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Berlin in February

There is something about the name Berlin that evokes an image of men in hats and long coats standing under streetlamps on rainy nights. I knew Berlin would have to become a kind of character in my new book, In the Garden of Beasts. I had felt likewise about Chicago when I wrote The Devil in the White City and Galveston with Isaac's Storm. In that respect, Berlin posed a challenge. Much of the action in the book takes place in and around the Tiergarten, Berlin's showcase park, whose name, in literal translation, means "garden of beasts." The park and surrounding neighborhoods were essentially obliterated by the final Russian assault on the city. How, then, could I hope to get a feel for the area as it existed before the bombs fell?

Being a fool for cold weather, as I perhaps indicated in my previous entry, I traveled to Berlin in February. Mainly, this was a strategic decision.Being a fool for cold weather, as I perhaps indicated in my previous entry, I traveled to Berlin in February. Mainly, this was a strategic decision. I figured, correctly, that Berlin in February was not a destination coveted by tourists. I found good airfares on Lufthansa, an airline I quite like, and got a great rate at a brand new Ritz-Carlton, which clearly hoped to seduce visitors into forsaking Hawaii for Potsdammer Platz. I must say, I got one of the best hotel rooms I'd ever had, and one of the most curious dining experiences. The Ritz promotes the fact that the restaurant on its first floor is a true French brasserie transplanted piece by piece to Berlin. But it serves German food. There is a message there, I'm sure, but at the moment I can't think what it might be.

One of my goals was to locate various places important to the story, including the old Hotel Esplanade, where my two main human characters, William E. Dodd and his daughter, Martha, and their family spent their first weeks in Berlin, and the house at Tiergartenstrasse 27a that they eventually leased and where they stayed for the next four years.

On my first morning in the city I set out for a walk, mainly to try to make myself at least feel productive, despite a crushing case of jet lag. I exited the hotel into a frigid morning flecked with horizontal snow, and turned right, then right again, and headed for the park. Immediately I found myself walking past an unusual architectural display. To my left was the bullet-pocked facade of an old building behind a tall wall of glass. Above this wall, built atop a bridge-like deck, were several floors of apparently swanky apartments.

Helplessly intrigued ( interesting architecture is as powerful an attractant for me as a shapely woman's leg emerging from an open taxi doorinteresting architecture is as powerful an attractant for me as a shapely woman's leg emerging from an open taxi door), I walked to a nearby information plaque and felt my heart skip a beat. Possibly this was the first indication that I was freezing to death, but I prefer to think it was caused by yet another of those moments when, through some strange serendipitous event, the past suddenly seems present and alive. Because that pockmarked facade, as I now read, had once constituted the front wall of the Hotel Esplanade.

There, in the not-too-distant past, my protagonists had dined and danced as the world outside grew steadily darker. There Sigrid Schultz (who appeared in yesterday's post) and Martha met for the first time, and Sigrid tried to cue her in to the dark realities of life under Hitler — only to have Martha reject her warnings. From the front door each morning her father strode forth in his plain business suits and walked to the offices of the U.S. embassy half a mile away, stopping from time to time to chat with a pair of fat and happy horses. And Martha raced off for a tryst with the young first chief of the brand-new Gestapo, the surprisingly complex Rudolf Diels — later to be replaced by the thoroughly evil duo, Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich. Here, too, Dodd's consul general, George Messersmith, claimed to have narrowly avoided an attempt on his life.

Martha, looking tres chaud

The mysterious and charming Rudolf Diels

For the briefest instant I could see these people as they moved through their days. I loved it.

But enough was enough. I reattached my frozen fingers and walked stiff-kneed back to my hotel, where I ordered some very hot coffee.

÷ ÷ ÷

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

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