Night Terrors

The lives of the Dodds underwent a subtle change. Where once they had felt free to say anything they wished within their own home, now they experienced a new and unfamiliar constraint. In this their lives reflected the broader miasma suffusing the city beyond their garden wall. A common story had begun to circulate: One man telephones another and in the course of their conversation happens to ask, “How is Uncle Adolf?” Soon afterward the secret police appear at his door and insist that he prove that he really does have an Uncle Adolf and that the question was not in fact a coded reference to Hitler. Germans grew reluctant to stay in communal ski lodges, fearing they might talk in their sleep. They postponed surgeries because of the lip-loosening effects of anesthetic. Dreams reflected the ambient anxiety. One German dreamed that an SA man came to his home and opened the door to his oven, which then repeated every negative remark the household had made against the government. After experiencing life in Nazi Germany, Thomas Wolfe wrote, “Here was an entire nation … infested with the contagion of an ever-present fear. It was a kind of creeping paralysis which twisted and blighted all human relations.”

Jews, of course, experienced it most acutely. A survey of those who fled Germany, conducted from 1993 through 2001 by social historians Eric A. Johnson and Karl-Heinz Reuband, found that 33 percent had felt “constant fear of arrest.” Among those who had lived in small towns, more than half recalled feeling such fear. Most non-Jewish citizens, however, claimed to have experienced little fear—in Berlin, for example, only 3 percent described their fear of arrest as constant—but they did not feel wholly at ease. Rather, most Germans experienced a kind of echo of normality. There arose among them a recognition that their ability to lead normal lives “depended on their acceptance of the Nazi regime and their keeping their heads down and not acting conspicuously.” If they fell into line, allowed themselves to be “coordinated,” they would be safe—though the survey also found a surprising tendency among non-Jewish Berliners to occasionally step out of line. Some 32 percent recalled telling anti-Nazi jokes, and 49 percent claimed to have listened to illegal radio broadcasts from Britain and elsewhere. However, they only dared to commit such infractions in private or among trusted friends, for they understood that the consequences could be lethal.

For the Dodds, at first, it was all so novel and unlikely as to be almost funny. Martha laughed the first time her friend Mildred Fish Harnack insisted they go into a bathroom for a private conversation. Mildred believed that bathrooms, being sparsely furnished, were more difficult to fit with listening devices than a cluttered living room. Even then Mildred would “whisper almost inaudibly,” Martha wrote.

It was Rudolf Diels who first conveyed to Martha the unfunny reality of Germany’s emerging culture of surveillance. One day he invited her to his office and with evident pride showed her an array of equipment used for recording telephone conversations. He led her to believe that eavesdropping apparatus had indeed been installed in the chancery of the U.S. embassy and in her home. Prevailing wisdom held that Nazi agents hid their microphones in telephones to pick up conversations in the surrounding rooms. Late one night, Diels seemed to confirm this. Martha and he had gone dancing. Afterward, upon arrival at her house, Diels accompanied her upstairs to the library for a drink. He was uneasy and wanted to talk. Martha grabbed a large pillow, then walked across the room toward her father’s desk. Diels, perplexed, asked what she was doing. She told him she planned to put the pillow over the telephone. Diels nodded slowly, she recalled, and “a sinister smile crossed his lips.”

She told her father about it the next day. The news surprised him. Though he accepted the fact of intercepted mail, tapped telephones and telegraph lines, and the likelihood of eavesdropping at the chancery, he never would have imagined a government so brazen as to place microphones in a diplomat’s private residence. He took it seriously, however. By now he had seen enough unexpected behavior from Hitler and his underlings to show him that anything was possible. He filled a cardboard box with cotton, Martha recalled, and used it to cover his own telephone whenever a conversation in the library shifted to confidential territory.

As time passed the Dodds found themselves confronting an amorphous anxiety that infiltrated their days and gradually altered the way they led their lives. The change came about slowly, arriving like a pale mist that slipped into every crevice. It was something everyone who lived in Berlin seemed to experience. You began to think differently about whom you met for lunch and for that matter what café or restaurant you chose, because rumors circulated about which establishments were favorite targets of Gestapo agents—the bar at the Adlon, for example. You lingered at street corners a beat or two longer to see if the faces you saw at the last corner had now turned up at this one. In the most casual of circumstances you spoke carefully and paid attention to those around you in a way you never had before. Berliners came to practice what became known as “the German glance”—der deutsche Blick—a quick look in all directions when encountering a friend or acquaintance on the street.

The Dodds’ home life became less and less spontaneous. They grew especially to distrust their butler, Fritz, who had a knack for moving soundlessly. Martha suspected that he listened in when she had friends and lovers in the house. Whenever he appeared in the midst of a family conversation, the talk would wither and become desultory, an almost unconscious reaction.

