May 4, 2012
Guest: Erik Larson
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're going to listen to Terry's interview with journalist and author Erik Larson. His book, "In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin," asks the question: Why did it take so long to recognize the real danger posed by Hitler and his regime?
The book, now out in paperback, tells the story of William Dodd, who was appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt to serve as the first American ambassador to Nazi Germany. Dodd, his wife Mattie and their daughter Martha arrived in Berlin in 1933, a few months after Hitler was sworn in as chancellor.
ERIK LARSON: They remained there for four and a half years, but Larson says he focused on their first year because it coincided with Hitler's ascent from chancellor to absolute tyrant, when everything hung in the balance, and nothing was certain.
DAVIES: Larson is also the author of "Devil in the White City," about a serial killer who lured his victims to the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893. Terry spoke to Erik Larson last May, when "In the Garden of Beasts" was released in hardcover.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Erik Larson, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Why did you want to write about the rise of Hitler through the eyes of Ambassador William Dodd and his daughter?
LARSON: Well, I'll tell you, this is an idea that just sort of surprised me, actually. This is not my typical territory. My last three books were set more or less in the Gilded Age, which is a period that I adore.
But this idea essentially came to me by accident. I'm afraid most of the good things in my life have come by accident. I went to the bookstore. I was browsing. I saw "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" by William Shirer, and I thought, OK, that's always been on my life to read. I'll do it. I started reading, was immediately engrossed, loved it, and the thing that really appealed to me, that really lit my imagination, was this idea that Shirer was actually there.
He met Hitler. He met Goebbels. He met Goering. He met all these characters. This little flame was sort of lit in my imagination. It was like: What was that like to have met these people, when you didn't know how all this would turn out? We, of course, all have the power of hindsight in our arsenal, but he didn't What would that have been like as this darkness fell over Germany?
GROSS: Well, the way you describe it, the view in the State Department, when William Dodd became the first ambassador to Nazi Germany, was that Hitler wouldn't last long. Why did they think that?
LARSON: Well, that was a fairly commonly held opinion, especially among the diplomats who were actually operating in Berlin. Certainly the British ambassador to Germany also felt that way.
They felt that way because Hitler was such an anomalous character. He was just so over-the-top chaotic in his approach to statesmanship, in his manner, in the violence with which - that overwhelmed the country initially in March of 1933. And I think diplomats around the world, and certainly in the State Department, felt that something like that simply would not be tolerated by the people of Germany.
And that belief actually persisted for quite some time. In fact, Ambassador Dodd still felt quite strongly that Hitler could not last even at the end of that first year of his in Berlin, when certainly really tumultuous things happened. So it was a fairly persistent belief.
GROSS: But the FDR administration had been warned in 1933 by George Messersmith, who was America's consul general for Germany, and he wrote a dispatch to the State Department in 1933, saying: I wish it were really possible to make our people at home understand how definitely this martial spirit is being developed in Germany.
If this government remains in power for another year, and it carries on in the measure in this direction, it will go far toward making Germany a danger to world peace for years to come.
And then he goes on: With few exceptions, the men who are running the government are of a mentality that you and I cannot understand. Some of them are psychopathic cases and would ordinarily be receiving treatment somewhere. Those are really strong words.
LARSON: I know. Isn't that a wonderful quote? Well, Messersmith, for one thing, was a very perceptive guy. He was way ahead of the curve. He had been in Berlin quite some time. He had a very good network of sources.
So he had a certain knowledge set that others did not have, especially Dodd clearly did not have. But even there, it kind of cuts to the same point because, you know, he's talking about psychopathic characters, and if you saw them as psychopathic characters, it's not that odd a step to think to yourself: Well, they can't possibly last, this is just crazy, this is a temporary phase in the history of Germany. It so happens that Messersmith got it absolutely correct.
GROSS: Now, what did President Roosevelt want Ambassador Dodd to emphasize when he sent him off to Germany?
LARSON: Roosevelt's main mandate was essentially for Dodd to stand as a model of American liberal values in Nazi Germany. Probably the main mission, frankly, was to have Dodd work on getting Germany to pay back its vast debt to American creditors as part of the effort to get the country back on track from the Depression, which of course the country was completely in the grip of the Depression at that point.
