Guns in the Park

Boris and Martha stayed at the beach all day, retreating to shade when the sun became too much but returning again for more. It was after five when they packed their things and with reluctance began the drive back to the city, “our heads giddy,” Martha recalled, “and our bodies burning from the sun.” They traveled as slowly as possible, neither wanting the day to end, both still relishing the oblivion of sunshine on water. The day had grown hotter as the ground cast its accumulated warmth back into the atmosphere.

They drove through a bucolic landscape softened by heat haze that rose from the fields and forests around them. Riders on bicycles overtook and passed them, some carrying small children in baskets over the front fenders or in wagons pulled alongside. Women carried flowers and men with knapsacks engaged in the German passion for a good, fast walk. “It was a homely, hot, and friendly day,” Martha wrote.

To catch the late afternoon sun and the breezes that flowed through the open car, Martha hiked the hem of her skirt to the tops of her thighs. “I was happy,” she wrote, “pleased with my day and my companion, full of sympathy for the earnest, simple, kindly German people, so obviously taking a hard-earned walk or rest, enjoying themselves and their countryside so intensely.”

At six o’clock they entered the city. Martha sat up straight and dropped the hem of her skirt “as befits a diplomat’s daughter.”

The city had changed. They realized it in phases as they got closer and closer to the Tiergarten. There were fewer people on the street than might be considered normal, and these tended to gather in “curious static groups,” as Martha put it. Traffic moved slowly. At the point where Boris was about to enter Tiergartenstrasse, the flow of cars all but stopped. They saw army trucks and machine guns and suddenly realized that the only people around them were men in uniform, mostly SS black and the green of Göring’s police force. Noticeably absent were the brown uniforms of the SA. What made this especially odd was that the SA’s headquarters and Captain Röhm’s home were so near.

They came to a checkpoint. The license plate on Boris’s car indicated diplomatic status. The police waved them through.

Boris drove slowly through a newly sinister landscape. Across the street from Martha’s house, beside the park, stood a line of soldiers, weapons, and military trucks. Farther down Tiergartenstrasse, at the point where it intersected Standartenstrasse—Röhm’s street—they saw more soldiers and a rope barrier marking the street’s closure.

There was a sense of suffocation. Drab trucks blocked the vistas of the park. And there was heat. It was evening, well after six, but the sun was still high and hot. Once so alluring, the sun now to Martha was “broiling.” She and Boris parted. She ran to her front door and quickly entered. The sudden darkness and stone-cool air of the entry foyer were so jarring she felt dizzy, “my eyes blinded for the moment by the lack of light.”

She ascended the stairwell to the main floor and there found her brother. “We were worried about you,” he said. He told her General Schleicher had been shot. Their father had gone to the embassy to prepare a message for the State Department. “We don’t know what is happening,” Bill said. “There is martial law in Berlin.”

In that first instant, the name “Schleicher” brought no recognition. Then she remembered: Schleicher, the general, a man of military bearing and integrity, a former chancellor and minister of defense.

“I sat down, still confused and terribly distressed,” Martha recalled. She could not understand why General Schleicher would be shot. She recalled him as being “courtly, attractive, clever.”

Schleicher’s wife had been shot as well, Bill told her. Both shot in the back, in their garden; both shot numerous times. The story would change over the next few days, but the irrevocable fact was that both Schleichers were dead.

Mrs. Dodd came downstairs. She, Bill, and Martha went into one of the reception rooms. They took seats close together and talked quietly. They noticed that Fritz appeared with unusual frequency. They closed all the doors. Fritz continued to bring word of new telephone calls from friends and correspondents. He seemed afraid, “white and scared,” Martha wrote.

The story Bill told was a chilling one. Although a fog of rumor clouded every new revelation, certain facts were clear. The deaths of the Schleichers were just two of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of official murders committed so far that day, and the killing continued. Röhm was said to be under arrest, his fate uncertain.

Each new telephone call brought more news, much of it sounding too wild to be credible. Assassination squads were said to be roaming the country, hunting targets. Karl Ernst, chief of Berlin’s SA, had been dragged from his honeymoon ship. A prominent leader in the Catholic Church had been murdered in his office. A second army general had been shot, as had a music critic for a newspaper. The killings seemed haphazard and capricious.

There was one perversely comical moment. The Dodds received a terse RSVP from Röhm’s office, stating that “to his great sorrow” he could not attend a dinner at the Dodds’ house set for the coming Friday, July 6, “because he will be on vacation to seek a cure for an illness.”

“In view of the uncertainty of the situation,” Dodd wrote in his diary, “perhaps it was best he did not accept.”

ADDING TO THE DAY’S sense of upheaval was a collision that occurred just outside 27a when the embassy chauffeur—a man named Pickford—struck a motorcycle and broke off the rider’s leg. A wooden leg.

In the midst of it all, there lingered for Dodd a particularly pressing question: what had happened to Papen, the hero of Marburg, whom Hitler so loathed? Reports held that Edgar Jung, the author of Papen’s speech, had been shot and that Papen’s press secretary likewise had been killed. In that murderous climate, could Papen himself possibly have survived?

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!