After vacations and weekends away, the family’s return was always darkened by the likelihood that in their absence new devices had been installed, old ones refreshed. “There is no way on earth one can describe in the coldness of words on paper what this espionage can do to the human being,” Martha wrote. It suppressed routine discourse—“the family’s conferences and freedom of speech and action were so circumscribed we lost even the faintest resemblance to a normal American family. Whenever we wanted to talk we had to look around corners and behind doors, watch for the telephone and speak in whispers.” The strain of all this took a toll on Martha’s mother. “As time went on, and the horror increased,” Martha wrote, “her courtesy and graciousness towards the Nazi officials she was forced to meet, entertain, and sit beside, became so intense a burden she could scarcely bear it.”

Martha eventually found herself deploying rudimentary codes in communications with friends, an increasingly common practice throughout Germany. Her friend Mildred used a code for letters home in which she crafted sentences that meant the opposite of what the words themselves indicated. That such practices had become usual and necessary was difficult for outsiders to understand. An American professor who was a friend of the Dodds, Peter Olden, wrote to Dodd on January 30, 1934, to tell him he had received a message from his brother-in-law in Germany in which the man described a code he planned to use in all further correspondence. The word “rain,” in any context, would mean he had been placed in a concentration camp. The word “snow” would mean he was being tortured. “It seems absolutely unbelievable,” Olden told Dodd. “If you think that this is really something in the nature of a bad joke, I wonder if you could mention so in a letter to me.”

Dodd’s careful reply was a study in deliberate omission, though his meaning was clear. He had come to believe that even diplomatic correspondence was intercepted and read by German agents. A subject of growing concern was the number of German employees who worked for the consulate and the embassy. One clerk in particular had drawn the attention of consular officials: Heinrich Rocholl, a longtime employee who helped prepare reports for the American commercial attaché, whose offices were on the first floor of the Bellevuestrasse consulate. In his spare time Rocholl had founded a pro-Nazi organization, the Association of Former German Students in America, which issued a publication called Rundbriefe. Lately Rocholl had been discovered trying “to find out the contents of confidential reports of the Commercial Attaché,” according to a memorandum that Acting Consul General Geist sent to Washington. “He has also had conversations with other German members of the staff who assist in the reporting work, and intimated to these that their work should be in every respect favorable to the present regime.” In one issue of the Rundbriefe Geist found an article in which “disparaging allusions were made to the Ambassador as well as to Mr. Messersmith.” For Geist this was the last straw. Citing the clerk’s “overt act of disloyalty to his chiefs,” Geist fired him.

Dodd realized that the best way to have a truly private conversation with anyone was to meet in the Tiergarten for a walk, as Dodd often did with his British counterpart, Sir Eric Phipps. “I shall be walking at 11:30 on the Hermann-Göring-Strasse alongside the Tiergarten,” Dodd told Phipps in a telephone call at ten o’clock one morning. “Would you be able to meet me there and talk for a while?” And Phipps, on another occasion, sent Dodd a handwritten note asking, “Could we meet tomorrow morning at 12 o’clock in the Siegesallee between the Tiergartenstrasse & the Charlottenburger Chaussee, on the right side (going from here)?”

WHETHER LISTENING DEVICES TRULY laced the embassy and the Dodds’ home cannot be known, but the salient fact was that the Dodds came to see Nazi surveillance as omnipresent. Despite the toll this perception increasingly took on their lives, they believed they had one significant advantage over their German peers—that no physical harm would come to them. Martha’s own privileged status offered no protection to her friends, however, and here Martha had particular cause for concern because of the nature of the men and women she befriended.

She had to be especially watchful in her relationship with Boris—as a representative of a government reviled by the Nazis, he was beyond doubt a target of surveillance—and with Mildred and Arvid Harnack, both of whom had grown increasingly opposed to the Nazi regime and were taking their first steps toward building a loose association of men and women committed to resisting Nazi power. “If I had been with people who had been brave or reckless enough to talk in opposition to Hitler,” Martha wrote in her memoir, “I spent sleepless nights wondering if a Dictaphone or a telephone had registered the conversation, or if men had followed and overheard.”

In that winter of 1933–34, her anxiety blossomed into a kind of terror that “bordered on the hysterical,” as she described it. Never had she been more afraid. She lay in her own bed, in her own room, with her parents upstairs, objectively as safe as could be, and yet as shadows cast by the dim streetlamps outside played across her ceiling, she could not keep the terror from staining the night.

She heard, or imagined she heard, the grating of hard-soled shoes on the gravel in the drive below, the sound tentative and intermittent, as if someone was watching her bedroom. By day the many windows in her room brought light and color; at night, they conjured vulnerability. Moonlight cast moving shadows on the lawns and walks and beside the tall pillars of the entrance gate. Some nights she imagined hearing whispered conversations, even distant gunshots, though by day she was able to dismiss these as the products of wind blowing across gravel and engine backfires.

But anything was possible. “I often felt such terror,” she wrote, “that occasionally I would wake up my mother and ask her to come and sleep in my room.”

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