GROSS: And what did President Roosevelt want Dodd to do regarding anti-Semitism in Germany?
LARSON: Yeah, you know, that's a very interesting element of this whole story. He wanted Dodd to address the issue in essentially a less-than-official manner, the argument being that this was, of course, shameful, Germany's treatment of Jews, but it was not necessarily something that America should get involved with on an official level.
GROSS: So when Ambassador Dodd and his family first get to Berlin, July 13, 1933, Hitler is chancellor, but there's still somebody else, von Hindenburg, who's the president. So Hitler hasn't yet assumed complete control of Germany.
But the Gestapo has been formed. Things are really tightening, especially for the Jews, and the Nazis recently introduced the coordination campaign. What was that?
LARSON: Yeah, that was something that I found really intriguing, something that I had never in my past education really come across. But this was this was a more or less formal campaign to get everybody to fall into line with Nazi ideology.
What it evoked for me, frankly, is an old horror film, "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," you know, where the lead characters leaves town for a while, comes back and finds everything has changed. Everybody has changed. They look different. They dress different.
It was not unlike that, actually. People from - who had left, let's say, Berlin for an extended trip abroad, who came back after the coordination was underway, found their towns, their neighbors, changed in ways both subtle and really very powerful.
I mean, people would even be dressing different. They'd have different haircuts. They'd be - you know, the town looked different. There would be a Nazi banner hanging from a building.
And the point of the coordination was to get everybody essentially in line, and one result of this coordination campaign was that if somebody - let's say I lived next to somebody who I felt was not - was not really with the program, I could, and would, report him to the Gestapo, and they would call him in and question him.
If they felt that he was an opponent of the state, who knows? He might end up in one of the new one of the new camps for people like that. So there was this real pressure, subtle, ground-up pressure, ground-up and also from the top down, there was this command to have everybody conform.
And it was just so, so broadly and enthusiastically embraced by the populous, this idea of so-called self-coordination, that people began very avidly denouncing their friends, their peers, their teachers and so forth, for not doing certain important things.
One of the most important things was to issue the so-called Hitler salute at certain times and in response to - in response to being offered the salute by others. If you didn't, you were out of conformity, and you could conceivably be reported to the Gestapo, even for something as simple as that.
DAVIES: Erik Larson's book "In the Garden of Beasts" is now out in paperback. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: We're listening to Terry's interview recorded last year with Erik Larson, who wrote about America's first ambassador to Nazi Germany in the book "In the Garden of Beasts." It's now out in paperback.
GROSS: So Ambassador Dodd gets to Nazi Germany, things are really tightening. There's - you have to give the Nazi salute. You have to obey certain rules or else you're going to get beaten up or sent to a camp. Neighbors are tattling on other neighbors. And for some reason he's convinced that the government is growing more moderate. Why would he think that?
LARSON: Yeah, you have to sort of put yourself in Dodd's position, with Dodd's background, his training as a historian. So Dodd arrives in Berlin, and among the people he first meets is the foreign minister, von Neurath, who was in fact very much a moderate and actually was rather deeply opposed to Hitler and the Nazis.
In fact, a friend of his once wrote that what he would really most like is to wake up one day and find Hitler gone. So Dodd had encounters with people like that. And you know, putting two and two together, here's this crazy psychopath Hitler. Here are these men at just below the level of Hitler, Goering and Goebbels, who seemed really rather not just moderate but in many ways they seemed almost opposed to Nazi ideology.
I mean, there was von Neurath. There was the president of the Reichsbank. So he had these encounters with people, and he was essentially thinking that, you know, if you have this moderation at that important level of the government, you have this new psychopathic leader, but now things are getting under control, his belief was that surely these lower-echelon gentlemen would begin to exercise a moderating power over the top leadership, that as the top leadership became more confident of their control, became more widely accepted by international statesmen and so forth, that things would calm down. That was his belief initially.
