In hunting ideas for books, I look for stories about long-past events that once commanded the world's attention but that for one reason or another faded from contemporary awareness. So, you ask, why then did I write In the Garden of Beasts, which is set in the seemingly well-trod terrain of Hitler's Germany? The key word there is seemingly.
One summer day maybe six years ago, in the midst of one of my agonizing searches for book ideas, I decided for no particular reason to read William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. It had long been on my list of books to read, but it always seemed a little intimidating. At 1,200 pages, including endnotes, it is a very large book. You could throw it at a burglar and end up jailed for manslaughter.
I happened to be in a bookstore browsing the history section when I saw it and on impulse bought it. I loved it, if one can ever truly apply the word love to a book about the Nazis and World War II. What most fascinated me was the fact that the author, Shirer, had actually been there in Berlin as events unfolded and had actually met many of Nazi Germany's leading men face to face, at parties and press conferences and for formal interviews.
Suddenly, my imagination caught fire. I found myself wondering what it would have been like to live in Berlin early in Hitler's rule and to watch the world rapidly grow dark, without the knowledge we all possess today as to how things turned out. What was it like to have coffee in one of Berlin's famous cafes and to see members of Hitler's SS seated at the next table? Or to have a drink at the bar of the Hotel Adlon and know that it was a prime listening post for agents of the newly created Gestapo? Or, for that matter, to be sitting at a table in the dining room of the Kaiserhof hotel when Hitler himself arrived for lunch, accompanied by his middle-brow entourage of body guards and chauffeurs?
These led to more fundamental questions. If I'd been living in Berlin in 1933-34, could I possibly have foreseen the Holocaust and all the corollary horrors of World War II? And if I had, would I have done anything about it? I also started to wonder, how does a culture slip its moorings? How did Germany come to jettison the anything-goes liberty of the Weimar era and embrace the murderous tyranny that followed, with no one stepping in to stop it?
What I wanted to do was capture an intimate view of those early, creepily sinister days in Hitler's Berlin. To do so, I needed to find real-life characters whom readers could accompany through the gathering dark. At some point I stumbled across my two main protagonists: William E. Dodd, a mild-mannered professor of history picked by Roosevelt to be America's first ambassador to Nazi Germany, and Dodd's comely and rather wild daughter, Martha, who at first was enthralled with the so-called Nazi revolution. I liked the fact that both were transformed by their first full year in Germany, especially by the murderous weekend that brought that year to a close. But I can't say more, because I don't want to spoil it.
The Dodds arrive at Hamburg
As my wife would say, my book is what it is: the story of two innocents abroad, who find themselves confronting a world stranger and more sinister than anything they could have imagined. Their experiences offer fresh insight into why the world failed to recognize the true danger of Hitler until far too late.
Having settled on this idea and on these characters, I then had to begin the hunt for details to help bring their world alive. I love that phase — once I begin it. First, however, I inevitably find myself confronting a daunting opponent: me.
I'll explain tomorrow.
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Erik Larson is the bestselling author of the National Book Award finalist and Edgar Award-winning The Devil in the White City. He lives in Seattle with his wife, three daughters, and a dog named Molly.
Books mentioned in this post
Erik Larson is the author of In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin