then ultimately wound up in Prague, leading, incidentally, a very capitalist lifestyle with a brand-new Mercedes and a big house and so forth, but essentially self-exiled from America and eventually realizing that they eventually became very disillusioned with Communism, but were stuck there in Prague.
LAMB: But they were agents.
LARSON: You know, how do you define ”agent?” They...
LAMB: Both Alfred Stern, her husband, and Martha.
LARSON: Yes, they had they had an alliance with Soviet intelligence. They were managed, apparently, by case officers with the KGB. But again, what they actually did or what kind of intelligence they provided is not at all clear. Whether they provided anything material in the way of intelligence is doubtful.
LAMB: How old was she when she died?
LARSON: Gosh, you’re taxing my recollection of my own book, but she was...
LAMB: My memory I could probably write it is that she’s as old as 90.
LARSON: Yes, I think she was 90. I think she was 90.
LAMB: Now, when did she write her memoir?
LARSON: She wrote that in 1939.
LAMB: What impact did that have on the whole thing, because we hadn’t gotten into the war yet.
LARSON: Well, that’s what makes the memoir, actually, a very interesting piece of piece of writing, because and a very, very tricky piece of writing also, I should I should note.
She wrote that in 1939, and it’s called ”Through Embassy Eyes.” And interestingly, in that book she makes no reference to Boris Vinogradov, because it was 1939, because she was afraid that if she talked about him, he would be he would be harmed, which ultimately was the case, but not because not because of her. Well, maybe not because of her.
But only by triangulation, only by going through her papers, do you find the materials necessary to show that, oh, yes, this was Boris Vinogradov, who occupied a good chunk of that of her romantic interest in that in that first year.
So anyway, so 1939 was when she did the memoir. The book was banned instantly in Germany, and I think it did actually reasonably well in America. At least it got a lot of attention.
LAMB: Go back to Boris for a moment. Where I’m just a little confused is that she ended up working with the Soviets. But didn’t you point out in your book that when she made the trip to the Soviet Union, I think that was it from Germany?
LARSON: From Germany, yes.
LAMB: At his suggestion, Boris’ suggestion.
LAMB: Was he still in Berlin?
LARSON: Boris was well, Boris was still attached to Berlin, but in fact during that trip that she takes to the Soviet Union, he was actually in the Soviet Union as well. But they made this is where it gets kind of complicated.
Martha had told Boris, apparently, that she did not want to see him while she was in the Soviet Union, because she didn’t want to be influenced in her appraisal of what the Soviet Union was all about.
And later she actually writes a letter to Boris that gets him very annoyed, when she accuses him of she gets angry at him for not having tried to connect with her in the Soviet Union. And he says he says, ”Well, you know, you didn’t want to meet with me.” And he also he also hints that there was another reason he didn’t see her, and that’s because of what he refers to as business.
And it may be well, it seems pretty clear now, based on intercepts and KGB documents that have been unearthed not by me, but by others. Now it seems quite clear that Soviet intelligence, that the handlers at Moscow’s center wanted Boris to stay away so that they could court so that the intelligence agency itself could court Martha and try to get her get her allegiance.
QUESTION: But she didn’t I think I remember she didn’t like what she saw.
LARSON: She didn’t like what she saw in the Soviet Union. She found it a very drab, depressing place, but it apparently was able to overcome that, at least in terms of her ideological allegiances. But, yes, she was she was really kind of dismayed by what she saw and experienced.
LAMB: Did you ever get a sense of why she had these ideological leanings?
LARSON: The sense that I got, and the sense that she conveys in some of her writings and her papers, is that it was mainly it wasn’t so much that she was in love with the Soviet Union or communism. It was that she was really deeply opposed to the Nazis and the Nazi regime by the time this first year comes to an end.
And that’s what seems to have tipped her into the Soviet camp. Why she stayed in the Soviet camp is very hard to say, but it’s clear that it’s clear that she did continue her allegiance.
LAMB: Your book has been on The New York Times top five for, what, a couple of months now.
LARSON: I think so. Yes, yes, much to my relief.
