Warning from a Friend

Martha grew increasingly confident about her social appeal, enough so that she organized her own afternoon salon, modeled on the teas and evening discussion groups of her friend Mildred Fish Harnack. She also threw herself a birthday party. Both events unfolded in ways markedly different from what she had hoped for.

In selecting guests for her salon she used her own contacts as well as Mildred’s. She invited several dozen poets, writers, and editors, for the ostensible purpose of meeting a visiting American publisher. Martha hoped “to hear amusing conversation, some exchange of stimulating views, at least conversation on a higher plane than one is accustomed to in diplomatic society.” But the guests brought an unexpected companion.

Instead of forming a lively and vibrant company with her at its center, the crowd became atomized, small groups here and there. A poet sat in the library with several guests clustered near. Others gathered tightly around the guest of honor, exhibiting what Martha termed “a pathetic eagerness to know what was happening in America.” Her Jewish guests looked especially ill at ease. The talk lagged; the consumption of food and alcohol surged. “The rest of the guests were standing around drinking heavily and devouring plates of food,” Martha wrote. “Probably many of them were poor and actually ill-fed, and the others were nervous and anxious to conceal it.”

In all, Martha wrote, “it was a dull and, at the same time, tense afternoon.” The uninvited guest was fear, and it haunted the gathering. The crowd, she wrote, was “so full of frustration and misery … of tension, broken spirits, doomed courage or tragic and hated cowardice, that I vowed never to have such a group again in my house.”

Instead she resigned herself to helping the Harnacks with their regular soirees and teas. They did have a gift for gathering loyal and compelling friends and holding them close. The idea that one day it would kill them would have seemed at the time, to Martha, utterly laughable.

THE GUEST LIST for her birthday party, set for October 8, her actual birth date, included a princess, a prince, several of her correspondent friends, and various officers of the SA and SS, “young, heel-clicking, courteous almost to the point of absurdity.” Whether Boris Winogradov attended is unclear, though by now Martha was seeing him “regularly.” It’s possible, even likely, that she didn’t invite him, for the United States still had not recognized the Soviet Union.

Two prominent Nazi officials made appearances at the party. One was Putzi Hanfstaengl, the other Hans Thomsen, a young man who served as liaison between the Foreign Ministry and Hitler’s chancellery. He had never exhibited the overheated swoon so evident in other Nazi zealots, and as a consequence he was well liked by members of the diplomatic corps and a frequent visitor to the Dodds’ home. Martha’s father often spoke with him in terms more blunt than diplomatic protocol allowed, confident that Thomsen would relay his views to senior Nazi officials, possibly even to Hitler himself. At times Martha had the impression that Thomsen might harbor personal reservations about Hitler. She and Dodd called him “Tommy.”

Hanfstaengl arrived late, as was his custom. He craved attention, and by dint of his immense height and energy always got it, no matter how crowded the room. He had become immersed in conversation with a musically knowledgeable guest about the merits of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony when Martha walked to the family’s Victrola and put on a recording of the Nazi hymn to Horst Wessel, the anthem she had heard sung in Nuremberg by the parading Storm Troopers.

Hanfstaengl seemed to enjoy the music. Hans Thomsen clearly did not. He stood abruptly, then marched to the record player and switched it off.

In her most innocent manner, Martha asked him why he didn’t like the music.

Thomsen glared, his face hard. “That is not the sort of music to be played for mixed gatherings and in a flippant manner,” he scolded. “I won’t have you play our anthem, with its significance, at a social party.”

Martha was stunned. This was her house, her party, and, moreover, American ground. She could do as she pleased.

Hanfstaengl looked at Thomsen with what Martha described as “a vivid look of amusement tinged with contempt.” He shrugged his shoulders, then sat down at the piano and began hammering away with his usual boisterous élan.

Later, Hanfstaengl took Martha aside. “Yes,” he said, “there are some people like that among us. People who have blind spots and are humorless—one must be careful not to offend their sensitive souls.”

For Martha, however, Thomsen’s display had a lingering effect of surprising power, for it eroded—albeit slightly—her enthusiasm for the new Germany, in the way a single ugly phrase can tilt a marriage toward decline.

“Accustomed all my life to the free exchange of views,” she wrote, “the atmosphere of this evening shocked me and struck me as a sort of violation of the decencies of human relationship.”

DODD TOO WAS FAST GAINING an appreciation of the prickly sensitivities of the day. No event provided a better measure of these than a speech he gave before the Berlin branch of the American Chamber of Commerce on Columbus Day, October 12, 1933. His talk managed to stir a furor not only in Germany but also, as Dodd was dismayed to learn, within the State Department and among the many Americans who favored keeping the nation from entangling itself in European affairs.

Dodd believed that an important part of his mission was to exert quiet pressure toward moderation or, as he wrote in a letter to the Chicago lawyer Leo Wormser, “to continue to persuade and entreat men here not to be their own worst enemies.” The invitation to speak seemed to present an ideal opportunity.

