PART VI

Berlin at Dusk

Göring’s bedroom at Carinhall (photo credit p6.1)

CHAPTER 39

Dangerous Dining

The city seemed to vibrate with a background thrum of danger, as if an immense power line had been laid through its center. Everyone in Dodd’s circle felt it. Partly this tension arose from the unusual May weather and the concomitant fears of a failed harvest, but the main engine of anxiety was the intensifying discord between Captain Röhm’s Storm Troopers and the regular army. A popular metaphor used at the time to describe the atmosphere in Berlin was that of an approaching thunderstorm—that sense of charged and suspended air.

Dodd had little chance to settle back into the rhythms of work.

The day after his return from America, he faced the prospect of hosting a giant good-bye banquet for Messersmith, who had at last managed to secure for himself a loftier post, though not in Prague, his original target. Competition for that job had been robust, and although Messersmith had lobbied hard and persuaded allies of all stripes to write letters to bolster his bid, in the end the job went to someone else. Instead, Undersecretary Phillips had offered Messersmith another vacant post: Uruguay. If Messersmith had been disappointed, he had not shown it. He had counted himself lucky simply to be leaving the consular service behind. But then his luck had gotten better still. The post of ambassador to Austria suddenly had become vacant, and Messersmith was the obvious choice for the job. Roosevelt agreed. Now Messersmith truly was delighted. So too was Dodd, just to have him gone, though he’d have preferred to have him at the other side of the world.

There were many parties for Messersmith—for a time every dinner and luncheon in Berlin seemed to be in his honor—but the U.S. embassy’s banquet on May 18 was the biggest and most official. While Dodd was in America, Mrs. Dodd, with the assistance of embassy protocol experts, had overseen the creation of a four-page, single-spaced list of guests that seemed to include everyone of import, except Hitler. To anyone knowledgeable about Berlin society, the real fascination was not who attended, but who did not. Göring and Goebbels sent their regrets, as did Vice-Chancellor Papen and Rudolf Diels. Defense Minister Blomberg came, but not SA chief Röhm.

Bella Fromm attended, and so did Sigrid Schultz and various of Martha’s friends, including Putzi Hanfstaengl, Armand Berard, and Prince Louis Ferdinand. This mixture by itself added to the aura of tension in the room, for Berard still loved Martha and Prince Louis mooned for her, though her adoration remained utterly fixed on Boris (absent, interestingly, from the invitation list). Martha’s handsome young Hitler liaison, Hans “Tommy” Thomsen, came, as did his ofttimes companion, the dark and lushly beautiful Elmina Rangabe, but there was a hitch this night—Tommy brought his wife. There was heat, champagne, passion, jealousy, and that background sense of something unpleasant building just over the horizon.

Bella Fromm chatted briefly with Hanfstaengl and recorded the encounter in her diary.

“I wonder why we were asked today,” Hanfstaengl said. “All this excitement about Jews. Messersmith is one. So is Roosevelt. The party detests them.”

“Dr. Hanfstaengl,” Fromm said, “we’ve discussed this before. You don’t have to put on that kind of an act with me.”

“All right. Even if they are Aryan, you’d never know it from their actions.”

At the moment Fromm was not feeling particularly solicitous of Nazi goodwill. Two weeks earlier her daughter, Gonny, had left for America, with Messersmith’s help, leaving Fromm saddened but relieved. A week before that, the newspaper Vossische Zeitung—“Auntie Voss,” where she had worked for years—had closed. She felt more and more that an epoch in which she once had thrived was coming to an end.

She said to Hanfstaengl, “Of course if you’re going to do away with right and wrong, and make it Aryan and non-Aryan, it leaves people who happen to have rather old-fashioned notions about what is right and wrong, what is decent and what is obscene, without much ground to stand on.”

She turned the conversation back to the subject of Messersmith, whom she described as being so revered by his colleagues “that he is practically regarded as having ambassadorial rank,” a remark that would have irritated Dodd no end.

Hanfstaengl softened his voice. “All right, all right,” he said. “I have lots of friends in the United States, and all of them side with the Jews, too. But since it is insisted on in the party program—” He stopped there in a kind of verbal shrug. He reached into his pocket, and pulled out a small bag of candy fruit drops. Lutschbonbons. Bella had loved them as a child.

“Have one,” Hanfstaengl said. “They are made especially for the Führer.”

She chose one. Just before she popped it into her mouth she saw that it was embossed with a swastika. Even fruit drops had been “coordinated.”

The conversation turned to the political warfare that was causing so much unease. Hanfstaengl told her that Röhm coveted control not only of the German army but also of Göring’s air force. “Hermann is in a rage!” Hanfstaengl said. “You can do anything to him except fool around with his Luftwaffe, and he could murder Röhm in cold blood.” He asked: “Do you know Himmler?”

Fromm nodded.

Hanfstaengl said, “He was a chicken farmer, when he wasn’t on duty spying for the Reichswehr. He kicked Diels out of the Gestapo. Himmler can’t stand anybody, but Röhm least of all. Now they’re all ganged up against Röhm: Rosenberg, Goebbels, and the chicken farmer.” The Rosenberg he mentioned was Alfred Rosenberg, an ardent anti-Semite and head of the Nazi Party’s foreign bureau.

