A Secret Request

The attacks against Americans, his protests, the unpredictability of Hitler and his deputies, and the need to tread with so much delicacy in the face of official behavior that anywhere else might draw time in prison—all of it wore Dodd down. He was plagued by headaches and stomach troubles. In a letter to a friend he described his ambassadorship as “this disagreeable and difficult business.”

On top of it all came the quotidian troubles that even ambassadors had to cope with.

In mid-September the Dodds became aware of a good deal of noise coming from the fourth floor of their house on Tiergartenstrasse, which supposedly was occupied only by Panofsky and his mother. With no advance notice to Dodd, a team of carpenters arrived and, starting at seven o’clock each day, began hammering and sawing and otherwise raising a clamor, and continued doing so for two weeks. On September 18, Panofsky wrote a brief note to Dodd: “Herewith I am informing you that at the beginning of the coming month my wife and my children will return from their stay in the countryside back to Berlin. I am convinced that the comfort of your excellency and of Mrs. Dodd will not be impaired, as it is my aspiration to make your stay in my house as comfortable as possible.”

Panofsky moved his wife and children into the fourth floor, along with several servants.

Dodd was shocked. He composed a letter to Panofsky, which he then edited heavily, crossing out and modifying every other line, clearly aware that this was more than a routine landlord-tenant matter. Panofsky was bringing his family back to Berlin because Dodd’s presence ensured their safety. Dodd’s first draft hinted that he might now have to move his own family and chided Panofsky for not having disclosed his plans in July. Had he done so, Dodd wrote, “we should not [have] been in such an embarrassing position.”

Dodd’s final draft was softer. “We are very happy indeed to hear that you are reunited with your family,” he wrote, in German. “Our only concern would be that your children won’t be able to use their own home as freely as they would like. We bought our house in Chicago so that our children could experience the advantages of the outdoors. It would sadden me to have the feeling that we might hinder this entitled freedom and bodily movement of your children. If we had known about your plans in July, we would not have been in this tight spot right now.”

The Dodds, like abused tenants everywhere, resolved at first to be patient and to hope that the new din of children and servants would subside.

It did not. The clatter of comings and goings and the chance appearances of small children caused awkward moments, especially when the Dodds entertained diplomats and senior Reich officials, the latter already disposed to belittle Dodd’s frugal habits—his plain suits, the walks to work, the old Chevrolet. And now the unexpected arrival of an entire household of Jews.

“There was too much noise and disturbance, especially since the duties of my office required frequent entertainments,” Dodd wrote in a memorandum. “I think anyone would have said it was an act of bad faith.”

Dodd consulted a lawyer.

His landlord troubles and the mounting demands of his post made it increasingly difficult for Dodd to find time to work on his Old South. He was able to write only for brief intervals in the evening and on weekends. He struggled to acquire books and documents that would have been simple to locate in America.

The thing that weighed on him most, however, was the irrationality of the world in which he now found himself. To some extent he was a prisoner of his own training. As a historian, he had come to view the world as the product of historical forces and the decisions of more or less rational people, and he expected the men around him to behave in a civil and coherent manner. But Hitler’s government was neither civil nor coherent, and the nation lurched from one inexplicable moment to another.

Even the language used by Hitler and party officials was weirdly inverted. The term “fanatical” became a positive trait. Suddenly it connoted what philologist Victor Klemperer, a Jewish resident of Berlin, described as a “happy mix of courage and fervent devotion.” Nazi-controlled newspapers reported an endless succession of “fanatical vows” and “fanatical declarations” and “fanatical beliefs,” all good things. Göring was described as a “fanatical animal lover.” Fanatischer Tierfreund.

Certain very old words were coming into darkly robust modern use, Klemperer found. Übermensch: superman. Untermensch: sub-human, meaning “Jew.” Wholly new words were emerging as well, among them Strafexpedition—“punitive expedition”—the term Storm Troopers applied to their forays into Jewish and communist neighborhoods.

Klemperer detected a certain “hysteria of language” in the new flood of decrees, alarms, and intimidation—“This perpetual threatening with the death penalty!”—and in strange, inexplicable episodes of paranoid excess, like the recent nationwide search. In all this Klemperer saw a deliberate effort to generate a kind of daily suspense, “copied from American cinema and thrillers,” that helped keep people in line. He also gauged it to be a manifestation of insecurity among those in power. In late July 1933 Klemperer saw a newsreel in which Hitler, with fists clenched and face contorted, shrieked, “On 30 January they”—and here Klemperer presumed he meant the Jews—“laughed at me—that smile will be wiped off their faces!” Klemperer was struck by the fact that although Hitler was trying to convey omnipotence, he appeared to be in a wild, uncontrolled rage, which paradoxically had the effect of undermining his boasts that the new Reich would last a thousand years and that all his enemies would be annihilated. Klemperer wondered, Do you talk with such blind rage “if you are so sure of this endurance and this annihilation”?

