On Jan. 30, 1933, German President Paul von Hindenburg swore in Adolf Hitler as chancellor of a coalition government. On Feb. 27, the Reichstag (legislature) building burned. Communists were blamed, although some suspected agents of Hitler. After the fire, the government suspended basic civil rights, and the Nazis used anti-Communist hysteria to attack their enemies. In March, an Enabling Act made Hitler's government a legal dictatorship. Then Nazis moved brutally against their political foes and Jews. Within weeks, the Communist Party dissolved and the Social Democratic Party was banned. In May, Storm troopers ransacked union offices across Germany. In July, the Nazi Party became the only legal political party in Germany.
Also in July, a new American ambassador stumbled into this seething scene. William E. Dodd, a history professor without foreign policy experience, set up residence across from Berlin's Central Park, the Tiergarten ("garden of beasts"), with his wife, Mattie, his son, Bill and his flamboyant daughter, Martha. Dodd initially hoped to reason with Hitler while Martha had a parade of affairs with prominent Nazis, including the first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels. Within a year, however, both were disillusioned by the terror and violence of the new Germany, which was vividly evinced by the massacre of Hitler's political enemies on the weekend of June 30 to July 2, 1934 -- the "Night of the Long Knives."
In his new book, "In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin" (Crown, $26), acclaimed nonfiction author Erik Larson recounts the rise of the Nazis through the eyes of William and Martha Dodd, articulate contemporary witnesses to a deepening darkness in Germany as Hitler consolidated power. Larson exhaustively researched the papers of the Dodd family and its associates, as well as those of Hitler and other German leaders in archives and the Library of Congress. By the time he finished the book, Larson said, he suffered "a low-grade depression." He hadn't realized how much the darkness of Hitler's rule "would infiltrate my own soul." Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews and Booklist each honored "In the Garden of Beasts" with starred reviews for Larson's elegant writing and meticulous research. He is also the author of the national bestsellers "The Devil in the White City," "Thunderstruck" and "Isaac's Storm." He lives in Seattle with his wife and three daughters.
You've written wide-ranging books of history. What drew you to Berlin in 1933 and the early days of the Third Reich under Hitler?
About five or six years ago, I was looking for my next idea. I wanted to jumpstart my thinking, so I went to a bookstore and browsed the history section to see what resonated. I found William Shirer's "Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," which I had always meant to read. It's fairly intimidating: about 1,200 pages of tiny print, no photographs. I started reading and got caught up in it because it reads like a thriller.
As I was reading, I realized that William Shirer had actually been there from 1934 until the U.S. got involved in the war [and] met these people face-to-face: Hitler, Goebbels, Goring, Himmler, Heydrich. He talked with them at a time when nobody knew how this all would turn out.
I started to think: What must that have been like in 1933 Berlin? Say you're in caf