His plan was to use history to telegraph criticism of the Nazi regime, but obliquely, so that only those in the audience with a good grasp of ancient and modern history would understand the underlying message. In America a speech of this nature would have seemed anything but heroic; amid the mounting oppression of Nazi rule, it was positively daring. Dodd explained his motivation in a letter to Jane Addams. “It was because I had seen so much of injustice and domineering little groups, as well as heard the complaints of so many of the best people of the country, that I ventured as far as my position would allow and by historical analogy warned men as solemnly as possible against half-educated leaders being permitted to lead nations into war.”

He gave the talk the innocuous title “Economic Nationalism.” By citing the rise and fall of Caesar and episodes from French, English, and U.S. history, Dodd sought to warn of the dangers “of arbitrary and minority” government without ever actually mentioning contemporary Germany. It was not the kind of thing a traditional diplomat might have undertaken, but Dodd saw it as simply fulfilling Roosevelt’s original mandate. In defending himself later, Dodd wrote, “The President told me pointedly that he wanted me to be a standing representative and spokesman (on occasion) of American ideals and Philosophy.”

He spoke in a banquet room at the Adlon Hotel before a large audience that included a number of senior government officials, including Reichsbank president Hjalmar Schacht and two men from Goebbels’s ministry of propaganda. Dodd knew he was about to step upon very sensitive terrain. He understood as well, given the many foreign correspondents in the room, that the talk would get wide press coverage in Germany, America, and Britain.

As he began to read, he sensed a quiet excitement permeate the hall. “In times of great stress,” he began, “men are too apt to abandon too much of their past social devices and venture too far upon uncharted courses. And the consequence has always been reaction, sometimes disaster.” He stepped into the deep past to begin his allusive journey with the examples of Tiberius Gracchus, a populist leader, and Julius Caesar. “Half-educated statesmen today swing violently away from the ideal purpose of the first Gracchus and think they find salvation for their troubled fellows in the arbitrary modes of the man who fell an easy victim to the cheap devices of the lewd Cleopatra.” They forget, he said, that “the Caesars succeeded only for a short moment as measured by the test of history.”

He described similar moments in English and French history and here offered the example of Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the powerful minister of finance under Louis XIV. In an apparent allusion to the relationship between Hitler and Hindenburg, he told his audience how Colbert “was granted despotic powers. He dispossessed hundreds of great families of newly rich folk, handed their properties over to the Crown, condemned thousands to death because they resisted him.… The recalcitrant landed aristocracy was everywhere subdued, parliaments were not allowed to assemble.” Autocratic rule persisted in France until 1789, the start of the French Revolution, when “with a crash and a thunder” it collapsed. “Governments from the top fail as often as those from the bottom; and every great failure brings a sad social reaction, thousands and millions of helpless men laying down their lives in the unhappy process. Why may not statesmen study the past and avoid such catastrophes?”

After a few more allusions, he came to his ending. “In conclusion,” he said, “one may safely say that it would be no sin if statesmen learned enough of history to realize that no system which implies control of society by privilege seekers has ever ended in any other way than collapse.” To fail to learn from such “blunders of the past,” he said, was to end up on a course toward “another war and chaos.”

The applause, Dodd said in his diary, “was extraordinary.” In describing the moment to Roosevelt, Dodd noted that even Schacht “applauded extravagantly,” as did “all other Germans present. I have never noted more unanimous approval.” He wrote to Secretary Hull, “When the thing was over about every German present showed and expressed a kind of approval which revealed the thought: ‘You have said what all of us have been denied the right to say.’ ” An official of the Deutsche Bank called to express his own agreement. He told Dodd, “Silent, but anxious Germany, above all the business and University Germany, is entirely with you and most thankful that you are here and can say what we can not say.”

That these listeners understood the true intent of Dodd’s speech was obvious. Afterward, Bella Fromm, the society columnist for the Vossische Zeitung, who was fast becoming a friend of the Dodd family, told him, “I enjoyed all these nicely disguised hints against Hitler and Hitlerism.”

Dodd gave her an arch grin. “I had no delusions about Hitler when I was appointed to my post in Berlin,” he answered. “But I had at least hoped to find some decent people around Hitler. I am horrified to discover that the whole gang is nothing but a horde of criminals and cowards.”

Fromm later chided the French ambassador to Germany, André François-Poncet, for missing the speech. His response encapsulated a fundamental quandary of traditional diplomacy. “The situation is very difficult,” he said, with a smile. “One is at once a diplomat and must hide one’s feelings. One must please one’s superiors at home and yet not be expelled from here but I too am glad that his Excellency Mr. Dodd cannot be subverted by flattery and high honor.”

Dodd was heartened by the response from his audience. He told Roosevelt, “My interpretation of this is that all liberal Germany is with us—and more than half of Germany is at heart liberal.”