GROSS: And meanwhile his daughter, who was in her 20s and, you know, had several affairs while she was in Germany, she had an affair with the first head of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels.
LARSON: Correct, yeah.
GROSS: And she was swept away by what she thought of as the Nazi revolution. Why did she see that as being something romantic?
LARSON: Yeah, again part of it was personal context. Part of it is also she shared a view that actually many did share with regard to the so-called Nazi revolution, the idea that Hitler was at last getting Germany in line and was helping to revive this once-vibrant nation.
But here's the thing: I mean, here is Martha Dodd. She's 24 years old. She's a very attractive young woman who has - she had this power really to inflame the passions of men.
So she arrives in Berlin. She is - she is extricating herself at that point from a dead marriage to a banker, a New York banker who goes by the name Bassett(ph). She's extricating herself from this essentially one-year debacle of a marriage.
She comes to Berlin with her father. She's 24 years old, experienced sexually, and she sees this as a remarkable, vibrant, charismatic city, not the kind of thing that we perceive it to today, through hindsight.
She arrives in Berlin, she sees a city of glittering parties. She sees these fantastic cafes, some of which will seat over 1,000 people. She sees the street life, the trams, the cars, the whole thing. And to her it is just one of the most compelling things she's ever experienced.
And she wonders, right away, at the contrast between what the press back home is reporting and what she's experiencing. It's like: Wait, wait, what's the deal here? Why is - why are those press reports so seemingly wrong? So that's how she starts off.
GROSS: Martha starts to change her mind a little bit about how glamorous and romantic Berlin is when she sees stormtroopers dragging a girl through the street with a placard around her neck. What does the placard say?
LARSON: Yeah, the placard says, as best she can translate it, says: I have offered myself to a Jew. And at first - she's traveling with a correspondent friend and her brother, and they arrive in Nuremberg, they arrive rather late at night, and the city is full of street life, which surprises the correspondent because he thought the place was supposed to be pretty dead at night.
And suddenly this parade appears of stormtroopers, and they're leading -they're carrying some creatures, her first view - she has no idea who is being brought along. They're carrying some creature between them, these two very large stormtroopers.
And mind you, this is a very chilling scene. There is this parade. There's a loud sort of raucous band playing, also stormtroopers. They're carrying torches. So you've got the torchlight, you know, being reflected off the faces of buildings and so forth.
Here comes this parade. The streets are jammed with people who are watching this parade, and it turns out that what's being carried between these stormtroopers is a young woman, her head shaved, her face powdered, who wears this sign saying: I have offered myself to a Jew.
And she is being persecuted for that act. She's being dragged through the city. She was dragged into the lobby of the hotel, dragged back out, and so forth.
So Martha sees this display, but interestingly, Martha's first reaction is not repulsion. Her first reaction is: OK, this is an act of excess due to the over-enthusiasm of German youth, of the German revival. This is just an aberrant moment. Surely there is some explanation.
GROSS: But she sees more stuff like this as time goes on.
LARSON: Yeah. I mean, as time goes on, I mean, she becomes quite aware that something very scary is happening, and partly she comes to that realization through her relationship with the chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels.
And we have to make a very important qualification here. This is Rudolf Diels, the first chief of the Gestapo. He lasted in that job essentially a year, and he was replaced by some very scary people, obviously - Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich.
But what she learned from Diels, who was no angel, I mean, you know, the diplomats in Berlin felt he was essentially a moral character, had a lot of integrity, and they actually liked him and could work with him. But at the same time, this is a guy who presided over an agency that was busily torturing and in some cases killing people. So you know, obviously he's not the nicest guy on the block.
What happened is that through her relational with Diels, she came to see this network of official terror and espionage, surveillance. One day she walks into Diels's office, this is according to her account, her memoir - one day she walks into Diels's office and finds him sitting on his desk, and his desk it littered with what she describes as dictaphones, recording devices, that have been deployed to listen in to conversations, telephone conversations, whatever.
And so she gradually does come to a realization that this is not the benign revolution that she had first thought.
