“Memorandum of a Conversation with Hitler”

Dodd’s happy anticipation of his upcoming leave was marred by two unexpected demands. The first came on Monday, March 5, 1934, when he was summoned to the office of Foreign Minister Neurath, who angrily demanded that he do something to halt a mock trial of Hitler set to take place two days later in New York’s Madison Square Garden. The trial was organized by the American Jewish Congress, with support from the American Federation of Labor and a couple of dozen other Jewish and anti-Nazi organizations. The plan so outraged Hitler that he ordered Neurath and his diplomats in Berlin and Washington to stop it.

One result was a sequence of official protests, replies, and memoranda that revealed both Germany’s sensitivity to outside opinion and the lengths U.S. officials felt compelled to go to avoid direct criticism of Hitler and his party. The degree of restraint would have been comical if the stakes had not been so high and raised a question: why were the State Department and President Roosevelt so hesitant to express in frank terms how they really felt about Hitler at a time when such expressions clearly could have had a powerful effect on his prestige in the world?

GERMANY’S EMBASSY IN WASHINGTON had first gotten wind of the planned trial several weeks earlier, in February, through advertisements in the New York Times. Germany’s ambassador to the United States, Hans Luther, promptly complained to Secretary of State Hull, whose response was careful: “I stated that I was sorry to see these differences arise between persons in his country and in mine; that I would give the matter all due attention such as might be possible and justifiable in all of the circumstances.”

On March 1, 1934, the German embassy’s number-two man, Rudolf Leitner, met with a State Department official named John Hickerson and urged him to “do something to prevent this trial because of its lamentable effect on German public opinion if it should take place.” Hickerson replied that owing to “our constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression” the federal government could do nothing to stop it.

Leitner found this difficult to fathom. He told Hickerson “that if the circumstances were reversed the German Government would certainly find a way of ‘stopping such a proceeding.’ ”

On this point Hickerson had no doubt. “I replied,” Hickerson wrote, “that it is my understanding that the German Government is not so limited in the action which it can take in such matters as the American government.”

The next day, Friday, March 2, Ambassador Luther had a second meeting with Secretary Hull to protest the trial.

Hull himself would have preferred that the mock trial not occur. It complicated things and had the potential of further reducing Germany’s willingness to pay its debts. At the same time, he disliked the Nazi regime. Although he avoided any direct statement of criticism, he took a certain pleasure in telling the German ambassador that the men slated to speak at the trial “were not in the slightest under the control of the Federal Government,” and therefore the State Department was powerless to intervene.

It was then that Foreign Minister Neurath summoned Dodd to his office. Neurath kept him waiting ten minutes, which Dodd “noticed and resented.” The delay reminded him of Neurath’s snub the previous October after his Columbus Day speech about Gracchus and Caesar.

Neurath handed him an aide-mémoire—a written statement given by one diplomat to another, typically on a serious matter where verbal delivery might distort the intended message. This one was unexpectedly intemperate and threatening. It called the planned mock trial a “malicious demonstration” and cited a pattern of similarly “insulting expressions” that had taken place in the United States throughout the preceding year, describing these as “a combat tantamount to direct interference in the internal affairs of another country.” The document also attacked an ongoing Jewish American boycott of German goods promoted by the American Jewish Congress. Playing to America’s fears of a German bond default, it claimed the boycott had reduced Germany’s balance of payments with the United States to such an extent that “the fulfillment of the obligations of German companies to their American creditors has only been partially possible.”

Neurath ended the aide-mémoire by declaring that because of the mock trial “maintenance of friendly relations, sincerely desired by both Governments, is rendered extremely difficult thereby.”

After reading it, Dodd explained quietly that in America “nobody could suppress a private or public meeting,” a point the Germans seemed utterly unable to grasp. Dodd also hinted that Germany had brought these public relations troubles upon itself. “I reminded the Minister that many things still occur here shocking to foreign public opinion.”

After the meeting, Dodd cabled Secretary Hull and told him the mock trial had made “an extraordinary impression” on the German government. Dodd ordered his staff to translate Neurath’s aide-mémoire and only then sent it to Hull, by mail.

On the morning before the mock trial, German ambassador Luther tried again to stop it. This time he called on Undersecretary William Phillips, who also told him nothing could be done. Luther demanded that the department announce immediately “that nothing which was to be said at the meeting would represent the views of the Government.”

Here too Phillips demurred. Not enough time remained to prepare such a statement, he explained; he added that it would be inappropriate for the secretary of state to attempt to anticipate what the speakers would or would not say at the trial.

Luther made one last try and asked that the State Department at least issue such a disavowal on the morning after the trial.

Phillips said he could not commit the department but would “take the matter under consideration.”

