But like seemingly everyone else in Berlin, Dodd wanted to hear what Hitler had to say about the purge. The government announced that Hitler would speak on the evening of Friday, July 13, in an address before the deputies of the Reichstag at their temporary hall, the nearby Kroll opera house. Dodd decided not to attend but to listen over the radio. The prospect of being there in person and listening to Hitler justify mass murder as hundreds of sycophants repeatedly thrust out their arms was too abhorrent.
That Friday afternoon, he and François-Poncet arranged to meet in the Tiergarten, as they had done in the past to avoid eavesdropping. Dodd wanted to find out whether François-Poncet planned to attend the speech but feared that if he visited the French embassy, Gestapo watchers would observe his arrival and conclude that he was conspiring to have the great powers boycott the speech, as indeed he was. Dodd had called on Sir Eric Phipps at the British embassy earlier in the week and learned that Phipps too planned to forgo the speech. Two such visits to major embassies in so short a time would surely draw attention.
The day was cool and sunny, and as a consequence the park was crowded with people, most on foot but quite a few on horseback, moving slowly through shadow. Now and then the air was punctuated by laughter and the barking of dogs and plumed with the ghosts of cigars fading slowly in the stillness. The two ambassadors walked for an hour.
As they prepared to part company, François-Poncet volunteered,
“I shall not attend the address.” He then offered an observation that Dodd had never expected to hear from a modern diplomat in one of the great capitals of Europe. “I would not be surprised any time to be shot on the streets of Berlin,” he said. “Because of this my wife remains in Paris. The Germans hate us so and their leadership is so crazy.”
At eight o’clock that night, in the library at Tiergartenstrasse 27a, Dodd turned on his radio and listened as Hitler took the dais to address the Reichstag. A dozen deputies were absent, murdered in the purge.
The opera house was just a twenty-minute walk across the Tiergarten from where Dodd now sat listening. On his side of the park, all was peaceful and quiet, the evening fragrant with the scent of night flowers. Even over the radio Dodd could hear the frequent risings and Heilings of the audience.
“Deputies,” Hitler said. “Men of the German Reichstag!”
Hitler detailed what he described as a plot by Captain Röhm to usurp the government, aided by a foreign diplomat whom he did not identify. In ordering the purge, he said, he had acted only in the best interests of Germany, to save the nation from turmoil.
“Only a ferocious and bloody repression could nip the revolt in the bud,” he told his audience. He himself had led the attack in Munich, he said, while Göring, with his “steel fist,” had done so in Berlin. “If someone asks me why we did not use the regular courts I would reply: at the moment I was responsible for the German nation; consequently, it was I alone who, during those twenty-four hours, was the Supreme Court of Justice of the German People.”
Dodd heard the clamor as the audience leapt to its feet, cheering, saluting, and applauding.
Hitler resumed: “I ordered the leaders of the guilty shot. I also ordered the abscesses caused by our internal and external poisons cauterized until the living flesh was burned. I also ordered that any rebel attempting to resist arrest should be killed immediately. The nation must know that its existence cannot be menaced with impunity by anyone, and that whoever lifts his hand against the State shall die of it.”
He cited the “foreign diplomat’s” meeting with Röhm and other alleged plotters and the diplomat’s subsequent declaration that the meeting was “entirely inoffensive.” It was a clear allusion to the dinner François-Poncet had attended in May at the home of Wilhelm Regendanz.
“But,” Hitler continued, “when three men capable of high treason organize a meeting in Germany with a foreign statesman, a meeting which they themselves characterize as a ‘working’ meeting, when they send the servants away, and give strict orders that I should not be informed of their meeting, I have those men shot, even if in the course of those secret conversations the only subjects discussed were the weather, old coins and similar objects.”
Hitler acknowledged that the cost of his purge “has been high,” and then lied to his audience by setting the death toll at seventy-seven. He sought to temper even this count by claiming that two of the victims killed themselves and—laughably, here—that the total included three SS men shot for “mistreating prisoners.”
He closed, “I am ready before history to take the responsibility for the twenty-four hours of the bitterest decision of my life, during which fate has again taught me to cling with every thought to the dearest thing we possess—the German people and the German Reich.”
The hall resounded with the thunder of applause and massed voices singing the “Horst Wessel Lied.” Had Dodd been present, he would have seen two girls give Hitler bouquets of flowers, the girls dressed in the uniform of the Bund Deutscher Mädel, the female branch of the Hitler Youth, and would have seen Göring step briskly to the dais to take Hitler’s hand, followed by a surge of officials bent on offering their own congratulations. Göring and Hitler stood close and held the pose for the scores of photographers pressing near. The Times’ Fred Birchall witnessed it: “They stood face to face on the dais for almost a minute, hand grasping hand, looking into each other’s eyes while the flashlights popped.”
Dodd turned off his radio. On his side of the park the night was cool and serene. The next day, Saturday, July 14, he sent a coded telegram to Secretary Hull: “NOTHING MORE REPULSIVE THAN TO WATCH THE COUNTRY OF GOETHE AND BEETHOVEN REVERT TO THE BARBARISM OF STUART ENGLAND AND BOURBON FRANCE …”
Late that afternoon, he devoted two quiet hours to his Old South, losing himself in another, more chivalrous age.
PUTZI HANFSTAENGL, ASSURED of his safety by Foreign Minister Neurath, sailed for home. When he arrived at his office he was struck by the somber, dazed aspect of those around him. They behaved, he wrote, “as if they were chloroformed.”
HITLER’S PURGE WOULD BECOME KNOWN as “The Night of the Long Knives” and in time would be considered one of the most important episodes in his ascent, the first act in the great tragedy of appeasement. Initially, however, its significance was lost. No government recalled its ambassador or filed a protest; the populace did not rise in revulsion.
The most satisfying reaction from a public official in America came from General Hugh Johnson, administrator of the National Recovery Administration, who by now had become notorious for intemperate speeches on a variety of subjects. (When a general strike had taken place in San Francisco in July led by a longshoreman who had emigrated from Australia, Johnson had called for deportation of all immigrants.) “A few days ago, in Germany, events occurred which shocked the world,” Johnson said in public remarks. “I don’t know how they affected you, but they made me sick—not figuratively, but physically and very actively sick. The idea that adult, responsible men can be taken from their homes, stood up against a wall, backs to the rifles and shot to death is beyond expression.”
The German foreign office protested. Secretary Hull replied that Johnson “was speaking as an individual and not for the State Department or for the Administration.”
This lack of reaction arose partly because many in Germany and elsewhere in the world chose to believe Hitler’s claim that he had suppressed an imminent rebellion that would have caused far more bloodshed. Evidence soon emerged, however, that showed that in fact Hitler’s account was false. Dodd at first seemed inclined to believe a plot really had existed but quickly grew skeptical. One fact seemed most clearly to refute the official line: when the SA’s Berlin chief, Karl Ernst, was arrested, he was about to set off on a honeymoon cruise, not exactly the behavior of a man supposedly plotting a coup for that same weekend. Whether Hitler at first believed his own story is unclear. Certainly Göring, Goebbels, and Himmler had done all they could to make him believe it. Britain’s Sir Eric Phipps initially accepted the official story; it took him six weeks to realize that no plot had existed. When Phipps met Hitler face-to-face several months later, his thoughts harked back to the purge. “It has not increased his charm or attractiveness,” Phipps wrote in his diary. “Whilst I spoke he eyed me hungrily like a tiger. I derived the distinct impression that had my nationality and status been different I should have formed part of his evening meal.”
