The Trouble with George

With in Germany, a great flywheel had been set in motion that drove the country inexorably toward some dark place alien to Dodd’s recollection of the old Germany he had known as a student. As the autumn advanced and color filled the Tiergarten, he came more and more to realize just how correct he had been back in Chicago, in the spring, when he had observed that his temperament was ill suited to “high diplomacy” and playing the liar on bended knee. He wanted to have an effect: to awaken Germany to the dangers of its current path and to nudge Hitler’s government onto a more humane and rational course. He was fast realizing, however, that he possessed little power to do so. Especially strange to him was the Nazi fixation on racial purity. A draft of a new penal code had begun to circulate that proposed to make it a key buttress of German law. The American vice consul in Leipzig, Henry Leverich, found the draft an extraordinary document and wrote an analysis: “For the first time, therefore, in German legal history the draft code contains definite suggestions for protection of the German Race from what is considered the disintegration caused by an intermixture of Jewish and colored blood.” If the code became law—and he had no doubt it would—then henceforth “it shall be considered as a crime for a gentile man or woman to marry a Jewish or colored man or woman.” He noted also that the code made paramount the protection of the family and thus outlawed abortion, with the exception that a court could authorize the procedure when the expected offspring was a mix of German and Jewish or colored blood. Vice Consul Leverich wrote, “Judging from newspaper comment, this portion of the draft will almost certainly be transacted into law.”

Another newly proposed law caught Dodd’s particular attention—a law “to permit killing incurables,” as he described it in a memorandum to the State Department dated October 26, 1933. Seriously ill patients could ask to be euthanized, but if unable to make the request, their families could do so for them. This proposal, “together with legislation already enacted governing the sterilization of persons affected by hereditary imbecility and other similar defects, is in line with Hitler’s aim to raise the physical standard of the German people,” Dodd wrote. “According to Nazi philosophy only Germans who are physically fit belong in the Third Reich, and they are the ones who are expected to raise large families.”

Attacks against Americans continued, despite Dodd’s protests, and the prosecution of past cases seemed languid at best. On November 8 Dodd received notice from the German foreign office that no arrest would be made in the assault on H. V. Kaltenborn’s son, because the senior Kaltenborn “could remember neither the name nor the number of the Party identification card of the culprit, and as no other clues which might be useful in the investigation could be found.”

Perhaps because of his mounting sense of futility, Dodd shifted his focus from the realm of international affairs to the state of affairs within his own embassy. Dodd found himself—his frugal, Jeffersonian self—drawn more and more to concentrate on the failings of his staff and the extravagance of embassy business.

He intensified his campaign against the cost of telegrams and the length and redundancy of dispatches, all of which he believed to be consequences of having so many rich men in the department. “Wealthy staff people want to have cocktail parties in the afternoon, card parties in the evening and get up next day at 10 o’clock,” he wrote to Secretary Hull. “That tends to reduce effective study and work … and also to cause men to be indifferent to the cost of their reports and telegrams.” Telegrams should be cut in half, he wrote. “Long habit here resists my efforts to shorten telegrams to the point where men have ‘fits’ when I erase large parts. I shall have to write them myself.…”

What Dodd had failed as yet to fully appreciate was that in complaining about the wealth, dress, and work habits of embassy officers, he was in fact attacking Undersecretary Phillips, Western European Affairs Chief Moffat, and their colleagues, the very men who sustained and endorsed the foreign-service culture—the Pretty Good Club—that Dodd found so distressing. They saw his complaints about costs as offensive, tedious, and confounding, especially given the nature of his posting. Were there not matters of greater importance that demanded his attention?

Phillips in particular took umbrage and commissioned a study by the State Department’s communications division to compare the volume of cables from Berlin with that of other embassies. The chief of the division, one D. A. Salmon, found that Berlin had sent three fewer telegrams than Mexico City and only four more messages than the tiny legation at Panama. Salmon wrote, “It would seem that in view of the acute situation existing in Germany the telegraphing from the American Embassy at Berlin had been very light since Ambassador Dodd assumed charge.”

Phillips sent the report to Dodd with a three-sentence cover letter in which, with an aristocratic sniff, he cited Dodd’s recent mention of “the extravagance in the telegraphic business in the Embassy at Berlin.” Phillips wrote: “Thinking it would be of interest to you, I enclose a copy of it herewith.”

Dodd replied, “Do not think that Mr. Salmon’s comparison of my work with that of my friend Mr. Daniels in Mexico in any sense affects me. Mr. Daniels and I have been friends since I was 18 years old; but I know that he does not know how to condense reports!”

DODD BELIEVED THAT one artifact of past excess—“another curious hangover,” he told Phillips—was that his embassy had too many personnel, in particular, too many who were Jewish. “We have six or eight members of the ‘chosen race’ here who serve in most useful but conspicuous positions,” he wrote. Several were his best workers, he acknowledged, but he feared that their presence on his staff impaired the embassy’s relationship with Hitler’s government and thus impeded the day-to-day operation of the embassy. “I would not for a moment consider transfer. However, the number is too great and one of them”—he meant Julia Swope Lewin, the embassy receptionist—“is so ardent and in evidence every day that I hear echoes from semi-official circles.” He also cited the example of the embassy’s bookkeeper, who, while “very competent,” was also “one of the ‘Chosen People’ and that puts him at some disadvantage with the Banks here.”

In this respect, oddly enough, Dodd also had concerns about George Messersmith. “His office is important and he is very able,” Dodd wrote to Hull, “but German officials have said to one of the staff here: ‘he is also a Hebrew.’ I am no race antagonist, but we have a large number here and it affects the service and adds to my load.”

For the moment, at least, Dodd seemed unaware that Messersmith was not in fact Jewish. He had fallen, apparently, for a rumor launched by Putzi Hanfstaengl after Messersmith had publicly chastised him during an embassy function for making an unwelcome advance on a female guest.

Dodd’s assumption would have outraged Messersmith, who found it hard enough to listen to the speculation of Nazi officials as to who was or was not Jewish. On Friday, October 27, Messersmith held a lunch at his house at which he introduced Dodd to a number of especially rabid Nazis, to help Dodd gain a sense of the true character of the party. One seemingly sober and intelligent Nazi stated as fact a belief common among party members that President Roosevelt and his wife had nothing but Jewish advisers. Messersmith wrote the next day to Undersecretary Phillips: “They seem to believe that because we have Jews in official positions or that important people at home have Jewish friends, our policy is being dictated by the Jews alone and that particularly the President and Mrs. Roosevelt are conducting anti-German propaganda under the influence of Jewish friends and advisers.” Messersmith reported how this had caused him to bristle. “I told them that they must not think that because there is an anti-Semitic movement in Germany, well-thinking and well-meaning people in the United States were going to give up associating with Jews. I said that the arrogance of some of the party leaders here was their greatest defect, and the feeling that they had that they could impose their views on the rest of the world, was one of their greatest weaknesses.”

He cited such thinking as an example of the “extraordinary mentality” that prevailed in Germany. “It will be hard for you to believe that such notions actually exist among worthwhile people in the German Government,” he told Phillips, “but that they do was made clear to me and I took the opportunity in no uncertain language to make clear how wrong they were and how much such arrogance injured them.”

Given Phillips’s own dislike of Jews, it is tantalizing to imagine what he really thought of Messersmith’s observations, but on this the historical record is silent.

What is known, however, is that among the population of Americans who expressed anti-Semitic leanings, a common jibe described the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt as the “Rosenberg administration.”

DODD’S WILLINGNESS TO BELIEVE that Messersmith was Jewish had little do with his own rudimental anti-Semitism but seemed rather to be a symptom of deeper misgivings that he had begun to harbor with regard to the consul general. Increasingly he wondered whether Messersmith was wholly on his side.

He never questioned Messersmith’s competence or his courage in speaking out when American citizens and interests were harmed, and he acknowledged that Messersmith “has many sources of information which I do not have.” But in two letters to Undersecretary Phillips, composed two days apart, Dodd suggested that Messersmith had outstayed his assignment in Berlin. “I must add that he has been here three or four years in the midst of very exciting and troublous times,” Dodd wrote in one of the letters, “and I think he has developed a sensitiveness, and perhaps even an ambition, which tend to make him restless and discontented. This may be too strong, but I think not.”

Dodd gave little evidence for his appraisal. He isolated only one flaw with any clarity, and that was Messersmith’s penchant for writing dispatches of great length on all things, grave or mundane. Dodd told Phillips that the size of Messersmith’s dispatches could be halved “without the slightest injury” and that the man needed to be more judicious in his choice of subject. “Hitler could not have left his hat in a flying machine without an account of it.”

The reports, however, were for Dodd merely a target of convenience, a proxy for sources of displeasure that were harder for him to isolate. By mid-November, his dissatisfaction with Messersmith had begun to veer toward distrust. He sensed that Messersmith coveted his own job, and he saw his unceasing production of reports as a manifestation of his ambitions. “It occurs to me,” Dodd told Phillips, “that he feels that a promotion is due and I think that his services demand it; but I am not sure but that the most useful period of his work here has passed. You know as well as I do that circumstances and conditions and sometimes disappointments make it wise to transfer even the ablest of Government officials.” He urged Phillips to discuss the matter with consular-service chief Wilbur Carr “and see whether some such thing can not be done.”

He closed, “I need hardly say that I hope all this will be kept entirely confidential.”

That Dodd imagined Phillips would retain this confidence suggests he was unaware that Phillips and Messersmith maintained a regular and frequent exchange of correspondence outside the stream of official reportage. When Phillips replied to Dodd in late November, he added his usual dash of irony, the tone light and agreeable to an extent that suggested he was merely humoring Dodd, responsive yet at the same time dismissive. “The letters and dispatches of your Consul General are full of interest, but should be cut in half—as you say. More strength to your elbow! I look to you to spread this much needed reform.”

ON SUNDAY, OCTOBER 29, at about noon, Dodd was walking along Tiergartenstrasse, on his way to the Hotel Esplanade. He spotted a large procession of Storm Troopers in their telltale brown shirts marching toward him. Pedestrians stopped and shouted the Hitler salute.

Dodd turned and walked into the park.

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