The response elsewhere was decidedly less positive, as Dodd quickly found. Goebbels blocked publication of the speech, although three large newspapers published excerpts anyway. The next day, Friday, Dodd arrived at Foreign Minister Neurath’s office for a previously scheduled meeting, only to be told Neurath could not see him—a clear breach of diplomatic custom. In a cable to Washington that afternoon, Dodd told Secretary Hull that Neurath’s action seemed “to constitute a serious affront to our Government.” Dodd finally got to see Neurath at eight o’clock that night. Neurath claimed to have been too busy to see him during the day, but Dodd knew that the minister had been free enough from pressing obligations to have lunch with a minor diplomat. Dodd wrote in his diary that he suspected Hitler himself might have forced the postponement “as a sort of rebuke for my speech of yesterday.”

To his greater surprise, he also sensed a groundswell of criticism from America and took steps to defend himself. He promptly sent Roosevelt a verbatim copy and told the president he was doing so because he feared “that some embarrassing interpretations may have been put out at home.” That same day he also sent a copy to Undersecretary Phillips, “in the hope that you, acquainted with all the precedents, may explain to Secretary Hull—i.e., if he or anybody else in the Department seems to think I have done our cause here any harm.”

If he expected Phillips to rise to his defense, he was mistaken.

Phillips and other senior men in the State Department, including Moffat, the Western European affairs chief, were becoming increasingly unhappy with the ambassador. These ranking members of Hugh Wilson’s “pretty good club” seized upon Dodd’s speech as further evidence that he was the wrong man for the post. Moffat in his diary likened Dodd’s performance to “the schoolmaster lecturing his pupils.” Phillips, master of the art of palace whisper, took delight in Dodd’s discomfort. He ignored several of Dodd’s letters, in which the ambassador sought official advice on whether to accept future public-speaking offers. At last Phillips did reply, with apologies, explaining “that I was in doubt whether any words from me could be of help or guidance to you who are living in a world so wholly different from that in which most ambassadors find themselves.”

Though he congratulated Dodd on the “high art” he exhibited in crafting a speech that let him speak his mind yet avoid giving direct offense, Phillips also offered a quiet rebuke. “In brief, my feeling is that an Ambassador, who is a privileged guest of the country to which he is accredited, should be careful not to give public expression to anything in the nature of criticism of his adopted country, because in so doing, he loses ipso facto the confidence of those very public officials whose good-will is so important to him in the success of his mission.”

Dodd still seemed unaware of it, but several members of the Pretty Good Club had begun stepping up their campaign against him, with the ultimate aim of ousting him from their ranks. In October his longtime friend Colonel House sent him a quiet, sidesaddle warning. First came the good news. House had just met with Roosevelt. “It was delightful to hear the President say that he was pleased beyond measure with the work you are doing in Berlin.”

But then House had visited the State Department. “In the strictest confidence, they did not speak of you with the same enthusiasm as the President,” he wrote. “I insisted on something concrete and all that I could get was that you did not keep them well informed. I am telling you this so you may be guided in the future.”

ON SATURDAY, OCTOBER 14, two days after his Columbus Day address, Dodd was in the middle of a dinner party he was hosting for military and naval attachés when he received startling news. Hitler had just announced his decision to withdraw Germany from the League of Nations and from a major disarmament conference that had been under way in Geneva, off and on, since February 1932.

Dodd found a radio and immediately heard the coarse voice of the chancellor, though he was struck by the absence of Hitler’s usual histrionics. Dodd listened intently as Hitler portrayed Germany as a well-meaning, peace-seeking nation whose modest desire for equality of armaments was being opposed by other nations. “It was not the address of a thinker,” Dodd wrote in his diary, “but of an emotionalist claiming that Germany had in no way been responsible for the World War and that she was the victim of wicked enemies.”

It was a stunning development. In one stroke, Dodd realized, Hitler had emasculated the League and virtually nullified the Treaty of Versailles, clearly declaring his intention to rearm Germany. He announced as well that he was dissolving the Reichstag and would hold new elections on November 12. The ballot also would invite the public to pass judgment upon his foreign policy through a yes-or-no plebiscite. Secretly Hitler also gave orders to General Werner von Blomberg, his minister of defense, to prepare for possible military action by League members seeking to enforce the Treaty of Versailles—although Blomberg knew full well that Germany’s small army could not hope to prevail against a combined action by France, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. “That the allies at this time could easily have overwhelmed Germany is as certain as it is that such an action would have brought the end of the Third Reich in the very year of its birth,” wrote William Shirer in his classic work, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, but Hitler “knew the mettle of his foreign adversaries as expertly and as uncannily as he had sized up that of his opponents at home.”

Though Dodd continued to nurture the hope that the German government would grow more civil, he recognized that Hitler’s two decisions signaled an ominous shift away from moderation. The time had come, he knew, to meet with Hitler face-to-face.

Dodd went to bed that night deeply troubled.

SHORTLY BEFORE NOON ON TUESDAY, October 17, 1933, Roosevelt’s “standing liberal” set out in top hat and tails for his first meeting with Adolf Hitler.

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