In this appraisal he came closest to grasping the true message of the Röhm purge, which continued to elude the world. The killings demonstrated in what should have been unignorable terms how far Hitler was willing to go to preserve power, yet outsiders chose to misinterpret the violence as merely an internal settling of scores—“a type of gangland bloodbath redolent of Al Capone’s St. Valentine’s Day massacre,” as historian Ian Kershaw put it. “They still thought that in the business of diplomacy they could deal with Hitler as a responsible statesman. The next years would provide a bitter lesson that the Hitler conducting foreign affairs was the same one who had behaved with such savage and cynical brutality at home on 30 June 1934.” Rudolf Diels, in his memoir, acknowledged that at first he also missed the point. “I … had no idea that this hour of lightning was announcing a thunderstorm, the violence of which would tear down the rotten dams of the European systems and would put the entire world into flames—because this was indeed the meaning of June 30, 1934.”
The controlled press, not surprisingly, praised Hitler for his decisive behavior, and among the public his popularity soared. So weary had Germans become of the Storm Troopers’ intrusions in their lives that the purge seemed like a godsend. An intelligence report from the exiled Social Democrats found that many Germans were “extolling Hitler for his ruthless determination” and that many in the working class “have also become enslaved to the uncritical deification of Hitler.”
Dodd continued to hope for some catalyst to cause the end of the regime and believed the imminent death of Hindenburg—whom Dodd called modern Germany’s “single distinguished soul”—might provide it, but again he was to be disappointed. On August 2, three weeks after Hitler’s speech, Hindenburg died at his country estate. Hitler moved quickly. Before the day was out he assumed the duties of president as well as chancellor, thereby at last achieving absolute power over Germany. Contending with false humility that the title “president” could only be associated with Hindenburg, who had borne it so long, Hitler proclaimed that henceforth his own official title would be “Führer and Reich Chancellor.”
In a confidential letter to Secretary Hull, Dodd forecast “an even more terroristic regime than we have endured since June 30.”
Germany accepted the change without protest, to the dismay of Victor Klemperer, the Jewish philologist. He too had hoped the blood purge would at last cause the army to step in and remove Hitler. Nothing happened. And now, this new outrage. “The people hardly notice this complete coup d’etat,” he wrote in his diary. “It all takes place in silence, drowned out by hymns to the dead Hindenburg. I would swear that millions upon millions have no idea what a monstrous thing has occurred.”
The Munich newspaper Münchner Neueste Nachrichten gushed, “Today Hitler is the Whole of Germany,” apparently choosing to ignore the fact that just a month earlier its own gentle music critic had been shot dead by mistake.
THE RAINS CAME that weekend, a three-day downpour that drenched the city. With the SA quiescent, its brown uniforms prudently if temporarily closeted, and the nation mourning Hindenburg’s death, a rare sense of peace spread over Germany, allowing Dodd a few moments to muse on a subject freighted with irony but dear to that part of him that remained a farmer from Virginia.
In his diary entry for Sunday, August 5, 1934, Dodd remarked upon a trait of the German people that he had observed in his Leipzig days and that had persisted even under Hitler: a love of animals, in particular horses and dogs.
“At a time when nearly every German is afraid to speak a word to any but the closest friends, horses and dogs are so happy that one feels they wish to talk,” he wrote. “A woman who may report on a neighbor for disloyalty and jeopardize his life, even cause his death, takes her big kindly-looking dog in the Tiergarten for a walk. She talks to him and coddles him as she sits on a bench and he attends to the requirements of nature.”
In Germany, Dodd had noticed, no one ever abused a dog, and as a consequence dogs were never fearful around men and were always plump and obviously well tended. “Only horses seem to be equally happy, never the children or the youth,” he wrote. “I often stop as I walk to my office and have a word with a pair of beautiful horses waiting while their wagon is being unloaded. They are so clean and fat and happy that one feels that they are on the point of speaking.” He called it “horse happiness” and had noticed the same phenomenon in Nuremberg and Dresden. In part, he knew, this happiness was fostered by German law, which forbade cruelty to animals and punished violators with prison, and here Dodd found deepest irony. “At a time when hundreds of men have been put to death without trial or any sort of evidence of guilt, and when the population literally trembles with fear, animals have rights guaranteed them which men and women cannot think of expecting.”
He added, “One might easily wish he were a horse!”