This interview was originally broadcast on May 9, 2011. In The Garden Of Beasts is now available in paperback.
In March 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt approached politician James M. Cox to offer him what should have been a cushy gig: the ambassadorship to Germany. But Cox turned down the job. Germany was unstable and violent — and German Chancellor Adolf Hitler's paramilitary army had started to attack and jail thousands of its own citizens.
The job remained open for months as candidates were summarily rejected. In early June 1933, Roosevelt's commerce secretary suggested an alternative: William Dodd, a professor at the University of Chicago who spoke German and received his graduate degree in Germany.
Roosevelt offered Dodd the job, who accepted and went to Berlin with his wife, son and daughter. Roosevelt emphasized that Dodd needed to be a model of American values in Nazi Germany. But there was a less official mandate, too.
"He wanted Dodd to address [anti-Semitism] in essentially a less-than-official manner," writer Erik Larson tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, "the argument being that this was, of course, shameful [and] it was an awful thing, but it was not necessarily something that America should get involved with in an official level."
Larson chronicles Dodd's time in Germany in a new book, In the Garden of Beasts. It's a detailed portrait of the man who served for four years as the ambassador to Germany before resigning — after repeatedly clashing with both Nazi Party officials and the State Department.
"I was interested in him because I wanted to find out what was that like, to have met these people when you didn't know how all of this would turn out?" Larson says. "We, of course, have the power of hindsight in our arsenal, but people living in Berlin in that era didn't. What would that have been like as this darkness fell over Germany?"
Hitler's Rise To Power
When Hitler became the chancellor of Germany in 1933, Larson says, many diplomats in the U.S. State Department — including Dodd — assumed he wouldn't be in office for very long.
"It was a commonly held opinion, especially among the U.S. diplomats operating in Berlin [and] certainly the British ambassador to Germany also felt that way," he says. "Hitler was such an anomalous character — he was so over-the-top chaotic in his approach to statesmanship, his manner [and] in the violence which overwhelmed the country initially. I think diplomats around the world ... felt like something like that simply would not be tolerated by the people of Germany."
But Hitler stayed in office for 12 more years, serving as the head of the Nazi Party until he took his own life in 1945. Ambassador Dodd met with him twice in 1933, noting later how unhinged Hitler seemed, Larson says.
"Suddenly [in their first meeting] this ordinary statesman becomes absolutely vehement, savage and outspoken in a way that really kind of takes Dodd aback," Larson says. "In the second meeting, something very similar happens when they talk about Jews. Hitler again completely loses it. ... He says all of the criticism of Germany is coming from Jews and he is going to make an end to them."
Larson says Dodd ignored the remark.
"At that moment, Dodd the rationalist, the student of history, hears a remark like that and doesn't think Hitler truly means it," Larson says. "He doesn't take it seriously. Because, my God, who could possibly even think about something like that? Who could act on something like that? Remember, this is early. This is very early in the march toward the Holocaust."
But in 1934, things changed. Between June 30 and July 2, the Nazis carried out a series of political executions in a weekend known as the "night of the long knives." Tens of critics of Hitler — including Nazis — were imprisoned and executed.
"This seemed to be the moment when Dodd, at last, understands the true pathological nature of this regime," Larson says. "He tried to convey his sense of horror to the State Department. And what the State Department said was, 'Look, we don't really care about this, we care about Germany's debt. Can you please start working on getting Germany to pay back its debt to American creditors? It was almost as though, back in America, they wrote this off as some weekend excursion of the Nazis — not a big deal, not something to worry about."
The Other Dodd In Berlin
While Dodd was navigating Berlin's diplomatic channels, Larson says, his daughter, Martha, was also immersing herself in Berlin. The 24-year-old was recently divorced, and she hit the party circuit and started to have affairs — including one with the first head of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels.
"She [initially] shared a view that actually many did share with regards to the Nazi revolution — the idea that Hitler was at last getting Germany in line and was helping to revive this once-vibrant nation," he says. "She sees [Berlin] as a remarkable, charismatic city. ... She sees these glittering cafes, she sees the street life, the trams, the cars, the whole thing. ... And she wonders, right away, at the contrast between what the press back home is reporting and what she's experiencing."
But Martha starts to change her mind, when she sees storm troopers marching a girl through the streets with a placard around her neck that says, "I offered myself to a Jew."
"As time goes on, she becomes aware that something scary is going on, and she comes to this realization through her relationship with the first chief of the Gestapo," he says. "Through her relationship with Diels ... she came to see this network of official terror and espionage [and] surveillance."
In her memoir, Martha described once walking into Diels' office and seeing the floor littered with recording devices he was using to listen in on telephone conversations.
"One of the things that drew me to her as a character is she follows this very interesting personal arc — almost like the kind of thing you would expect from a novel," Larson says. "That's not to say it has the satisfying end you might get in a novel — like maybe she would start an underground operation and start shooting up Nazis; that didn't happen — but she does come to a realization that this is not the benign revolution she had first thought."
Martha returned to the U.S. in 1937, when Dodd resigned from his appointment. The State Department replaced him with Hugh Wilson, a "classic old-school diplomat," Larson says, who was "wholly the opposite of Dodd."
"He was a classic example of someone in sympathy with the Nazi regime," Larson says. "But the thing that changed Hugh Wilson was Kristallnacht, the 'night of broken glass' — the official pogrom against the Jews. That changed Hugh Wilson. That horrified him. Even he got the point."
On anti-Semitism in the United States
"As hard as it may seem to imagine now ... in that era, there was what you might describe as an ambient anti-Semitism that was embraced by many in America and many in government. Dodd himself exhibited aspects like that, as well. For example, there's one astonishing moment where Dodd writes to the State Department to complain that [his office] in Berlin has too many Jews on his staff and this is interfering with his ability to deal with the Nazis. And his receptionist was ardently anti-Nazi, and this caused all kinds of problems with visitors from the Nazi regime."
On being affected by his subject matter
"I pride myself on having a journalistic remove. For example, after my book The Devil in the White City, people often ask if I had nightmares [and] wasn't I horrified by the nature of that serial killer? And my answer was always, 'I always wear two hats. The one that says, 'this is horrific,' and the other part that says, 'this is great stuff.' In this case, something very different happened. I found myself entering a low-grade depression. There's something so relentless and foul about Hitler and his people, and the way things progressed from year to year. It just got to me in the strangest way."
On taking extremists seriously vs. dismissing them
"The immediate trigger for this book was reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, but I read that also at a time when I was feeling uneasy about how things were going in this country. It troubled me that we had these reports of torture of detainees, we had people jailed at Guantanamo Bay who couldn't even talk to their lawyers and couldn't see the evidence against them — sort of fundamental bedrock civil liberties things. ... Look, I don't care what your party is. I went to public school on Long Island, and it seemed every year we were being taught that you had a right to a fair trial and a right to confront your accuser. So it's this kind of vague feeling I had in the background which was, 'What was that like to experience a real extreme version of that?' ... So it made me wonder what allows a culture to slip its moorings."