GROSS: Ambassador William Dodd starts to realize that things are getting very dangerous in Nazi Germany, and he wants to, you know, register some kind of protest. For example, he's invited to a Nazi rally at Nuremberg, and he wants to decline. He wants to make a statement by declining but not so strong a statement that he'll be endangered by it or condemned for it.
LARSON: So he suggests to several European ambassadors that they decline the invitation as well. So they all end up declining. And then the State Department in the U.S. sees this as a needlessly provocative gesture.
Yes, yes. I found that a very a very striking episode. You know, here's Dodd, who - he's trying to fulfill Roosevelt's mandate of being a standing model of American liberal values. But he knows that he's somewhat limited by diplomatic protocol in what he can do.
So he does something very simple. He decides: OK, I am not going to go to this festival of Nazi power and extremism in Nuremberg. I am going to come up with a reason for not going, and I'm going to try and persuade France and Britain also to not go.
It seems like a very reasonable sort of thing to do. The State Department feels that, you know, this is needlessly provocative, that your role is to report and monitor and to maintain a relationship with the powers in Nazi Germany.
So poor Dodd. Even something as simple as that gets him in hot water with the State Department. And it kind of cuts to - really, if there's an underlying message in the whole story of Dodd and his daughter in Berlin in that era, it's that it sheds a very interesting light on what we all think of and talk perhaps too blithely of appeasement, how that came to be. I think all this stuff sheds light on that.
GROSS: So meanwhile, back at the State Department, you write that some of the people in the State Department actually held anti-Semitic views. You quote William Phillips, undersecretary of state, as describing in his diary Atlantic City as being, quote, "infested with Jews."
He writes: In fact, the whole beach scene on Saturday afternoon and Sunday was an extraordinary sight, very little sand to be seen, the whole beach covered with slightly clothed Jews and Jewesses.
And then William J. Carr, an assistant secretary of state, called Jews kikes, and then he wrote, after a trip to Detroit, that the city was full of, quote, "dust, smoke, dirt and Jews." I was really shocked to read that.
LARSON: I was I was shocked as well, shocked but then I took a step back and sort of had to temper my shock because as hard as it may seem to imagine now, today, in that era there was I guess what you might be able to describe as kind of an ambient anti-Semitism that was embraced by many in America, many in government.
Dodd himself was - exhibited aspects like that as well. I mean, for example, there's one astonishing moment where Dodd writes to the State Department to complain about the fact that he in Berlin has too many Jews on his staff, and this is interfering with his ability to deal with the Nazis.
And apparently one particular problem was his receptionist at the embassy was ardently anti-Nazi and that this caused all kinds of problems with visitors from the Nazi regime.
But anyway, there was this ambient anti-Semitism that is shocking as we look at it today but would not have been shocking in that period. I mean, after all, these guys are writing these things in their personal and diplomatic diaries with the expectation that one day these things will be read.
GROSS: So they're not ashamed to say this.
LARSON: They're not ashamed at all.
DAVIES: Erik Larson, speaking with Terry Gross, recorded last year. Larson's book, "In the Garden of Beasts," is now out in paperback. He'll be back in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. We're listening to Terry's interview with writer Erik Larson, whose book "In the Garden of Beasts" deals with Hitler's rise from chancellor to absolute tyrant. It's now out in paperback.
The book tells its story through the eyes of the first American ambassador to Nazi, Germany, William Dodd. Dodd arrived in Berlin with his wife Mattie and his daughter Martha arrived in 1933.
During his first year as ambassador, he didn't think Hitler would last. It took a while before Dodd realized how dangerous Hitler was for Germany and the world. Terry spoke with Erik Larson last May.
GROSS: Among the really interesting things in your book is your descriptions of Ambassador Dodd's meetings with Hitler. Let me start with this one. He meets with Hitler and he asks Hitler why Hitler has pulled Germany from the League of Nations, and Hitler gets really angry. Describe that meeting.
LARSON: Yeah. Yeah. So Dodd goes to see Hitler and I believe that's of two of the early meetings with Hitler. So he goes to meet Hitler and on the one hand Hitler seems actually very much an ordinary guy. He's dressed in a plain old business suit. Dodd in fact writes in his diary I think after that meeting, he says that he looks a lot better in person than he looks in newspaper photographs. So here's this guy who at least is presenting himself to Dodd as a cordial sane statesman.
