Lucifer’s Run

With the approach of autumn, the challenge for Martha of juggling the suitors in her life became a bit less daunting, albeit for a disturbing reason. Diels disappeared.

One night in early October, Diels was working late at his office at Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse 8 when, around midnight, he received a telephone call from his wife, Hilde, who sounded deeply distressed. As he recounted in a later memoir, Lucifer Ante Portas—Lucifer at the Gate—his wife told him that “a horde” of armed men in black uniforms had broken into their apartment, locked her in a bedroom, and then conducted an aggressive search, collecting diaries, letters, and various other files that Diels kept at home. Diels raced to his apartment and managed to piece together enough information to identify the intruders as a squad of SS under the command of one Captain Herbert Packebusch. Packebusch was only thirty-one years old, Diels wrote, but already had a “harshness and callousness written deep into his face.” Diels called him “the very prototype and image of the later concentration-camp commandants.”

Although the brazen nature of Packebusch’s raid surprised Diels, he understood the forces at work behind it. The regime seethed with conflict and conspiracy. Diels stood primarily in Göring’s camp, with Göring holding all police power in Berlin and the surrounding territory of Prussia, the largest of the German states. But Heinrich Himmler, in charge of the SS, was rapidly gaining control over secret police agencies throughout the rest of Germany. Göring and Himmler loathed each other and competed for influence.

Diels acted quickly. He called a friend in charge of the Tiergarten station of the Berlin police and marshaled a force of uniformed officers armed with machine guns and hand grenades. He led them to an SS stronghold on Potsdamer Strasse and directed the men to surround the building. The SS guarding the door were unaware of what had taken place and helpfully led Diels and a contingent of police to Packebusch’s office.

The surprise was total. As Diels entered he saw Packebusch at his desk in shirtsleeves, the black jacket of his uniform hanging on an adjacent wall, along with his belt and holstered pistol. “He sat there, brooding over the papers on his desk like a scholar working into the night,” Diels wrote. Diels was outraged. “They were my papers he was working on, and defacing, as I soon discovered, with inept annotations.” Diels found that Packebusch even saw evil in the way Diels and his wife had decorated their apartment. In one note Packebusch had scrawled the phrase “furnishing style a la Stresemann,” a reference to the late Gustav Stresemann, a Weimar-era opponent of Hitler.

“You’re under arrest,” Diels said.

Packebusch looked up abruptly. One instant he had been reading Diels’s personal papers, and the next, Diels was standing before him. “Packebusch had no time to recover from his surprise,” Diels wrote. “He stared at me as if I were an apparition.”

Diels’s men seized Packebusch. One officer took the SS captain’s pistol from his gun belt on the wall, but apparently no one bothered to conduct a more thorough search of Packebusch himself. Police officers moved through the building to arrest other men whom Diels believed had taken part in the raid on his apartment. All the suspects were transported to Gestapo headquarters; Packebusch was brought to Diels’s office.

There, in the early hours of morning, Diels and Packebusch sat facing each other, both livid. Diels’s Alsatian wolf dog—in that time the official name for German shepherds—stood nearby, watchful.

Diels vowed to put Packebusch in prison.

Packebusch accused Diels of treason.

Infuriated by Packebusch’s insolence, Diels rocketed from his chair in a flare of anger. Packebusch loosed his own freshet of obscenities and pulled a hidden pistol from a back pocket of his pants. He aimed it at Diels, finger on the trigger.

Diels’s dog hurtled into the scene, leaping toward Packebusch, according to Diels’s account. Two uniformed officers grabbed Packebusch and wrenched the gun from his hand. Diels ordered him placed in the Gestapo’s house prison, in the basement.

In short order, Göring and Himmler got involved and struck a compromise. Göring removed Diels as head of the Gestapo and made him assistant police commissioner in Berlin. Diels recognized that the new job was a demotion to a post with no real power—at least not the kind of power he would need to hold his own against Himmler if the SS chief chose to seek further revenge. Nonetheless he accepted the arrangement, and so things stood until one morning later that month, when two loyal employees flagged him down as he drove to work. They told him that agents of the SS were waiting for him in his office with an arrest order.