The trial took place as planned, guarded by 320 uniformed New York City policemen. Inside Madison Square Garden, forty plain-clothes detectives circulated among the twenty thousand people in attendance. The twenty “witnesses” who testified during the trial included Rabbi Stephen Wise, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, and a former secretary of state, Bainbridge Colby, who delivered the opening remarks. The trial found Hitler guilty: “We declare that the Hitler government is compelling the German people to turn back from civilization to an antiquated and barbarous despotism which menaces the progress of mankind toward peace and freedom, and is a present threat against civilized life throughout the world.”

At a press conference the next day Phillips stated that he had “no comment other than to re-emphasize the private nature of the gathering and that no member of the Administration was present.”

Phillips and fellow officials turned their attention to other matters. As would soon become apparent, however, Germany was not yet willing to let the matter drop.

THE SECOND DISTASTEFUL TASK that Dodd had to complete before his departure was to meet with Hitler. He had received an order from Secretary Hull directing him to convey to the chancellor America’s dismay at a burst of Nazi propaganda recently unleashed within the United States. Putzi Hanfstaengl arranged the meeting, which was to be private and secret—just Hitler and Dodd—and so, on Wednesday, March 7, shortly before one o’clock in the afternoon, Dodd once again found himself in the Reich chancellery making his way to Hitler’s office past the usual cadre of guards clicking and saluting.

First Dodd asked Hitler whether he had a personal message for Roosevelt that Dodd might deliver in person when he met with the president in Washington.

Hitler paused. He looked at Dodd a moment.

“I am very much obliged to you,” he said, “but this takes me by surprise and I wish you would give me time to think the subject over and let me talk with you again.”

Dodd and Hitler conversed a few moments about innocuous things before Dodd turned to the matter at hand—“the unfortunate propaganda which has been made in the United States,” as Dodd recounted in a memorandum he composed after the meeting.

Hitler “pretended astonishment,” Dodd wrote, and then asked for details.

Within the last ten days, Dodd told him, a Nazi pamphlet had begun circulating in the United States that contained what Dodd described as “an appeal to Germans in other countries to think themselves always as Germans and owing moral, if not political, allegiance to the fatherland.” Dodd likened it to similar propaganda distributed in the United States in 1913, well before America entered the past war.

Hitler flared. “Ach,” he snapped, “that is all Jewish lies; if I find out who does that, I will put him out of the country at once.”

With this the conversation veered into a broader, more venomous discussion of the “Jewish problem.” Hitler condemned all Jews and blamed them for whatever bad feeling had arisen in America toward Germany. He became enraged and exclaimed, “Damn the Jews!”

Given Hitler’s fury, Dodd thought it prudent to refrain from raising the subject of the mock trial, which would take place later that day, New York time. Hitler didn’t mention it either.

Instead, Dodd turned to how the Jewish situation might be resolved peacefully and humanely. “You know there is a Jewish problem in other countries,” Dodd told Hitler. Dodd proceeded to describe how the State Department was providing unofficial encouragement to a new organization established by the League of Nations under the direction of James G. McDonald, newly appointed high commissioner for refugees from Germany, to relocate Jews, as Dodd put it, “without too much suffering.”

Hitler dismissed it out of hand. The effort would fail, he said, no matter how much money the commission raised. The Jews, he said, would turn it into a weapon to “attack Germany and make endless trouble.”

Dodd countered that Germany’s current approach was doing great damage to the country’s reputation in America. Oddly, Dodd now sought to find a kind of middle ground with the dictator. He told Hitler, “You know a number of high positions in our country are at present occupied by Jews, both in New York and Illinois.” He named several “eminent fair-minded Hebrews,” including Henry Morgenthau Jr., Roosevelt’s secretary of the Treasury since January. Dodd explained to Hitler “that where the question of over-activity of Jews in university or official life made trouble, we had managed to redistribute the offices in such a way as not to give great offense, and that wealthy Jews continued to support institutions which had limited the number of Jews who held high positions.” Dodd cited one such example in Chicago and added, “The Jews in Illinois constituted no serious problem.”

Dodd in his memorandum explained: “My idea was to suggest a different procedure from that which has been followed here—of course never giving pointed advice.”

Hitler shot back that “59 percent of all offices in Russia were held by Jews; that they had ruined that country and that they intended to ruin Germany.” More furious now than ever, Hitler proclaimed, “If they continue their activity, we shall make a complete end to all of them in this country.”

It was a strange moment. Here was Dodd, the humble Jeffersonian schooled to view statesmen as rational creatures, seated before the leader of one of Europe’s great nations as that leader grew nearly hysterical with fury and threatened to destroy a portion of his own population. It was extraordinary, utterly alien to his experience.