At intervals during that meeting, and this question about why Germany would pull itself from the League of Nations is one of those moments. Suddenly, suddenly, this ordinary statesman becomes just absolutely vehement, savage, outspoken in a way that really kind of takes Dodd aback. And that should have been Dodd's first clue that there was something really extraordinarily wrong here.
Something very similar happens when Dodd - when the question comes up about Jews, and Hitler again completely loses it. In fact, at the second meeting that's when Hitler explodes and he says, he says, you know, that all the criticism of Germany is coming from and inspired by Jews and that he is going to if it continues he's going to make an end to them. That's the chilling moment.
GROSS: Yeah, you said if they continued activity we shall make a complete end to all of them in this country. That's foreshadowing the Final Solution. And does Dodd pick up on that? Is Dodd thinking at that point extermination of the Jews?
GROSS: Or he thinking like hyperbole?
LARSON: Yeah. Exactly. At that moment, Dodd the rationalist, Dodd the student of history, he hears a remark like that and he doesn't think that Hitler truly means, he doesn't take it seriously because my God, who could possibly even think about something like - who could possibly ever act on something like that? You know, remember this is early. This is very early in the march toward the Holocaust, so I don't think I took it at all seriously. Dodd eventually gets the point.
GROSS: Something else that shocks me about this meeting is how Ambassador Dodd starts trying to talk to Hitler about how Hitler can address the, quote, "Jewish problem" in a more peaceful diplomatic way. So Dodd reports in his writings that he told Hitler, you know, there's a Jewish problem in other countries.
And then he describes how the U.S. State Department was providing unofficial encouragement to a new organization established by the League of Nations to relocate Jews quote, "without too much suffering," unquote. And then he goes on to tell Hitler that while the question of over-activity of Jews in university or official life may trouble, we had managed to redistribute the offices in such a way as to not give great offense.
And he tells Hitler that wealthy Jews had continued to support institutions which had limited the number of Jews who held high positions. Basically endorsing anti-Semitism and just suggesting that they go about it in a more diplomatic way.
LARSON: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I especially like what comes next in the memorandum that Dodd filed on that conversation where he says, quote, he says "my idea was to suggest a different procedure from that which has been followed here." Of course, never giving pointed advice.
What he's saying is essentially, you know, in Germany they've been trying to resolve a problem that, of course, everybody recognizes as a problem, but they've been doing it the wrong way. They've been using violence and there are other ways to solve this so-called problem, which is very strange. Strange to us now but at the time I think, you know, this is again, this is Dodd who is writing this in a memorandum to the State Department knowing that, you know, this could become a public document. I mean it's extraordinary to me.
GROSS: So things keep getting darker...
GROSS: ...more scary in Germany and then summer of 1934 you have what's been know as the Night of the Long Knives. This was this purge. Why don't you describe what this purge was about and tell us if it directly affected Ambassador Dodd and his family.
LARSON: Yeah. This was - this Night of the Long Knives was, first of all, it was a horrific event that took place over the space of a weekend in 1934. June 30, 1934 is when it began.
We today, we tend to think back to this era as if it were essentially one homogeneous block of Nazi unity and so forth. But, in fact, in that first year in Germany, in the first year of Hitler's rule, a real antagonism had grown up between Hitler and a longtime friend who had helped in his rise and who was now the head of this vast organization of stormtroopers, Ernst Rohm.
So there was a conflict between these two and it was starting to look like this conflict could conceivably rattle or reduce Hitler's control over the party, over Germany's government. He didn't want to share power with anybody, even this longtime friend.
And so he and Goering and Goebbels began this quiet planning for what became this weekend purge in which hundreds of probably quite loyal Nazis and stormtroopers and so forth were simply murdered, executed in the course of a weekend. Some estimates range as high as 700 people killed.
