With the approach of spring, as temperatures at last broke the fifty-degree threshold, Martha began to notice a change in Diels. Usually so cool and suave, he seemed now to be on edge. He had good reason.
The stress of his post increased markedly as Captain Röhm pressed his demand for control of the military and as Heinrich Himmler sought to strengthen his grasp over secret-police operations throughout Germany. Diels had once said that his job required that he sit “on all sides of the fence at once,” but now even he recognized his position was no longer tenable. His insider’s view showed him the intensity of the passions at play and the unyielding character of the ambitions that underlay them. He knew as well that all parties involved viewed imprisonment and murder as useful political tools. He told Martha that even though he was now officially a colonel in Himmler’s SS, he was hated by Himmler and his associates. He began to fear for his life and at one point told Martha and Bill that he could be shot at any moment. “We didn’t take too seriously what he said,” she recalled. He had a tendency to be overly melodramatic, she knew, though she acknowledged that “his job was one in which anyone might become hysterical or paranoiac.” The strain did seem to be taking a toll on his health, however. He complained, she wrote, of “acute stomach and heart disorders.”
Sensing that a political eruption of some sort was inevitable, Diels met with Hermann Göring, still nominally his boss, to ask for a leave from the Gestapo. He cited illness as the reason. In his later memoir he described Göring’s reaction.
“You are sick?” Göring hissed. “You had better make up your mind to be very sick.”
“Yes, I am truly ill,” Diels said. He told Göring he had done all he could “to return the carriage of state to its proper path.” But now, he said, “I cannot go on.”
“All right, you are ill,” Göring said. “Therefore, you cannot remain in service, not for a single day longer. You are confined to your home since you are ill. You will not make any long-distance calls or write any letters. Above all else, watch your step.”
Prudence dictated an alternative course. Once again Diels left the country, but this time he checked himself into a sanatorium in Switzerland. Rumor held, not implausibly, that he had brought with him a cargo of damning secret files for delivery to a friend in Zurich who was to publish everything if Diels was shot.
A few weeks later Diels returned to Berlin, and soon afterward he invited Martha and Bill to his apartment. Diels’s wife led the pair into the living room, where they found Diels lying on a couch looking anything but cured. A couple of pistols lay on a table beside him next to a large map. Diels dismissed his wife, whom Martha described as “a pathetic passive-looking creature.”
The map, Martha saw, was covered with symbols and notations applied with inks of different colors that described a network of secret-police posts and agents. Martha found it terrifying, “a vast spider-web of intrigue.”
Diels was proud of it. “You know most of this is my work,” he said. “I have really organized the most effective system of espionage Germany has ever known.”
If he possessed such power, Martha asked him, why was he so clearly afraid?
He answered, “Because I know too much.”
Diels needed to shore up his defenses. He told Martha that the more he and she could be seen together in public, the safer he would feel. This was no mere line aimed at rekindling their romance. Even Göring was coming to see Diels as an asset of fading value. Amid the storm of clashing passions whirling through Berlin that spring, the gravest danger to Diels arose from the fact that he continued to resist choosing a side and as a result was distrusted in varying degrees by all camps. He grew sufficiently paranoid that he believed someone was trying to poison him.
Martha had no objection to spending more time with Diels. She liked being associated with him and having the insider’s view he afforded her. “I was young and reckless enough to want to be as closely in on every situation as I possibly could,” she wrote. But again, she possessed what Diels did not, the assurance that as the daughter of the American ambassador she was safe from harm.
A friend warned her, however, that in this case she was “playing with fire.”
Over the weeks that followed, Diels stayed close to Martha and behaved, she wrote, “like a frightened rabbit,” though she also sensed that a part of Diels—the old confident Lucifer—reveled in the game of extricating himself from his predicament.
“In some ways the danger he thought he was in was a challenge to his slyness and shrewdness,” she recalled. “Could he outwit them or not, could he escape them or not?”