Hermann’s Toys

A mid the many rumors of coming upheaval, it remained difficult for Dodd and his peers in the diplomatic corps to imagine that Hitler, Göring, and Goebbels could endure much longer. Dodd still saw them as inept and dangerous adolescents—“16 year olds,” as he now put it—who found themselves confronting an accumulation of daunting troubles. The drought grew steadily more severe. The economy showed little sign of improvement, other than the illusory decline in unemployment. The rift between Röhm and Hitler seemed to have deepened. And there continued to be moments—strange, ludicrous moments—that suggested that Germany was merely the stage set for some grotesque comedy, not a serious country in a serious time.

Sunday, June 10, 1934, provided one such episode, when Dodd, French ambassador François-Poncet, and Britain’s Sir Eric Phipps, along with three dozen other guests, attended a kind of open house at Göring’s vast estate an hour’s drive north of Berlin. He had named it Carinhall for his dead Swedish wife, Carin, whom he revered; later in the month he planned to exhume her body from its resting place in Sweden, transport it to Germany, and entomb it in a mausoleum on the estate grounds. Today, however, Göring wanted merely to show off his forests and his new bison enclosure, where he hoped to breed the creatures and then turn them loose on his grounds.

The Dodds arrived late in their new Buick, which had betrayed them along the way with a minor mechanical failure, but they still managed to arrive before Göring himself. Their instructions called for them to drive to a particular point on the estate. To keep guests from getting lost, Göring had stationed men at each crossroads to provide directions. Dodd and his wife found the other guests gathered around a speaker who held forth on some aspect of the grounds. The Dodds learned they were at the edge of the bison enclosure.

At last Göring arrived, driving fast, alone, in what Phipps described as a racing car. He climbed out wearing a uniform that was partly the costume of an aviator, partly that of a medieval hunter. He wore boots of India rubber and in his belt had tucked a very large hunting knife.

Göring took the place of the first speaker. He used a microphone but spoke loudly into it, producing a jarring effect in the otherwise sylvan locale. He described his plan to create a forest preserve that would reproduce the conditions of primeval Germany, complete with primeval animals like the bison that now stood indolently in the near distance. Three photographers and a “cinematograph” operator captured the affair on film.

Elisabetta Cerruti, the beautiful Hungarian and Jewish wife of the Italian ambassador, recalled what happened next.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Göring said, “in a few minutes you will witness a unique display of nature at work.” He gestured toward an iron cage. “In this cage is a powerful male bison, an animal almost unheard of on the Continent.… He will meet here, before your very eyes, the female of his species. Please be quiet and don’t be afraid.”

Göring’s keepers opened the cage.

“Ivan the Terrible,” Göring commanded, “I order you to leave the cage.”

The bull did not move.

Göring repeated his command. Once again the bull ignored him.

The keepers now attempted to prod Ivan into action. The photographers readied themselves for the lustful charge certain to ensue.

Britain’s Ambassador Phipps wrote in his diary that the bull emerged from the cage “with the utmost reluctance, and, after eyeing the cows somewhat sadly, tried to return to it.” Phipps also described the affair in a later memorandum to London that became famous within the British foreign office as “the bison dispatch.”

Next, Dodd and Mattie and the other guests climbed aboard thirty small, two-passenger carriages driven by peasants and set off on a long, meandering ride through forests and across meadows. Göring was in the lead in a carriage pulled by two great horses, with Mrs. Cerruti seated to his right. An hour later, the procession halted near a swamp. Göring climbed from his carriage and gave another speech, this on the glories of birds.

Once again the guests climbed into their carriages and, after another lengthy ride, came to a glade where their cars stood waiting. Göring levered his massive self into his car and raced off at high speed. The other guests followed at a slower pace and after twenty minutes came to a lake beside which stood an immense, newly constructed lodge that seemed meant to evoke the home of a medieval lord. Göring was waiting for them, dressed in a wholly new outfit, “a wonderful new white summer garb,” Dodd wrote—white tennis shoes, white duck trousers, white shirt, and a hunting jacket of green leather, in whose belt the same hunting knife appeared. In one hand he held a long implement that seemed a cross between a shepherd’s staff and a harpoon.

It was now about six o’clock, and the afternoon sun had turned the landscape a pleasing amber. Staff in hand, Göring led his guests into the house. A collection of swords hung just inside the main door. He showed off his “gold” and “silver” rooms, his card room, library, gym, and movie theater. One hallway was barbed with dozens of sets of antlers. In the main sitting room they found a live tree, a bronze image of Hitler, and an as-yet-unoccupied space in which Göring planned to install a statue of Wotan, the Teutonic god of war. Göring “displayed his vanity at every turn,” Dodd observed. He noted that a number of guests traded amused but discreet glances.

Then Göring drew the party outside, where all were directed to sit at tables set in the open air for a meal orchestrated by the actress Emmy Sonnemann, whom Göring identified as his “private secretary,” though it was common knowledge that she and Göring were romantically involved. (Mrs. Dodd liked Sonnemann and in coming months would become, as Martha noted, “rather attached to her.”) Ambassador Dodd found himself seated at a table with Vice-Chancellor Papen, Phipps, and François-Poncet, among others. He was disappointed in the result. “The conversation had no value,” he wrote—though he found himself briefly engaged when the discussion turned to a new book about the German navy in World War I, during which far-too-enthusiastic talk of war led Dodd to say, “If people knew the truth of history there would never be another great war.”

Phipps and François-Poncet laughed uncomfortably.

Then came silence.

A few moments later, talk resumed: “we turned,” Dodd wrote, “to other and less risky subjects.”

Dodd and Phipps assumed—hoped—that once the meal was over they would be able to excuse themselves and begin their journey back to Berlin, where both had an evening function to attend, but Göring now informed all that the climax of the outing—“this strange comedy,” Phipps called it—was yet to come.

Göring led his guests to another portion of the lake shore some five hundred yards away, where he stopped before a tomb erected at the water’s edge. Here Dodd found what he termed “the most elaborate structure of its kind I ever saw.” The mausoleum was centered between two great oak trees and six large sarsen stones reminiscent of those at Stonehenge. Göring walked to one of the oaks and planted himself before it, legs apart, like some gargantuan wood sprite. The hunting knife was still in his belt, and again he wielded his medieval staff. He held forth on the virtues of his dead wife, the idyllic setting of her tomb, and his plans for her exhumation and reinterment, which was to occur ten days hence, on the summer solstice, a day that the pagan ideology of the National Socialists had freighted with symbolic importance. Hitler was to attend, as were legions of men from the army, SS, and SA.

At last, “weary of the curious display,” Dodd and Phipps in tandem moved to say their good-byes to Göring. Mrs. Cerruti, clearly awaiting her own chance to bolt, acted with more speed. “Lady Cerruti saw our move,” Dodd wrote, “and she arose quickly so as not to allow anybody to trespass upon her fight to lead on every possible occasion.”

The next day Phipps wrote about Göring’s open house in his diary. “The whole proceedings were so strange as at times to convey a feeling of unreality,” he wrote, but the episode had provided him a valuable if unsettling insight into the nature of Nazi rule. “The chief impression was that of the most pathetic naïveté of General Göring, who showed us his toys like a big, fat, spoilt child: his primeval woods, his bison and birds, his shooting-box and lake and bathing beach, his blond ‘private secretary,’ his wife’s mausoleum and swans and sarsen stones.… And then I remembered there were other toys, less innocent though winged, and these might some day be launched on their murderous mission in the same childlike spirit and with the same childlike glee.”

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