My Dark Secret

Martha delighted in the very entertainments that so wore on her father. As the daughter of the American ambassador she possessed instant cachet and in short order found herself sought after by men of all ranks, ages, and nationalities. Her divorce from her banker husband, Bassett, was still pending, but all that remained were the legal formalities. She considered herself free to behave as she wished and to disclose or not disclose the legal reality of her marriage. She found secrecy a useful and engaging tool: outwardly she looked the part of a young American virgin, but she knew sex and liked it, and especially liked the effect when a man learned the truth. “I suppose I practiced a great deception on the diplomatic corps by not indicating that I was a married woman at that time,” she wrote. “But I must admit I rather enjoyed being treated like a maiden of eighteen knowing all the while my dark secret.”

She had ample opportunity to meet new men. The house on Tiergartenstrasse was always full of students, German officials, embassy secretaries, correspondents, and men from the Reichswehr, the SA, and the SS. The Reichswehr officers carried themselves with aristocratic élan and confessed to her their secret hopes for a restoration of the German monarchy. She found them “extremely pleasant, handsome, courteous, and uninteresting.”

She caught the attention of Ernst Udet, a flying ace from the Great War, who in the years since had become famous throughout Germany as an aerial adventurer, explorer, and stunt pilot. She went falcon hunting with Udet’s fellow ace, Göring, at his vast estate, Carinhall, named for his dead Swedish wife. Martha had a brief affair with Putzi Hanfstaengl, or so his son, Egon, later claimed. She was frankly sexual and put the house to good use, taking full advantage of her parents’ habit of going to bed early. Eventually she would have an affair with Thomas Wolfe when the writer visited Berlin; Wolfe would tell a friend later that she was “like a butterfly hovering around my penis.”

One of her lovers was Armand Berard, third secretary of the French embassy—six and a half feet tall and “incredibly handsome,” Martha recalled. Before Berard asked her out on their first date, he asked Ambassador Dodd for permission, an act that Martha found both charming and amusing. She did not tell him of her marriage, and as a consequence, much to her secret delight, he treated her at first as a sexual ingenue. She knew that she possessed great power over him and that even some casual act or comment could drive him to despair. In their estranged periods she would see other men—and make sure he knew it.

“You are the only person on earth who can break me,” he wrote at one point, “but how well you know it and how you seem to rejoice in doing so.” He begged her not to be so hard. “I can’t stand it,” he wrote. “If you realized how unhappy I am, you would probably pity me.”

For one suitor, Max Delbrück, a young biophysicist, the recollection of her skill at manipulation remained fresh even four decades later. He was slender and had a cleanly sculpted chin and masses of dark, neatly combed hair, for a look that evoked a young Gregory Peck. He was destined for great things, including a Nobel Prize that would be awarded in 1969.

In a late-life exchange of letters, Martha and Delbrück reminisced about their time together in Berlin. She recalled their innocence as they sat together in one of the reception rooms and wondered if he did as well.

“Of course I remember the green damask room off the dining room in the Tiergartenstrasse,” he wrote. But his recollection diverged a bit from hers: “We did not only sit there modestly.”

With a bit of dusty pique he reminded her of one rendezvous at the Romanisches Café. “You came terribly late and then yawned away, and explained that you did that because you felt relaxed in my company, and that it was a compliment to me.”

With no small degree of irony, he added, “I became quite enthusiastic about this idea (after first getting upset), and have been yawning at my friends ever since.”

Martha’s parents gave her full independence, with no restrictions on her comings or goings. It was not uncommon for her to stay out until early in the morning with all manner of escorts, yet family correspondence is surprisingly free of censorious comment.

