Assuming he may not be the best at writing fiction, author Eric Larson has carved out the effective (if not original) technique of novelizing a true story and turning it into highly entertaining reading. Truman Capote, for example, did the same with “In Cold Blood,” as did John Berendt with “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”
One of Larson’s earlier books, “The Devil in the White City,” describes the architect who built the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (with a little help from Frederick Law Olmstead) and an extremely creepy serial killer lurking behind the scenes preying on young women drawn to the city. In addition to the obvious, the story is particularly disturbing since the murderer was a medical doctor (instead of a lawyer — joke!).
Larson’s latest, “In the Garden of Beasts,” is right up my alley because it deals with the subject of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, which I consider one of the fascinating tales in world history, particularly the psychology of how a brilliant people managed to be mesmerized, steamrolled, intimidated and brainwashed by an Austrian World War I enlisted man and failed artist who became one of the 20th century’s most powerful and ruthless dictators.
This is the story of William E. Dodd, a mild-mannered North Carolinian and Chicago-based college professor who served as ambassador to Germany 1933-37 during the pivotal years when Nazism evolved from more of a conceptual ideology into a brutally suppressive regime characterized by lawless violence, mass murder, paranoia, blind-faith group mentality, a horrifying loss of individual freedoms and an inexorable bent toward what would become WWII.
Dodd, more than most, accurately interprets contemporary events and understands Hitler’s true character and ruthless ambition before it becomes painfully obvious to all. In the beginning, it wasn’t like that. Berlin was a cultural and architectural “garden,” exciting, intriguing, romantic, and Hitler, although clearly suspect, hadn’t yet established a reputation as utterly untrustworthy.
A peripheral storyline involves how Dodd’s family adjusts to life in Berlin. Most interesting is the history of daughter Martha, born in 1908, who was married and separated by the time she moved with her father and the rest of the family to Berlin in 1933. At first, Martha was impressed by the new Germany. She was intelligent, highly educated, had a talent for the arts (especially writing) and quickly made friends in literary circles and with persons of influence in the Nazi organization.
Amazingly, she ended up having affairs with Rudolf Diels, then head of the Gestapo, Ernst Udet, a senior Luftwaffe officer, and foreign-press chief Ernst Hanfstaengl. I get the impression that all her father could do was pretend not to notice, but it had to be a very awkward set of circumstances for him to have his daughter running around behind the scenes with a bunch of Nazis.
Hanfstaengl, in fact, was well-aware of Martha’s various dalliances and had begun to imagine for her a new partner, thinking that Adolf Hitler would be a much more reasonable leader if only he were to fall in love. This would not be easy. The history of the Fuehrer’s relationships with women was an odd one, marred by tragedy and persistent rumors of unsavory behavior.
When Martha and Hitler met face to face at an arranged luncheon, she had decided to wear her “most demure and intriguing best” (according to her personal memoirs), nothing too striking or revealing. German men, she wrote, “want their women to be seen and not heard, and then only as appendages of the splendid male they accompany.”
She approached Hitler’s table and stood there a moment as he rose to greet her. He took her hand, kissed it and spoke a few quiet words in German. She got a good look at him: “a weak, soft face, with pouches under the eyes, full lips and very little bony facial structure.” His eyes — she had heard that there was something piercing and intense about them, and now she understood. “Hitler’s eyes,” she wrote, “were startling and unforgettable — they seemed pale blue in color, were intense, unwavering, hypnotic.”
She found Hitler “modest, middle-class, rather dull and self-conscious — yet with this strange tenderness and appealing helplessness” ... his manners “excessively gentle.” ... “It was hard to believe that this man was one of the most powerful men in Europe.”
Martha and Hitler never repeated their encounter. That night, over dinner, she told her parents about the day’s events. The ambassador was amused and conceded “that Hitler was not an unattractive man personally.”
All this took place before the infamous Night of the Long Knives, the murderous mid-1934 Nazi purge of its paramilitary Sturmabteilung (the SA, also known as Stormtroopers or brownshirts), at which time the Dodd family realized that their phones were tapped and their servants enlisted as spies.
Although the German honeymoon was over, it was only the beginning for Martha, who would fall in love with Russian diplomat (and probable NKVD agent) Boris Vinogradov, who recruited her for the Soviet spy system, to which she would pass valuable German secrets, while at the same time passing Russian intelligence to her father.
What a life! No wonder, then, that Martha’s story — while maybe not as important as her father’s in the context of history — generates the most entertainment value in the entire book.
Edward M. Gilbreth is a Charleston physician. Reach him at email@example.com.