He left the theater that day “with what almost amounted to a glimmer of hope.”

IN THE WORLD OUTSIDE Dodd’s windows, however, the shadows steadily deepened. Another attack occurred against an American, a representative of the Woolworth dime-store chain named Roland Velz, who was assaulted in Düsseldorf on Sunday, October 8, 1933, as he and his wife strolled along one of the city’s main streets. Like so many victims before them, they had committed the sin of failing to acknowledge an SA parade. An incensed Storm Trooper struck Velz twice, hard, in the face, and moved on. When Velz tried to get a policeman to arrest the man, the officer declined. Velz then complained to a police lieutenant standing nearby, but he also refused to act. Instead, the officer provided a brief lesson on how and when to salute.

Dodd sent two notes of protest to the foreign office in which he demanded immediate action to arrest the attacker. He received no reply. Once again Dodd weighed the idea of asking the State Department to “announce to the world that Americans are not safe in Germany and that travelers had best not go there,” but he ultimately demurred.

Persecution of Jews continued in ever more subtle and wideranging form as the process of Gleichschaltung advanced. In September the government established the Reich Chamber of Culture, under the control of Goebbels, to bring musicians, actors, painters, writers, reporters, and filmmakers into ideological and, especially, racial alignment. In early October the government enacted the Editorial Law, which banned Jews from employment by newspapers and publishers and was to take effect on January 1, 1934. No realm was too petty: The Ministry of Posts ruled that henceforth when trying to spell a word over the telephone a caller could no longer say “D as in David,” because “David” was a Jewish name. The caller had to use “Dora.” “Samuel” became “Siegfried.” And so forth. “There has been nothing in social history more implacable, more heartless and more devastating than the present policy in Germany against the Jews,” Consul General Messersmith told Undersecretary Phillips in a long letter dated September 29, 1933. He wrote, “It is definitely the aim of the Government, no matter what it may say to the outside or in Germany, to eliminate the Jews from German life.”

For a time Messersmith had been convinced that Germany’s economic crisis would unseat Hitler. No longer. He saw now that Hitler, Göring, and Goebbels were firmly in power. They “know practically nothing concerning the outside world,” he wrote. “They know only that in Germany they can do as they will. They feel their power within the country and are to that extent drunk with it.”

Messersmith proposed that one solution might be “forcible intervention from the outside.” But he warned that such an action would have to come soon. “If there were intervention by other powers now, probably about half of the population would still look upon it as deliverance,” he wrote. “If it is delayed too long, such intervention might meet a practically united Germany.”

One fact was certain, Messersmith believed: Germany now posed a real and grave threat to the world. He called it “the sore spot which may disturb our peace for years to come.”

DODD BEGAN TO EXHIBIT the first signs of discouragement and a deep weariness.

“There is nothing here that seems to offer much promise,” he wrote to his friend Colonel Edward M. House, “and I am, between us again, not a little doubtful of the wisdom of my having intimated last spring that I might be of service in Germany. I have one volume of The Old South ready or nearly ready for publication. There are to be three more. I have worked twenty years on the subject and dislike to run too great a risk of never finishing it.” He closed: “Now I am here, sixty-four years old, and engaged ten to fifteen hours a day! Getting nowhere. Yet, if I resigned, that fact would complicate matters.” To his friend Jane Addams, the reformer who founded Hull House in Chicago, he wrote, “It defeats my history work and I am far from sure I was right in my choice last June.”

On October 4, 1933, barely three months into his stay, Dodd sent Secretary Hull a letter marked “confidential and for you alone.” Citing the dampness of Berlin’s autumn and winter climate and his lack of a vacation since March, Dodd requested permission to take a lengthy leave early in the coming year so that he could spend time on his farm and do some teaching in Chicago. He hoped to depart Berlin at the end of February and return three months later.

He asked Hull to keep his request secret. “Please do not refer to others if you have doubts yourself.”

Hull granted Dodd’s leave request, suggesting that at this time Washington did not share Messersmith’s assessment of Germany as a serious and growing threat. The diaries of Undersecretary Phillips and Western European affairs chief Moffat make clear that the State Department’s main concern about Germany remained its huge debt to American creditors.

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