Others noticed, however, and disapproved, among them Consul General George Messersmith, who communicated his distaste to the State Department, thereby adding fuel to the quietly growing campaign against Dodd. Messersmith knew of Martha’s affair with Udet, the flying ace, and believed she had been involved in romantic affairs with other ranking Nazis, including Hanfstaengl. In a “personal and confidential” letter to Jay Pierrepont Moffat, the Western European affairs chief, Messersmith wrote that these affairs had become grist for gossip. He assessed them as mostly harmless—except in the case of Hanfstaengl. He feared that Martha’s relationship with Hanfstaengl and her seeming lack of discretion caused diplomats and other informants to be more reticent about what they told Dodd, fearing that their confidences would make their way back to Hanfstaengl. “I often felt like saying something to the Ambassador about it,” Messersmith told Moffat, “but as it was rather a delicate matter, I confined myself to making it clear as to what kind of a person Hanfstaengl really is.”

Messersmith’s view of Martha’s behavior hardened over time. In an unpublished memoir he wrote that “she had behaved so badly in so many ways, especially in view of the position held by her father.”

The Dodds’ butler, Fritz, framed his own criticism succinctly: “That was not a house, but a house of ill repute.”

MARTHA’S LOVE LIFE took a dark turn when she was introduced to Rudolf Diels, the young chief of the Gestapo. He moved with ease and confidence, yet unlike Putzi Hanfstaengl, who invaded a room, he entered unobtrusively, seeping in like a malevolent fog. His arrival at a party, she wrote, “created a nervousness and tension that no other man possibly could, even when people did not know his identity.”

What most drew her attention was the tortured landscape of his face, which she described as “the most sinister, scar-torn face I have ever seen.” One long scar in the shape of a shallow “V” marked his right cheek; others arced below his mouth and across his chin; an especially deep scar formed a crescent at the bottom of his left cheek. His overall appearance was striking, that of a damaged Ray Milland—a “cruel, broken beauty,” as Martha put it. His was the opposite of the bland handsomeness of the young Reichswehr officers, and she was drawn to him immediately, his “lovely” lips, his “jet-black luxuriant hair,” and his penetrating eyes.

She was hardly alone in feeling this attraction. Diels was said to have great charm and to be sexually talented and experienced. As a student he had gained a reputation as a drinker and philanderer, according to Hans Bernd Gisevius, a Gestapo man who had been a student at the same university. “Involved affairs with women were a regular thing with him,” Gisevius wrote in a memoir. Men also acknowledged Diels’s charm and manner. When Kurt Ludecke, an early associate of Hitler’s, found himself under arrest and summoned to Diels’s office, he found the Gestapo chief unexpectedly cordial. “I felt at ease with this tall, slender, and polished young man, and found his consideration instantly comforting,” Ludecke wrote. “It was an occasion when good manners were doubly welcome.” He noted, “I went back to my cell feeling I’d rather be shot by a gentleman than drubbed by a churl.” Nonetheless, Ludecke ultimately wound up imprisoned, under “protective custody,” at a concentration camp in Brandenburg an der Havel.

What Martha also found compelling about Diels was the fact that everyone else was afraid of him. He was often referred to as the “Prince of Darkness,” and, as Martha learned, he did not mind at all. “He took a vicious joy in his Mephistophelian manners and always wanted to create a hush by his melodramatic entrance.”

Diels early on had allied himself closely with Göring, and when Hitler became chancellor, Göring, as the new Prussian minister of the interior, rewarded Diels’s loyalty by making him head of the newly created Gestapo, despite the fact that Diels was not a member of the Nazi Party. Göring installed the agency in an old art school at Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse 8, roughly two blocks from the U.S. consulate on Bellevuestrasse. By the time of the Dodds’ arrival in Berlin, the Gestapo had become a terrifying presence, though it was hardly the all-knowing, all-seeing entity that people imagined it to be. Its roster of employees was “remarkably small,” according to historian Robert Gellately. He cites the example of the agency’s Düsseldorf branch, one of the few for which detailed records survive. It had 291 employees responsible for a territory encompassing four million people. Its agents, or “specialists,” were not the sociopaths of popular depiction, Gellately found. “Most of them were neither crazed, demented, nor superhuman, but terribly ordinary.”

