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Author opens window on ’30s Berlin

In his 2011 best-seller, In the Garden of Beasts, Erik Larson offered a perspective on what it was like for outsiders from the United States to be on the “inside” as Adolph Hitler was coming to power in the mid 1930s.

An enthusiastic crowd of more than 450 came to hear his story of research and publication in a May 10 appearance at Green Brook Country Club in North Caldwell.

In the Garden — subtitled “Love, Terror, & an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin” — considers America’s inexplicable naivete when it came to forecasting Hitler’s plans, primarily through the eyes of William E. Dodd, the United States ambassador to Germany at the time, and his 24-year-old daughter, Martha, who, with the rest of the Dodd family, moved to Germany for the duration of the ambassador’s posting.

Several years ago, as he searched for a new topic, Larson was in a book store and found The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer, a book he had always intended to read. He told the gathering that he marveled that the author had actually worked in Berlin as a correspondent, and had met and socialized with some of the “icons of evil,” the most notorious Nazis in history. At the time, Larson said, no one could have conceived how things were going to transpire.

It was then he had “a mini-epiphany.”

“What would that have been like if I had been sitting at one of those fantastic cafes and seen Hitler driving by in an open car,” asked Larson. “Would I have felt a chill?” He wanted to find people who had lived through that period and tell their story.

Larson discovered William Dodd’s diaries, as well as material from Martha, who went along for the adventure that Berlin promised as a hotbed of culture. Sure enough, said Larson, Martha initially “fell in love with what she called the ‘Nazi revolution.’” But, he added, he did not want to judge her in the light of hindsight.

“Martha Dodd was mesmerized by her new life and could not see the changes that were taking place. From the family’s house, across the street from a grand park, she could see no oppression,” said Larson. Instead she saw well-dressed people walking well-fed dogs and glamorous figures on horseback.

“I knew these would become my characters,” Larson said.

Initially, many observers felt that Hitler “was just the guy to drag Germany out of its post-World War I malaise,” he said, surmising that William Dodd may have been less outspoken because the United States was anxious for Germany to repay its massive financial debt following the Great War. He was warned by the State Department to limit his contacts with local Jews as much as possible because it might impair his ability to deal with the German government. (Larson said he was “surprised by the depth and breadth of anti-Semitism in the United States, including the top levels of the State department.”)

Dodd, a 63-year-old history professor at the University of Chicago prior to taking the ambassadorship, “treated Hitler like a graduate student” at their infrequent meetings, Larson said. The diplomat told Hitler he empathized, saying, “We have our own Jewish problem in America, but we’ve chosen to solve it in a much more humane way” — via quotas and other less aggressive means, according to Larson. But every time Dodd tried to bring up the treatment of Jews, Hitler went “ballistic” and hinted at worse things to come.

“Dodd wants to be objective, hoping to find rational statesmen in charge,” Larson said. “But he found insanity instead.”

Larson concluded his remarks with an invidious comparison that some disgruntled Americans were making between Hitler and President Barack Obama.

“If you doubt that, go home…and fire up your computer and type the name ‘Obama’ and ‘Hitler’ side by side in the same window and see what you come up with.” Most such items concern Obama’s health care philosophies. By contrast, he said, “Health care was the last thing on Hitler’s mind.”

Larson’s presentation was preceded by comments from Ernest Haas, a retired real estate developer who spoke about his experiences as a Holocaust survivor in context with the author’s “outsider” theme of In the Garden. “I, unfortunately at that time, was an insider who couldn’t get out,” Haas told the gathering.

He called the book an “accurate, meticulously researched work.”

“I thank you, Erik Larson, for undertaking the project and shining a light on this important topic,” he said.

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