LAMB: Your relief, why?
LARSON: I sometimes think back, and I think I wonder to myself how I dared do a book about the Nazis and the Third Reich. It’s not like there aren’t enough books out there already, you know, that it is one of the most heavily written about subjects, maybe only equaled by the Civil War, you know.
And what made me think that I could leap in there and maybe say something new about one part of it? I don’t know. But I am so relieved that audiences seem to seem to get it, you know. They seem to appreciate that this is this is a different kind of look at that era through very different perspectives. And it seems to have seems to have caught on.
LAMB: You know you’re one of those authors that everybody looks forward to those books to say we’ve got another one of those stories. How did you know by the way, how well did ”Thunderstruck” do?
LARSON: ”Thunderstruck” did well. I mean, it hit The New York Times bestseller lists in paper and hard. Didn’t do as well, anywhere near as well as ”Devil in the White City.” But, I mean, I think it did I think it did fine.
And actually, I still hear from it’s more of a guidebook, I think. I mean, I still hear from I hear from a lot of when I take when I was taking this book around the country on a book tour, I would always hear from and I was very glad to hear it. I always had people, men, typically, come up to me and say, ”You know, ’Thunderstruck’ was my favorite of your books.”
LAMB: And that was about what?
LARSON: ”Thunderstruck” was about it was two converging narratives, and a lot of people, actually, have sort of, I think, have kind of criticized me for trying to do what I did in ”Devil in the White City” with two disparate narratives coming together.
But in fact, the ”Thunderstruck” thing came about completely by accident, and it is, in fact, two narratives one about Marconi, the inventor of the wireless; the other about Hawley Harvey Crippen, probably the second most famous murderer in English history, although he killed only one person.
And it’s about how wireless led to this amazing to me amazing chase across the Atlantic, with the whole world watching this chase, but Crippen, the target of the chase, being completely unaware. Because of the miracle of wireless, all these messages were going out. The world was following the chase. He went about his business in disguise on this ship as if nothing were happening.
LAMB: Now you’d have twitters.
LARSON: You have Twitter, yes, exactly.
LAMB: You live in Seattle, married to a doctor.
LAMB: She’s still practicing?
LARSON: Still practicing, yes. She is a she is a neonatologist, intensive care for newborn babies, and she sort of runs a little empire there in Seattle.
LAMB: You have three daughters?
LARSON: Three daughters.
LAMB: Where are they?
LARSON: They’ve become very expensive daughters. One is a one has just finished college and is now in graduate school, actually, here now in Washington. Another is at the University of Chicago, interestingly, living not far from where Dodd lived when he was there. And then the third is going through pre-college angst with SATs and ACTs. And she’s a junior in high school.
LAMB: Let’s go through the quick biography. You were born where?
LARSON: I was born, as was half the world, in Brooklyn, New York.
LAMB: Went to college where?
LARSON: Went to college at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.
LAMB: And you got did you get a masters degree?
LARSON: Not there. I took a year off. I was just going to work for while in publishing, and my goal was to save enough money to travel around the world and travel, actually, just around Europe.
And then I made the mistake of seeing ”All the President’s Men” and decided I had to go to journalism school and went to Columbia, which is where I got my masters.
LAMB: And how many different newspapers?
LARSON: First newspaper was a terrific experience, the Bucks County Courier Times in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia. Got extremely lucky, went to the Wall Street Journal initially, the bureau that was based in Philadelphia. There’s no longer a bureau there, but that was the biggest break of my career. That was a fantastic thing for me.
And then after that after that, kind of well I got married and did some freelance stuff for a while, went back to the Journal for a while, worked for Time magazine for a bit, but mostly during that period was writing longer and longer things, and eventually the natural transition to books.
LAMB: One of the threads in your book is about the German hatred for the Jews, and that’s, obviously, been written about many, many times. What did you what did you decide, after reading all that you read? What was their hatred based on?
LARSON: What was their hatred based on? You know, I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t think anybody knows. I don’t think anybody can ever really can really understand what drives somebody to hate a particular a particular race.