The Gestapo enhanced its dark image by keeping its operations and its sources of information secret. Out of the blue people received postcards requesting that they appear for questioning. These were uniquely terrifying. Despite their prosaic form, such summonses could not be discarded or ignored. They put citizens in the position of having to turn themselves in at that most terrifying of buildings to respond to charges of offenses about which they likely had no inkling, with the potential—often imagined but in many cases quite real—that by day’s end they would find themselves in a concentration camp, under “protective custody.” It was this accumulation of unknowns that made the Gestapo so fearsome. “One can evade a danger that one recognizes,” wrote historian Friedrich Zipfel, “but a police working in the dark becomes uncanny. Nowhere does one feel safe from it. While not omnipresent, it could appear, search, arrest. The worried citizen no longer knows whom he ought to trust.”

Yet under Diels the Gestapo played a complex role. In the weeks following Hitler’s appointment as chancellor, Diels’s Gestapo acted as a curb against a wave of violence by the SA, during which Storm Troopers dragged thousands of victims to their makeshift prisons. Diels led raids to close them and found prisoners in appalling conditions, beaten and garishly bruised, limbs broken, near starvation, “like a mass of inanimate clay,” he wrote, “absurd puppets with lifeless eyes, burning with fever, their bodies sagging.”

Martha’s father liked Diels. To his surprise, he found the Gestapo chief to be a helpful intermediary for extracting foreign nationals and others from concentration camps and for exerting pressure on police authorities outside Berlin to find and punish the SA men responsible for attacks against Americans.

Diels was no saint, however. During his tenure as chief, thousands of men and women were arrested, many tortured, some murdered. On Diels’s watch, for example, a German communist named Ernst Thälmann was imprisoned and interrogated at Gestapo headquarters. Thälmann left a vivid account. “They ordered me to take off my pants and then two men grabbed me by the back of the neck and placed me across a footstool. A uniformed Gestapo officer with a whip of hippopotamus hide in his hand then beat my buttocks with measured strokes. Driven wild with pain I repeatedly screamed at the top of my voice.”

In Diels’s view, violence and terror were valuable tools for the preservation of political power. During a gathering of foreign correspondents at Putzi Hanfstaengl’s home, Diels told the reporters, “The value of the SA and the SS, seen from my viewpoint of inspector-general responsible for the suppression of subversive tendencies and activities, lies in the fact that they spread terror. That is a wholesome thing.”

MARTHA AND DIELS TOOK walks together in the Tiergarten, which was fast becoming recognized as the one place in central Berlin where a person could feel at ease. Martha especially loved strolling through the park in autumn, amid what she termed “the golden death of the Tiergarten.” They went to movies and nightclubs and drove for hours through the countryside. That they became lovers seems likely, despite the fact that both were married, Martha in technical terms only, Diels in name only, given his penchant for adultery. Martha loved being known as the woman who slept with the devil—and that she did sleep with him seems beyond doubt, though it is equally likely that Dodd, like naive fathers everywhere and in every time, had no idea. Messersmith suspected it, and so did Raymond Geist, his second in command. Geist complained to Wilbur Carr, head of consular services in Washington, that Martha was a “most indiscreet” young lady who had been “in the habit of constantly going about at night with the head of the Nazi Secret Police, a married man.” Geist himself had heard her call Diels, in public, a variety of affectionate names, among them “dearie.”

The more Martha came to know Diels, the more she saw that he too was afraid. He felt “he was constantly facing the muzzle of a gun,” she wrote. He was most at ease during their drives, when no one could overhear their conversations or monitor their behavior. They would stop and walk through forests and have coffee in remote, little-known cafés. He told her stories of how everyone in the Nazi hierarchy distrusted everyone else, how Göring and Goebbels loathed each other and spied on each other, how both spied on Diels, and how Diels and his men spied on them in turn.

It was through Diels that she began for the first time to temper her idealistic view of the Nazi revolution. “There began to appear before my romantic eyes … a vast and complicated network of espionage, terror, sadism and hate, from which no one, official or private, could escape.”

Not even Diels, as events soon would demonstrate.

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