And many of these people - well, not many, but a number of these people where people the Dodds knew, people who had been to their home for dinner, people that they encountered at parties and so forth. This seemed to be the moment when Dodd got it, when Dodd at last understood the true pathological nature of this regime.
GROSS: What did he do in response? Did he send anything to the State Department back in the U.S.?
LARSON: Yeah. I mean he tried to convey his horror his sense of horror to the State Department. And what the State Department's response was, look, we don't really care about this. What we care about is German debt. Could you please start acting on getting Germany to pay back its debt to American creditors?
It was almost as though back in America that they just wrote this off as just some sort of, you know, weekend excursion of the Nazis, not a big deal, not something to worry about, but let's get back to work on the debt. And here Dodd was in Berlin just shaken absolutely by the bloodshed.
GROSS: So by the time he leaves in December of 1937, Germany has really taken its physical toll on him. He has severe headaches, some of which last weeks, he has severe digestive problem, but he leaves. So it's 1937, does the State Department replace him with another ambassador?
LARSON: The State Department does replace with another ambassador. It replaces him with a very interesting choice, a fellow named Hugh Wilson, who one person - one source described as a man intent on waging his own personal appeasement campaign.
Hugh Wilson was a classic example of somebody who was somewhat in sympathy with the Nazi regime, with the Nazi revolution and, you know, wholly the opposite of what Dodd was. This was the classic old-school diplomat, the go-along-get-along guy who really was very sympathetic to Hitler.
GROSS: He was really very sympathetic to Hitler?
LARSON: To Hitler. Hugh Wilson was.
GROSS: Did he remain that way?
LARSON: No. The thing that actually changed Hugh Wilson, you know, these various epiphanic events have influences on everybody. But the thing that changed him was Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, when the horrific pogrom waged by the official pogrom against the Jews.
GROSS: When the windows of stores...
LARSON: Where windows and...
GROSS: ...run by Jewish people and homes were smashed. Yeah.
LARSON: Synagogues were burned and, yes. Yeah, that changed Hugh Wilson. That horrified him.
LARSON: Even he got the point.
DAVIES: Erik Larson's book "In the Garden of Beasts" is now out in paperback. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're listening to Terry's interview recorded last year with Erik Larson, who wrote about America's first ambassador to Nazi, Germany in the book "In the Garden of Beasts." It's now out in paperback.
GROSS: Now I have a question for you about how you write history. In your book "In The Garden of the Beast," when something's in quotes it's because you're quoting a document, you know, a memoir or a diplomatic cable, a journal, but there isn't like dialogue in it. You know, some histories are written as if the writer were there at the scene overhearing what was said and can therefore put it all in quotes.
LARSON: You mean somebody who tries to make up dialogue?
GROSS: Well, histories that have become a little overly novelistic.
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LARSON: Yes. No, no, no. No, I know what - that's why I'm very careful with my books to disclose up front that anything between quotes comes from a historical document, be it a memoir, a diary, a transcript, be it an interview in a newspaper, something. There is no dialogue per se unless there was dialogue reported by somebody in a document. For example, Dodd's dialogue with Hitler or other kinds of things like that. There is nothing, nothing made up about dialogue or otherwise.
GROSS: Why did you go from journalism to history, from reporting on contemporary events to events of the past?
LARSON: I love journalism I loved - I was good at it and I did well. But one thing I realized is that I didn't - it was inherently a conflict for me to call people up out of the blue and insert myself and my newspaper into their lives. It was always hard for me to do on some level. And I think I, frankly, I think I eventually burned out on that kind of thing and that was part of it.
But I also have to say journalism was a daily thing, although when I worked at the Wall Street Journal it was - I had the luxury of often working, you know, weeks on a story. But still, there was always this constant presence, deadlines and so forth, and in the end you had a piece that survived for maybe 24 hours, maybe 48 hours. And if you happened to be nominated for a Pulitzer or something well, it lasted a little longer.
But, the beauty of writing books now for me is that I get to spend a long time with something. Once I've done all the research, I get to take that material and try to create the best narrative that I can out of it. Again, not making anything up, but I try to deploy the tools of fiction, if you will, suspense, foreshadowing and so forth, to make that story come alive. And I find it immensely satisfying, immensely satisfying.