After recounting the conversation in her diary, Fromm added, “There is nobody among the officials of the National Socialist party who would not cheerfully cut the throat of every other official in order to further his own advancement.”

IT WAS A MEASURE of the strange new climate of Berlin that another dinner party, wholly innocuous, should prove to have profoundly lethal consequences. The host was a wealthy banker named Wilhelm Regendanz, a friend of the Dodds, though happily the Dodds were not invited on this particular occasion. Regendanz held the dinner one evening in May at his luxurious villa in Dahlem, in the southwestern portion of greater Berlin known for its lovely homes and its proximity to the Grunewald.

Regendanz, father of seven, was a member of the Stahlhelm, or Steel Helmets, an organization of former army officers with a conservative bent. He liked bringing together men of diverse position for meals, discussions, and lectures. To this particular dinner Regendanz invited two prominent guests, French ambassador François-Poncet and Captain Röhm, both of whom had been to the house on past occasions.

Röhm arrived accompanied by three young SA officers, among them a curly-headed blond male adjutant nicknamed “Count Pretty,” who was Röhm’s secretary and, rumor held, his occasional lover. Hitler would later describe this meeting as a “secret dinner,” though in fact the guests made no attempt to disguise their presence. They parked their cars in front of the house in full view of the street, with their tell-all license plates fully exposed.

The guests were an odd match. François-Poncet disliked the SA chief, as he made clear in his memoir, The Fateful Years. “Having always entertained the liveliest repugnance toward Röhm,” he wrote, “I avoided him as much as possible despite the eminent role he played in the Third Reich.” But Regendanz had “begged” François-Poncet to come.

Later, in a letter to the Gestapo, Regendanz tried to explain his insistence on getting the two men together. He laid the impetus for the dinner on François-Poncet, who, he claimed, had expressed frustration at not being able to meet with Hitler himself and had asked Regendanz to speak with someone close to Hitler to communicate his desire for a meeting. Regendanz suggested that Röhm might prove a worthy intermediary. At the time of the dinner, Regendanz claimed, he was unaware of the rift between Röhm and Hitler—“on the contrary,” he told the Gestapo, “it was assumed that Röhm was the man who absolutely had the confidence of the Führer and was his follower. In other words one believed that one was informing the Führer when one informed Röhm.”

For dinner, the men were joined by Mrs. Regendanz and a son, Alex, who was preparing to become an international lawyer. After the meal, Röhm and the French ambassador retired to Regendanz’s library for an informal conversation. Röhm talked of military matters and disclaimed any interest in politics, declaring that he saw himself only as a soldier, an officer. “The result of this conversation,” Regendanz told the Gestapo, “was literally nothing.”

The evening came to an end—mercifully, in François-Poncet’s opinion. “The meal was dismal, the conversation insignificant,” he recalled. “I found Röhm sleepy and heavy; he woke up only to complain of his health and the rheumatism he expected to nurse at Wiessee,” a reference to Bad Wiessee, where Röhm planned a lakeside sojourn to take a cure. “Returning home,” François-Poncet wrote, “I cursed our host for the evening’s boredom.”

How the Gestapo learned of the dinner and its guests isn’t known, but by this point Röhm most certainly was under close surveillance. The license plates of the cars parked at Regendanz’s house would have tipped any watcher off to the identities of the men within.

The dinner became infamous. Later, in midsummer, Britain’s Ambassador Phipps would observe in his diary that of the seven people who sat down to dine at the Regendanz mansion that night, four had been murdered, one had fled the country under threat of death, and another had been imprisoned in a concentration camp.

Phipps wrote, “The list of casualties for one dinner party might make even a Borgia envious.”

AND THERE WAS THIS:

On Thursday, May 24, Dodd walked to a luncheon with a senior official of the foreign ministry, Hans-Heinrich Dieckhoff, whom Dodd described as being “what amounts to Assistant Secretary of State.” They met at a small, discreet restaurant on Unter den Linden, the wide boulevard that ran due east from the Brandenburg Gate, and there they engaged in a conversation that Dodd found extraordinary.

Dodd’s main reason for wanting to see Dieckhoff was to express his dismay at having been made to seem naive by Goebbels’s Jews-as-syphilis speech after all he had done to quiet Jewish protests in America. He reminded Dieckhoff of the Reich’s announced intent to close the Columbia House prison and to require warrants for all arrests and of other assurances that Germany “was easing up on the Jewish atrocities.”

Dieckhoff was sympathetic. He confessed to his own dim view of Goebbels and told Dodd he expected that soon Hitler would be overthrown. Dodd wrote in his diary that Dieckhoff “gave what he considered good evidence that the Germans would not much longer endure the system under which they were drilled everlastingly and semi-starved.”

Such candor amazed Dodd. Dieckhoff spoke as freely as if he were in England or the United States, Dodd noted, even to the point of expressing the hope that Jewish protests in America would continue. Without them, Dieckhoff said, the chances of overthrowing Hitler would diminish.

Dodd knew that even for a man of Dieckhoff’s rank such talk was dangerous. He wrote, “I felt the deep concern of a high official who could thus risk his life in criticism of the existing regime.”

After exiting the restaurant, the two men walked west along Unter den Linden toward Wilhelmstrasse, the main government thoroughfare. They parted, Dodd wrote, “rather sadly.”

Dodd returned to his office, worked a couple of hours, then took a long walk around the Tiergarten.

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