Author Event Recap: Erik Larson at Elmhurst College

On Sunday, April 15th, Erik Larson gave the guest-ship lecture for The Elmhurst College Annual Holocaust Education Project. His lecture followed a Service of Remembrance. Larson’s most recent book is In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. (I read and wrote about the book last year here).

The service and lecture were held on campus in the Hammerschmidt Memorial Chapel. Knowing how popular Larson is, I arrived about 25 minutes early because I wanted to get a good seat. I ended up in the balcony and was lucky to get any seat. As you can see from the picture, it was a full house. Students and other volunteers were asked to come up on stage and sit on the riser platforms to open up seating on the main floor for people pouring through the doors.

I saw Larson speak at Printer’s Row book fair in Chicago shortly after The Devil in the White City came out and he packed the tent back then. Everyone I talked with about Sunday’s event knew there’d be a great turnout, but I don’t think anyone anticipated a standing room only crowd.

Larson began his lecture by saying he was going to talk about Seduction and Illusion. Specifically, how Hitler was able to transform Germany in about a year and create the atmosphere that allowed the Holocaust to occur. His lecture wasn’t a tightly constructed argument–it consisted of highlights from researching his book with a few personal stories from his life thrown in–but he certainly didn’t ramble. Larson is an entertaining speaker and what I most admired about this talk is his ability to weave in lighter moments that spark laughter in order to take the edge off the painfulness of his topic.

Two of the books that influenced Larson to write the type of history books that he writes are A Night to Remember and The Guns of August. Both of these books make the reader suspend what they know–the reader knows that the Titanic will sink and that World War I will break out–but as you read along a tension is created that makes the reader think, “No way! Can’t they see where this is going? Surely they’ll stop, change course, whatever. But, no.” Larson strives to create an historical experience for his readers. The “trick” to doing this is not about making anything up, it’s about finding the right characters to bring the history alive. I love that.

Larson explained that he came to this topic in an indirect way. After his last book he had no idea about what to write about next, so he went to a big bookstore near his home to browse the history section and see what was new. William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, which was faced-out on a shelf, caught his eye. He’d known about the book, hadn’t read it, but bought it that night. After reading it, Larson read some other general histories of Nazi Germany, then memoirs, then letters, and eventually sought out other primary sources in archives.

Two people who were initially caught up in the seduction and illusion of the new Nazi regime were William Dodd, the first American ambassador to Nazi Germany, and his daughter Martha. Dodd and Martha lived in Nazi Germany and so heard and saw things that were hidden to visitors, but as American diplomats they were still outsiders and not subject to the same stresses that German citizens experienced. Their situation gave them a unique lens through which to see what Hitler and the Nazis were up to. Ambassador Dodd expected to find rationality and instead found organic pathology. Martha, who socialized with Jews and Nazis, soon sees the fear created by the new regime, particularly the fear and back-stabbing between Nazis themselves.

During his research Larson was startled by the open antisemitism of key actors in the US Government. He was also shocked by how rapidly things changed in Berlin, how quickly the Germans embraced the Nazi program. He said you could go out of town overnight and come back the next day to friends who ignore you and shop sellers who no longer sell to you, not because you’re Jewish or have done anything wrong, but because you just don’t seem to fit into the program. Denunciations were so common and widespread that in 1933 Hitler said to one of his ministers, “We’re living in a sea of human meanness.”

Larson hears from readers from both sides of the political spectrum. He said those on the Left worry about things like the Tea Party and outrageous immigration laws. Those on the Right worry about Obama being Hitler because of healthcare. Larson assured the audience that Hitler was absolutely not concerned with healthcare. That got a genuine laugh out of the audience. It may just have been a coincidence of time, but after the laughter died down a couple got up and left.

He ended his lecture with a quote from Christopher Isherwood about how it/this can happen in any country, in any city, to you.

Here are some highlights from the Q&A session:

  • What was the US Government’s response to Dodd: The State Department was obsessed with the debt they wanted Germany to repay from WWI. It was all they cared about. Dodd could submit a report about some Nazi atrocity and the reply he got back would ask about the status of getting the money.
  • What readable, general histories of Nazi Germany does he recommend: Ian Kershaw biography of Hitler and Richard Evans’s Third Reich Trilogy.  Larson said they’re “hard on the soul, but very good to read.”
  • How committed is Tom Hanks to keeping to the truth (he purchased the film rights to In The Garden of Beasts): Larson said he has no idea and that you can’t control Hollywood. He just can’t be involved even if Hanks is an upright guy. The screenwriter called Larson several times, apparently feeling him out. They went out for a drink and Larson directly said that, “I don’t want to have any roll whatsoever.” After that he never heard from the screenwriter again.
  • What happened to the Jewish owner of the house the Dodd’s rented in Berlin: The family got out of Germany in time and the father ended up in Chicago at Northwestern as a Professor of African Studies. Larson said that’s one of those details that, in hindsight, should have been in the book but for some reason just wasn’t.

In a nutshell, Dodd was Paul Revere, the guy trying to alert America and the World to what was happening in Germany, to the war that Hitler was nurturing. Unfortunately, no one listened. Larson, however, is pleased to hear from readers that his book is at least giving people a glimmer of how this (the rise of Hitler, the Holocaust) could have happened.

A zoom shot from the balcony of Larson signing books.
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