Diels fled. In his memoir he claims that his wife recommended he bring along a friend, an American woman, “who could be helpful when crossing borders.” She lived in “a flat on Tiergartenstrasse,” he wrote, and she liked risk: “I knew her enthusiasm for danger and adventure.”

His clues bring Martha immediately to mind, but she made no mention of such a journey in her memoir or in any of her other writings.

Diels and his companion drove to Potsdam, then south to the border, where he left his car in a garage. He carried a false passport. They crossed the border into Czechoslovakia and proceeded to the spa city of Carlsbad, where they checked into a hotel. Diels also took along some of his more sensitive files, as insurance.

“From his retreat in Bohemia,” wrote Hans Gisevius, the Gestapo memoirist, “he threatened embarrassing revelations, and asked a high price for keeping his mouth shut.”

WITH DIELS GONE, many in Martha’s growing circle of friends doubtless breathed a little more easily, especially those who harbored sympathy for communists or mourned the lost freedoms of the Weimar past. Her social life continued to blossom.

Of all her new friends, the one she found most compelling was Mildred Fish Harnack, whom she had first encountered on the train platform upon arriving in Berlin. Mildred spoke flawless German and by most accounts was a beauty, tall and slender, with long blond hair that she wore in a thick coil and large, serious blue eyes. She shunned all makeup. Later, after a certain secret of hers was revealed, a description of her would surface in Soviet intelligence files that sketched her as “very much the German Frau, an intensely Nordic type and very useful.”

She stood out not just because of her looks, Martha saw, but also because of her manner. “She was slow to speak and express opinions,” Martha wrote; “she listened quietly, weighing and evaluating the words, thoughts and motivations in conversation.… Her words were thoughtful, sometimes ambiguous when it was necessary to feel people out.”

This art of parsing the motives and attitudes of others had become especially important given how she and her husband, Arvid Harnack, had spent the preceding few years. The two had met in 1926 at the University of Wisconsin, where Mildred was an instructor. They married that August, moved to Germany, and eventually settled in Berlin. Along the way they demonstrated a talent for bringing people together. At each stop they formed a salon that convened at regular intervals for meals, conversation, lectures, even group readings of Shakespeare’s plays, all echoes of a famous group they had joined in Wisconsin, the Friday Niters, founded by John R. Commons, a professor and leading Progressive who one day would become known as the “spiritual father” of Social Security.

In Berlin, in the winter of 1930–31, Arvid founded yet another group, this devoted to the study of Soviet Russia’s planned economy. As the Nazi Party gained sway, his field of interest became decidedly problematic, but he nonetheless arranged and led a tour of the Soviet Union for some two dozen German economists and engineers. While abroad he was recruited by Soviet intelligence to work secretly against the Nazis. He agreed.

When Hitler came to power, Arvid felt compelled to disband his planned-economy group. The political climate had grown lethal. He and Mildred retreated to the countryside, where Mildred spent her time writing and Arvid took a job as a lawyer for the German airline Lufthansa. After the initial spasm of anticommunist terror subsided, the Harnacks returned to their apartment in Berlin. Surprisingly, given his background, Arvid got a job within the Ministry of Economics and began a rapid rise that prompted some of Mildred’s friends in America to decide that she and Arvid had “gone Nazi.”

Early on, Martha knew nothing of Arvid’s covert life. She loved visiting the couple’s apartment, which was bright and cozy and pasteled with comforting hues: “dove tans, soft blues, and greens.” Mildred filled large vases with lavender cosmos and placed them in front of a pale yellow wall. Martha and Mildred came to see each other as kindred spirits, both deeply interested in writing. By late September 1933 the two had arranged to write a column on books for an English-language newspaper called Berlin Topics. In a September 25, 1933, letter to Thornton Wilder, Martha described the newspaper as “lousy” but said she hoped it might serve as a catalyst “to build up a little colony in the English-speaking group here.… Get people together who like books and authors.”