GROSS: Now you say in your book that you did not realize as you ventured into those dark days of Hitler's rule, how much the darkness would infiltrate your own soul. How did it get to you? I could see how it would get to you, but what impact did it have on you?
LARSON: Yeah. Well, this was a curious thing for me because usually I kind of pride myself on having a sort of a journalistic remove. For example, in my book "The Devil in the White City," people often ask me well, was I - didn't I have nightmares? Wasn't I horrified by the nature of that serial killer? And my answer was always well, you know, I always wear two hats. There's the one that says, oh gosh, this is horrific, and wow, you know, how sad for these people and so forth. And then there's the other part that says, wow, but this is great stuff. This is going to be really fun to write, you know?
But in this case, something very different happened and it did surprise me. I found myself sort of almost entering kind of a low-grade depression. I mean there's just something so relentless and so foul about Hitler and his people, and this sort of the way things progressed from year to year. It just got to me in the strangest way.
And I think it might be simply the function of if you immerse yourself deeply enough in something like this, if you read Holocaust literature, if you read some of these memoirs, it's just really, really scary and depressing.
And where I kind of hit the wall was when I had pretty much completed the bulk of my mainstream historical reading on the subject. But the point where I hit the wall was a book that came out actually in the last couple of years and I figured I'd better read it, keep up to date was Richard Evans's "The Third Reich at War."
And that's where I just really here in that book he talks about, for example, the Russian campaign where, you know, 10,000 people would be killed in a day. He talks about the fact that even after Germany knew full well that it was losing the war, it continued the systematic - and that's the key word - the systematic deportation and elimination of Jews in Eastern countries.
The twisted idea being that even if Germany lost, at least then there would be less of a Jewish problem later down the road. I mean it's just extraordinary evil to me. Happily the book is done. I'm feeling much better.
GROSS: I think one of the reasons why the story you've chosen to tell is so interesting is that we know now that Germany was this terrible threat both to Germans and to the world, but not everybody realized that in the early days of the Nazi regime. And that's when your book is set, in those early days.
And it really raises the question: How can you tell when a group of extremists is a genuine serious threat and when they're just kind of fringy people who are going to come and go and they're best left ignored? Now, once you've risen to the position of chancellor you can't really ignore, say, Hitler.
But nevertheless, as you point out, a lot of people thought this regime isn't going to last. You know, they're extremists; it's not going to last long. Did writing this book make you think a lot about when do you take extremists seriously and when do you dismiss them?
LARSON: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. In fact, going back to sort of the initial conception for this book, you know, the immediate trigger was reading "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," and suddenly having that sort of light go on in my mind. But I read that also at a time when I was feeling - I was feeling sort of kind of uneasy about how things were going in this country.
It troubled me that, you know, 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.
Certain sort of fundamental bedrock civil liberties, things that I don't care what your party is that, you know, I grew up - I went to public school on Long Island and, you know, it seemed to me like every year we were being taught that, you know, you had the right to confront your accuser, you know, the right to a speedy trial, all this stuff.
And so there was this kind of vague feeling I had in the background that also kind of fed into the book. It's like, well, what was that like to experience a real extreme version of that, a really extreme version which, of course, was the whole situation in Nazi Germany. So yeah, it made me wonder, you know, what allows a culture to slip its mooring that readily? And how do you recognize it? I don't know.
GROSS: Erik Larson, thank you so much for talking with us.
LARSON: My pleasure.
DAVIES: Erik Larson, speaking with Terry Gross. Larson's book, "In the Garden of Beasts," is now out in paperback.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST: "Rhapsody in Blue," the 1945 film version of the life of George Gershwin, has just been released for the first time on DVD. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz says it's a fascinating mixture of real facts, pure invention, and memorable musical moments.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "RHAPSODY IN BLUE")
LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: The movie "Rhapsody in Blue," a biography of George Gershwin, was released only eight years after his premature death from a brain tumor at the age of 38. It's a good subject. Gershwin wrote some of the best popular songs ever produced in this country, but he also had ambitions to be a serious classical composer and wrote symphonic music, concertos and an opera, all of which are still performed.