What I was startled by, though, and intrigued by, is a thesis put forward by Sir Ian Kershaw about anti-Semitism in Germany. And it is his contention that for the average German, the question of anti-Semitism, the Jewish question, the Jewish problem, whatever you want to refer to it as, was very much an abstract thing, that for the average German, the German in the countryside, it was just it was not really hatred of Jews was not something that was really high on their on their platform, because there were relatively few Jews in Germany.
There were very few Jews in Germany, and most of these Jews, most lived in the big cities, in Berlin and Munich and so forth. So the average German, the average guy in a small-town Germany, had very little contact with Jews. So any kind of anti-Semitic attitude was very much an abstract.
That was not the case, as Kershaw points out, among members of the Nazi party, among the storm troopers, the self-selecting group who loathed Jews, for whom anti-Semitism, for whom hatred of Jews was one of the key reasons to be in this in this movement.
LAMB: Do you have any sense of what was it a device for them to get everybody all stirred up, if there weren’t that many in the country?
LARSON: It was a device. It seemed to be a device. But again, Kershaw’s thesis is so interesting, because suggests that it it suggests that if it were a device, it had limited impact in terms of the broad German population, but a lot of power in terms of those who were already thinking in those directions among the storm troopers and so forth.
LAMB: You did something that you don’t often see in a book, and that is you quoted directly Sir Ian Kershaw I don’t know I remember three or four times in there. I mean, most times it’s in a footnote or back in the back.
LAMB: Why did you do that? And tell us a little more about him.
LARSON: Yes, you know, I did that because he is the man, you know. He is he is I would argue of course, now, other scholars will condemn me for this, but I would argue he is the Hitler scholar. And when you have someone like that, I think you need to acknowledge as clearly and upfront as you can, and because also some of the things that he found are just so fascinating, you know.
I mean, one of his books he notes that Hitler’s favorite movie was ”King Kong.” You know, that’s lovely stuff. That’s the kind of little details that I just love.
LAMB: We are almost out of time, but I have to ask you about this fascination you have with little statues, the little things you put in hotel rooms.
LARSON: Are you referring to the windowsill wars?
LAMB: I am, yes. Where in the world did that come from?
LARSON: Do you know ah, yes, I see one of them right there. This is after the wars are over, by the way, when the characters have dispersed. And these little characters, by the way, come from Red Rose tea boxes. Those of you out there who drink Red Rose tea will know exactly what I’m talking about.
And one day after this is what happens when you when you start a website, you know. One day I was just this is after Christmas, and I’d gotten a new windowsill toy. And I started thinking to myself, you know, what if this new windowsill toy I have a lot of these things on my windowsill, you know, from nunzillas to wind-up things and serpent pens and so forth.
So what if the addition of this character to this windowsill caused a conflict that led to a battle among all the toys in the house? So I just decided to follow that thread in installments on my website. And you know what? It kind of went viral among my daughters and their friends. And that became sort of for me almost like almost like doing a cartoon for me. And it was really a delightful kind of break.
LAMB: And anybody that wants to get into all this can go to eriklarsonbooks.com.
LARSON: Right, right.
LAMB: Before we close down, ”In the Garden of Beasts” comes from what? What’s that title from?
LARSON: The title. This book the title had to be that, because so much of the action in the book takes place around the main park in Berlin. There is still a park there today. It’s very different, obviously, because the park was leveled by the Russian assault in 1945.
But it’s the tiergarten, which is in the literal translation, ”the garden of beasts.” And all the action in the book takes place in this pretty narrowly defined arc around the edge of the park.
LAMB: Final question, of all the characters you wrote about besides Martha and all that, which character which German character would you want to know more about, just because of what you learned?
LARSON: Diels, Rudolf Diels, the first chief of the Gestapo. I find myself just absolutely fascinated by him. I’m fascinated by the fact that he survived the war and afterwards testified on behalf of the prosecution against the war criminals of the era.
LAMB: Erik Larson, we thank you for your time.
LARSON: Thank you.