When the Harnacks traveled, Mildred sent Martha postcards upon which she wrote poetic observations of the scenery before her and warm expressions of affection. On one card Mildred wrote, “Martha, you know that I love you and think of you through it all.” She thanked Martha for reading and critiquing some of her writing. “It shows a gift in you,” she wrote.

She closed with an inked sigh: “Oh my Dear, my Dear … life—” The ellipsis was hers.

To Martha these cards were like petals falling from an unseen place. “I prized these post-cards and short letters with their delicate, almost tremblingly sensitive prose. There was nothing studied or affected about them. Their feeling sprang simply from her full and joyous heart and had to be expressed.”

Mildred became a regular guest at embassy functions, and by November she was earning extra pay typing the manuscript of the first volume of Dodd’s Old South. Martha, in turn, became a regular attendee at a new salon that Mildred and Arvid established, the Berlin equivalent of the Friday Niters. Ever the organizers, they accumulated a society of loyal friends—writers, editors, artists, intellectuals—who convened at their apartment several times a month for weekday suppers and Saturday-afternoon teas. Here, Martha noted in a letter to Wilder, she met the writer Ernst von Salomon, notorious for having played a role in the 1922 assassination of Weimar foreign minister Walter Rathenau. She loved the cozy atmosphere Mildred conjured, despite having little money to spare. There were lamps, candles and flowers, and a tray of thin bread, cheese, liverwurst, and sliced tomatoes. Not a banquet, but enough. Her host, Martha told Wilder, was “the kind of person who has the sense or nonsense to put a candle behind a bunch of pussy willows or alpen rosen.”

The talk was bright, smart, and daring. Too daring at times, at least in the view of Salomon’s wife, whose perspective was shaped partly by the fact she was Jewish. She was appalled at how casually the guests would call Himmler and Hitler “utter fools” in her presence, without knowing who she was or where her sympathies lay. She watched one guest pass a yellow envelope to another and then wink like an uncle slipping a piece of forbidden candy to a nephew. “And there I sit on the sofa,” she said, “and can hardly breathe.”

Martha found it thrilling and gratifying, despite the group’s anti-Nazi bent. She staunchly defended the Nazi revolution as offering the best way out of the chaos that had engulfed Germany ever since the past war. Her participation in the salon reinforced her sense of herself as a writer and intellectual. In addition to attending the correspondents’ Stammtisch at Die Taverne, she began spending a lot of time in the great old Berlin cafés, those still not fully “coordinated,” such as the Josty on Potsdamer Platz and the Romanisches on the Kurfürstendamm. The latter, which could seat up to a thousand people, had a storied past as a haven for the likes of Erich Maria Remarque, Joseph Roth, and Billy Wilder, though all by now had been driven from Berlin. She went out to dinner often and to nightclubs like Ciro’s and the Eden roof. Ambassador Dodd’s papers are silent on the matter, but given his frugality he must have found Martha to be an unexpectedly, and alarmingly, costly presence on the family ledger.

Martha hoped to stake a place in Berlin’s cultural landscape all her own, not just by dint of her friendship with the Harnacks, and she wanted that place to be a prominent one. She brought Salomon to one staid U.S. embassy function, clearly hoping to cause a stir. She succeeded. In a letter to Wilder she exulted in the crowd’s reaction as Salomon appeared: “the astonishment (there was a little hushed gasping and whispering behind hands from the oh so proper gathering) … Ernst von Salomon! accomplice in the Rathenau murder …”

She coveted attention and got it. Salomon described the guests gathered at one U.S. embassy party—possibly the same one—as “the capital’s jeunesse dorée, smart young men with perfect manners … smiling attractively or laughing gaily at Martha Dodd’s witty sallies.”

She grew bolder. The time had come, she knew, to start throwing some parties of her own.

MEANWHILE DIELS, STILL ABROAD and living well at a swank hotel in Carlsbad, began putting out feelers to gauge the mood back in Berlin, whether it was safe yet for him to return; for that matter, whether it would ever be safe.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!