Gershwin is played by Robert Alda, the matinee idol father of "M.A.S.H."'s Alan Alda, who went on to star in the original Broadway production of "Guys and Dolls." He captures both the well-documented charm and the driven quality of the brilliant young composer.
Other sympathetic performances include avuncular Charles Coburn as Max Dreyfus, Gershwin's supportive music publisher, and theater legend Morris Carnovsky as Gershwin's father. Carnovsky's Hollywood career would soon come to an end when he was blacklisted, but he remained a respected stage actor.
Injecting an uncanny reality into the film are a number of figures from Gershwin's circle actually playing themselves, like Gershwin's real-life friend, pianist and caustic comedian Oscar Levant, who gives the film its biggest jolt of satiric energy.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "RHAPSODY IN BLUE")
ROBERT ALDA: (as George Gershwin) I see you've learned to play with both hands.
OSCAR LEVANT: (as Himself) I took the liberty of recording our rhapsody.
ALDA: (as George Gershwin) Yeah, I heard it. And I still like my recording.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LEVANT: (as Himself) Tell me something, George. Good evening, Mrs. Gilbert. My name's Levant. Tell me something. If you had it to do all over again, would you still fall in love with yourself?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SCHWARTZ: Levant was famous for playing Gershwin's music, and it's Levant we hear in the piano solos for "Rhapsody in Blue" and the "Concerto in F." For the scene reenacting the historic premiere of "Rhapsody in Blue" at Aeolian Hall, the conductor is bandleader Paul Whiteman, who conducted the real premiere.
In a scene in a Turkish bath, we find the real George White, the producer of the famous series of Broadway revues called "George White's Scandals," for whom Gershwin wrote many of his early hits. And making a guest appearance is no less a star than Al Jolson. It was his original rendition of "Swanee" that made Gershwin famous.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SWANEE")
AL JOLSON: (Singing) I've been away from you a long time. I never thought I'd miss you so. Somehow I feel you love is real. Near you I want to be. The birds are singing it is songtime. The banjo's strumming soft and low. I know that you yearn for me too. Swanee you're calling me.
(Singing) Swanee, how I love you, how I love you. My dear ol' Swanee. I'd give the world to be among the folks in D-I-X-I-E. Even though my mammy's waiting...
SCHWARTZ: Among the film's other musical high points are a rare staging of Gershwin's early mini-opera "Blue Monday," which got only one performance before it was cut from the "Scandals of 1922." There's lovable song-and-dance man, Tom Patricola, who isn't even credited, singing and dancing "Somebody Loves Me," the Gershwin song he actually introduced on Broadway. And most remarkable, Anne Brown - the original Bess in "Porgy and Bess" - sings the most famous song from that opera, "Summertime."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUMMERTIME")
ANNE BROWN: (as Bess) (Singing) One of these mornings, you're going to rise up singing. Then you'll spread your wings and you'll take to the sky. But until that morning there's a'nothing can harm you with daddy and mammy standing by.
SCHWARTZ: But Hollywood can't help messing with facts. Gershwin's brother Ira, who wrote the lyrics to most of George's songs, is a major character in the film, but their two other siblings are completely expunged. In the movie, George discovers that Ira can write lyrics years after the real Ira started writing them. Gershwin was something of a playboy who never married. His most serious romance seems to have been with songwriter Kay Swift, for whom he named one of his biggest hit shows, "Oh, Kay!"
But with astonishing chutzpah, the film concocts for him two completely fictional lovers - including an imaginary Broadway star named Julie Adams, played by goody-goody Joan Leslie, and a cool society beauty played by Alexis Smith. In this movie, real history in the form of the people who actually knew George Gershwin and performed his music, makes a bigger and truer impression than the Hollywood fabrications.
DAVIES: Lloyd Schwartz is classical musical editor of the Boston Phoenix and teaches in the creative writing MFA program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He reviewed "Rhapsody in Blue," the 1945 Hollywood biography of George Gershwin, which Warner has just released on DVD.
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