Dodd calmly turned the conversation back to American perceptions and told Hitler “that public opinion in the United States is firmly convinced that the German people, if not their Government, are militaristic, if not actually warlike” and that “most people of the United States have the feeling that Germany is aiming one day to go to war.” Dodd asked, “Is there any real basis for that?”

“There is absolutely no basis,” Hitler said. His rage seemed to subside. “Germany wants peace and will do everything in her power to keep the peace; but Germany demands and will have equality of rights in the matter of armaments.”

Dodd cautioned that Roosevelt placed high importance on respect for existing national boundaries.

On that score, Hitler said, Roosevelt’s attitude matched his own, and for that he professed to be “very grateful.”

Well then, Dodd asked, would Germany consider taking part in a new international disarmament conference?

Hitler waved off the question and again attacked the Jews. It was they, he charged, who had promoted the perception that Germany wanted war.

Dodd steered him back. Would Hitler agree to two points: that “no nation should cross another nation’s boundaries and that all European nations should agree to a supervisory commission and respect the rulings of such a body?”

Yes, Hitler said, and did so, Dodd observed, “heartily.”

Later, Dodd wrote a description of Hitler in his diary. “He is romantic-minded and half-informed about great historical events and men in Germany.” He had a “semi-criminal” record. “He has definitely said on a number of occasions that a people survives by fighting and dies as a consequence of peaceful policies. His influence is and has been wholly belligerent.”

How, then, could one reconcile this with Hitler’s many declarations of peaceful intent? As before, Dodd believed Hitler was “perfectly sincere” about wanting peace. Now, however, the ambassador had realized, as had Messersmith before him, that Hitler’s real purpose was to buy time to allow Germany to rearm. Hitler wanted peace only to prepare for war. “In the back of his mind,” Dodd wrote, “is the old German idea of dominating Europe through warfare.”

DODD PREPARED FOR HIS VOYAGE. Though he would be gone two months, he planned to leave his wife, Martha, and Bill behind in Berlin. He would miss them, but he could hardly wait to get on that ship bound for America and his farm. Less cheery was the prospect of the meetings he would have to attend at the State Department immediately after his arrival. He planned to take the opportunity to continue his campaign to make the Foreign Service more egalitarian by confronting, directly, the members of the Pretty Good Club:

Undersecretary Phillips, Moffat, Carr, and an increasingly influential assistant secretary of state, Sumner Welles, another Harvard grad and a confidant of Roosevelt (a page, in fact, at Roosevelt’s 1905 wedding) who had been instrumental in crafting the president’s Good Neighbor policy. Dodd would have liked to return to America with some concrete proof that his approach to diplomacy—his interpretation of Roosevelt’s mandate to serve as an exemplar of American values—had exerted a moderating influence on the Hitler regime, but all he had accrued thus far was repugnance for Hitler and his deputies and grief for the lost Germany of his recollection.

Shortly before his departure, however, there came a glint of light that heartened him and suggested that his efforts had not been wasted. On March 12 an official of Germany’s foreign office, Hans-Heinrich Dieckhoff, announced at a meeting of the German Press Club that henceforth Germany would require that a warrant be issued before any arrest and that the notorious Columbia House prison would be closed. Dodd believed that he personally had much to do with the order.

He would have been less heartened to learn of Hitler’s private reaction to their last meeting, as recorded by Putzi Hanfstaengl. “Dodd made no impression,” Hanfstaengl wrote. “Hitler was almost pitying.” After the meeting, Hitler had said: “Der gute Dodd. He can hardly speak German and made no sense at all.”

Which accorded rather closely with the reaction, back in Washington, of Jay Pierrepont Moffat. In his diary Moffat wrote, “Ambassador Dodd, quite without instruction, took up with Hitler the President’s non-aggression idea and asked him point-blank if he would attend an international conference to discuss this. Where the Ambassador got the idea that we wanted another international conference is a mystery.”

With clear exasperation Moffat wrote, “I am glad he is soon returning on leave.”

THE NIGHT BEFORE his departure Dodd went up to his bedroom and found Fritz, the butler, packing his suitcases. Dodd grew annoyed. He did not trust Fritz, but that wasn’t the issue here. Rather, Fritz’s efforts abraded his own Jeffersonian instincts. Dodd wrote in his diary, “I do not think it a disgrace for a man to pack his own bags.”

On Tuesday, March 13, he and all his family drove to Hamburg, 180 miles northwest of Berlin, where he bade everyone good-bye and settled into his cabin aboard the SS Manhattan of the United States Lines.

DODD WAS HAPPILY AFLOAT when the German government’s anger about the mock trial flared again. The Third Reich, it seemed, simply could not let the issue go.

