Now and Then (Plus–Can it Really be True–the End of the Window-Sill Wars?)

Rudolf Diels, first chief of the Gestapo

Rudolf Diels

I’m fascinated to learn from early readers of my new book, In the Garden of Beasts, that there is an intensity to the narrative that frankly goes beyond what I had thought readers would experience. Though I have a question, why ARE there any early readers, considering the book comes out May 10?

Well, anyway, these readers tell me that the tension in the book is amplified to an acute degree simply by the fact that all of us today, unless we’ve been living under a rock, know how things turned out, while those in the book, obviously, did not. Of course, I knew there’d be an element of this, but I had not expected the tension between now and then to be quite so intense. These first readers react the way I do when I’m watching a horror movie and some clueless character walks down into the basement alone to investigate the source of that strange growling noise. We in the audience know what’s causing the noise, and therein lies the tension: what we know, versus what the characters know. And when I say “characters,” I do have to emphasize my book is a work of nonfiction, and these were real people—my two main protagonists being William E. Dodd, America’s first ambassador to Nazi Germany, and his rather wild daughter, Martha.

We all know what ultimately happened—the war, the Holocaust. But the Dodds lived in a world before all that, when nothing was certain, and no one knew the true horrors that lay ahead. So, for example, we see Martha Dodd having an affair with Rudolf Diels, the first chief of the brand-new Gestapo, and this seems shocking to us, because we know how Hitler ultimately used the Gestapo. 

And yet Diels was a very complicated, highly nuanced character. He was strikingly handsome, albeit in a disturbing way. His face was badly scarred from engaging in bare-blade dueling when he was a student, something many young men of his generation did as a test of manhood. He had a kind of integrity that caused diplomats, including Dodd, to think well of him. He lasted in the job only a year, after which the real monsters, Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich, took over. And by the way, during the post-war Nuremberg Trials he testified on behalf of the prosecution.

In my research I found many moments like this, where these early realities contrast sharply with what we believe to be true. We have Dodd meeting with Hitler and coming away believing Hitler’s declarations that all he wanted was peace. We learn, too, that Dodd exhibited his own brand of anti-Semitism, at one time complaining to the State Department that he had too many Jews on his staff. We learn of a letter Martha Dodd wrote to her friend, Thornton Wilder, in which she describes her father as being “slightly pro-German.” She adds, “We sort of don’t like the Jews anyway.”

From the vantage point of today, this seems extraordinary and shocking. Happily, Dodd underwent a transformation caused in large part by the events of a single horrific weekend in June of 1934, which forms the climax of my book; eventually he began a one-man campaign to warn the world about Hitler. On June 10, 1938, well before the first transports of Jews to the death camps, Dodd told an audience at the Harvard Club in Boston that Hitler hated Jews and that his true intent was “to kill them all.”

The Window-Sill Wars XI: The Silence of the Toys


Forces on Erik's window sill engage in...what?

The armies engage

Suddenly, with no warning at all, the forces arrayed against one another on Erik’s office window sill fell upon one another, and in a fierce clatter of porcelain and wood—not unlike the sound of chessmen being swept from a board—battle was begun. But as elements of the Red Rose Secret Army found themselves underneath the bellies of some of the Swedish Horses, and as the Nunzillas and Triceratops and Serpent Pen found themselves surrounded by small porcelain figurines and pretty horses, a confusion settled over the gathered forces, and with it came a great hush.

Severed-head Ken on a red pencil

Ken rising

A silent figure rose above the fray—Severed-Head Ken, perched atop a red editing pencil (a not very good pencil, as it happens: the lead too easily broken, and too light in color). There was something in his vapid smile, in the sweet emptiness of his gaze, that instantly had a calming effect.

A Nunzilla is surrounded by little toys

Nun surrounded

Like a first blade of morning sunlight, reason descended upon the battlefield, and just as suddenly all present recognized the futility of war. But not in the way one might think. War was futile because they realized they could not fight–not because they did not want to, but because with fused porcelain limbs and carved-wood torsos they physically could not engage in battle. Porcelain and carved wood do not lend themselves readily to warfare.

And thus, as abruptly as it had begun, the battle was over. All the misunderstandings, the hurt feelings, the torture and lost honor—all of it seemed something from a distant time. Just as quickly, Erik’s office window sill settled back into its old peaceful ways, and an umistakeable sense of rebirth filled the scene.

Peace returns to the sill

The sill, restored

And outside, spring embraced the world, and all was right once again, though a question remained: Why on earth would a writer like Erik choose to spend so much time with little porcelain figures and painted wooden horses and cranky plastic nuns?

Ken knows. Ken knows all.

Closeup of Ken's eyes

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Erik Larson is the author of six New York Times bestsellers, most recently The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, which examines how Winston Churchill and his “Secret Circle” went about surviving the German air campaign of 1940-41. Erik’s The Devil in the White City is set to be a Hulu limited series; his In the Garden of Beasts is under option by Tom Hanks, for a feature film. He recently published an audio-original ghost story, No One Goes Alone, which has been optioned by Netflix. Erik lives in Manhattan with his wife, who is a writer and retired neonatologist; they have three grown daughters.

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