Berlin at Dusk (And Part X of the Window-Sill Wars: First Skirmish!)

Image of Martha Dodd, looking quite glamorous

Martha Dodd

In my new book, which goes on sale May 10, I set out to try to capture a sense of what it must have been like to live in Berlin in 1933-34, during Hitler’s first year or so in power. Most of us tend, I think, to view the whole Nazi epoch, 1933-1945, as if it were one homogeneous block of destruction and genocide, when in fact the war in Europe did not begin until September 1939, and America did not become formally involved until December 1941.

In the summer of 1933, when my two main protagonists—William E. Dodd and his daughter Martha–arrived in Berlin, they, like other visitors from America, found a city that did not at first live up to the horror stories reported by newspapers back home.  The city was alive with energy and color. Its giant movie theaters, seating 1,500 people or more, were packed—King Kong was immensely popular. Well-dressed men and women filled its cafes and restaurants. You could sit at an outdoor table at the Cafe Josty on Potsdammer Platz and watch the entrancing flow of people and traffic all day—the pretty trams, the glamorous touring cars, and the five-way traffic light at the center of the plaza that kept everything moving in orderly fashion.


A lovely spring day was a lovely spring day. You could walk into the city’s main park, the Tiergarten—literally, the garden of beasts—and see children at play and men and women walking their well-fed dogs, as other Berliners rode the park’s trails on horseback. There was dancing every night at the city’s famous clubs, like Ciro’s, the rooftop of the Eden Hotel, and the Palm Court of the Hotel Esplanade, said to be the place where Germans first experienced the Jitterbug. You could grab a drink at the bar of the Hotel Adlon at Unter den Linden 1, adjacent to the Brandenburg Gate, and contemplate a lovely dinner somewhere, maybe at Haus Vaterland, a five-story nightclub capable of serving six thousand diners in twelve restaurant milieus, including a wild-west bar, with waiters in immense cowboy hats, and the Rhineland Wine Terrace, where each hour guests experienced a brief indoor thunder storm complete with lightning and a sprinkling of rain.

Casual visitors left Berlin with a sense that Nazi Germany was not so evil after all, and often praised Hitler and his ability to restore order. But if you spent any significant amount of time in Berlin, you soon came to see a different sort of reality, and to sense a gathering darkness.

–When you drank at the Adlon, you knew to be careful, because the bar was known to be frequented by Gestapo agents listening for anti-government talk.

–You saw a growing adoration for Hitler among ordinary Germans. Women wept when he passed. On May Day the city seemed engulfed by a strange hysteria, as vast crowds gathered to hear Hitler speak.   

–As you sat at the tables of the Cafe Josty, you knew that the handsome young men at the next table, in jet black uniforms, were members of Hitler’s SS, known for their fanaticism and brutality.

–Your German friends adopted the strangest habits, like dragging you into a bathroom to whisper some recent bit of troubling news, because bathrooms were thought to be harder to wire with listening devices.

–Your Jewish friends were quietly losing their jobs and telling you of a growing number of suicides.

–You quickly learned to leave an opera or theatrical event early, before the crowd rose to sing the German national anthem and the Horst Wessel Song—because you knew that you would have to offer the Nazi salute as well, and that if you failed to do so, your life might be in danger.

It was this other Berlin that increasingly intruded on the lives of the Dodds, as the city grew ever more tense, until, at the end of their first year, a horrific event occurred that dispelled forever any last illusions they harbored about the true nature of Hitler.


The Window-Sill Wars X: First Skirmish

The Swedish Horse Army advances on desk

From the east, the pretty horses

The armies are converging. According to new intelligence reports, both the Secret Red Rose Army and the Swedish Horse Army have arrived at Erik’s desktop, one emerging from behind a pencil sharpener, the other at the opposite end, from a stack of files.

The porcelain figurines of the Secret Red Rose Army advance from the east

From the west, the Secret Red Rose Army

Even mother nature appears to know that something dark is in the offing. Wildlife along the marching routes has grown skittish and begun to cower in strange groupings not ordinarily found in the wild.

Stuffed raccoon and sheep, huddled in fear

War makes strange bedfellows

And, there are reports, confirmed by satellite imagery, that the first skirmish between the Nunzillas and the forces allied with Triceratops has occurred. The outcome is not yet clear, but first blood appears to have been shed. Or at least a few plastic shavings. Or something.

Nuns taking on Triceratops; agonized grimaces on nuns

The fighting nuns

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Erik Larson is the author of six previous national bestsellers—The Splendid and the Vile, Dead Wake, In the Garden of Beasts, Thunderstruck, The Devil in the White City, and Isaac’s Storm— which have collectively sold more than twelve million copies. His books have been published in nearly forty countries.

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