On the day of Dodd’s sailing, fully six days after the trial, Ambassador Luther in Washington again called on Secretary Hull. According to Hull’s account, Luther protested “such offensive and insulting acts by the people of one country against the Government and its officials of another country.”

By this point Hull was losing patience. After offering a pro forma expression of regret and reiterating that the mock trial had no connection to the U.S. government, he launched a sly attack. “I stated further that I trusted that the people of every country would, in the future, exercise such self-restraint as would enable them to refrain from excessive or improper manifestations or demonstrations on account of the action of peoples of another country. I sought to make this latter veiled reference to Germany plain. I then added generally that the world seems to be in a ferment to a considerable extent, with the result that the people in more countries than one are neither thinking nor acting normally.”

Ten days later, amid a snowstorm, the German ambassador returned yet again, angrier than ever. As Luther entered Hull’s office, the secretary quipped that he hoped the ambassador “was not feeling as cool as the snow falling outside.”

Using language that Hull described as “almost violent,” Luther spent the next forty-five minutes angrily citing a list of “abusive and insulting expressions of American citizens towards the Hitler Government.”

Hull expressed his sorrow that America had become a target of German criticism but then noted that at least “my government was not alone in this situation; that virtually all the governments surrounding Germany and also those in and about his country seemed to be likewise in rather distinct disfavor on one account or another; and that his government as at present constituted seemed for some reason to be almost entirely isolated from all countries, although I did not intimate that it had been in the least at fault in a single instance. I said that it might be well, however, for his government to check its conditions of isolation and see where the trouble or fault lay.”

Hull also pointed out that America’s relationship with previous German governments had been “uniformly agreeable” and stated that “it was only during the control of the present government that the troubles complained of had arisen, much to our personal and official regret.” He was careful to note that certainly this was mere “coincidence.”

The whole problem would go away, Hull intimated, if Germany “could only bring about a cessation of these reports of personal injuries which had been coming steadily to the United States from Germany and arousing bitter resentment among many people here.”

Hull wrote, “We were clearly referring to the persecution of the Jews throughout the conversation.”

A week later, Secretary Hull launched what proved to be the final salvo on the matter. He had at last received the translation of the aide-mémoire Neurath had given to Dodd. It was Hull’s turn now to be angry. He sent an aide-mémoire of his own, to be delivered in person to Neurath by the chargé d’affaires in Berlin, John C. White, who was running the embassy in Dodd’s absence.

After chiding Neurath on the “tone of asperity unusual in diplomatic communication” that had pervaded the German’s aide-mémoire, Hull gave him a brief lecture on American principles.

He wrote, “It is well known that the free exercise of religion, the freedom of speech and of the press, and the right of peaceable assembly, are not only guaranteed to our citizens by the Constitution of the United States, but are beliefs deep-seated in the political consciousness of the American people.” And yet, Hull wrote, Neurath in his aide-mémoire had described incidents where Germany felt the U.S. government should have disregarded these principles. “It appears, therefore, that the points of view of the two Governments, with respect to the issues of free speech and assembly, are irreconcilable, and that any discussion of this difference could not improve relations which the United States Government desires to preserve on as friendly a basis as the common interest of the two peoples demands.”

And thus at last the battle over the mock trial came to an end, with diplomatic relations chilly but intact. Once again no one in the U.S. government had made any public statement either supporting the trial or criticizing the Hitler regime. The question remained: what was everyone afraid of?

A U.S. senator, Millard E. Tydings of Maryland, tried to force Roosevelt to speak against Jewish persecution by introducing in the Senate a resolution that would have instructed the president “to communicate to the Government of the German Reich an unequivocal statement of the profound feelings of surprise and pain experienced by the people of the United States upon learning of discriminations and oppressions imposed by the Reich upon its Jewish citizens.”

A State Department memorandum on the resolution written by Dodd’s friend R. Walton Moore, assistant secretary of state, sheds light on the government’s reluctance. After studying the resolution, Judge Moore concluded that it could only put Roosevelt “in an embarrassing position.” Moore explained: “If he declined to comply with the request, he would be subjected to considerable criticism. On the other hand, if he complied with it he would not only incur the resentment of the German Government, but might be involved in a very acrimonious discussion with that Government which conceivably might, for example, ask him to explain why the negroes of this country do not fully enjoy the right of suffrage; why the lynching of negroes in Senator Tydings’ State and other States is not prevented or severely punished; and how the anti-Semitic feeling in the United States, which unfortunately seems to be growing, is not checked.”

The resolution failed. Secretary Hull, according to one historian, “exerted his influence with the Foreign Relations Committee to have it buried.”

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