“Table Talk”

Years after the war, a cache of documents came to light that proved to be transcripts of conversations between Hitler and his men, recorded by his deputy Martin Bormann. One of these transcripts concerned a conversation over dinner in October 1941 at Wolfsschanze, or Wolf’s Lair, Hitler’s redoubt in East Prussia. The subject of Martha Dodd came up.

Hitler, who once had kissed her hand, said, “To think that there was nobody in all this ministry who could get his clutches on the daughter of the former American ambassador, Dodd—and yet she wasn’t difficult to approach. That was their job, and it should have been done. In short, the girl should have been subjugated.… In the old days when we wanted to lay siege to an industrialist, we attacked him through his children. Old Dodd, who was an imbecile, we’d have got him through his daughter.”

One of Hitler’s dinner companions asked, “Was she pretty at least?”

Another guest snorted, “Hideous.”

“But one must rise above that, my dear fellow,” Hitler said. “It’s one of the qualifications. Otherwise, I ask you, why should our diplomats be paid? In that case, diplomacy would no longer be a service, but a pleasure. And it might end in marriage!”


The country club where Dodd’s farm stood (photo credit sack.1)

What I did not realize as I ventured into those dark days of Hitler’s rule was how much the darkness would infiltrate my own soul. I generally pride myself on possessing a journalist’s remove, the ability to mourn tragedy and at the same time appreciate its narrative power, but living among Nazis day in, day out proved for me a uniquely trying experience. For a time I kept on my desk a copy of Ian Kershaw’s Hitler, 1889–1936: Hubris, a work of grand scope that served as my field guide to the politics of the era. On the cover is a photograph of Hitler that became for me so repulsive—apologies to Sir Ian—that I had to keep the book on my desk facedown, as it were, for to start each day with a look at those hate-filled eyes and slack cheeks and that fragment of Brillo that passed for a mustache was far too dispiriting.

There exists a vast oeuvre of historical writing on Hitler and World War II that must be read no matter how small the episode one plans to study. All this reading deepened my spiritual malaise, not because of the sheer volume involved but because of the horrors revealed. It is difficult to fathom the breadth and depth of the landscape of war created by Hitler—the deportations of Jews to extermination camps even after the inevitability of Germany’s defeat became obvious to all; the tank battles against Russian forces that took tens of thousands of lives in a matter of days; the reprisal killings for which the Nazis became infamous, where on some sunny afternoon in a village in France a dozen men and women would be whisked from their homes and shops, stood before a wall, and shot. No preamble, no good-byes; just birdsong and blood.

Certain books, Kershaw’s Hubris foremost among them, proved exceptionally helpful in detailing the broad play of forces and men in the years that preceded World War II. I include here a couple of old but still worthy classics, Alan Bullock’s Hitler: A Study in Tyranny and William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, as well as the more recent works of Kershaw’s doppelgänger in scholarship, Richard J. Evans, whose The Third Reich in Power: 1933–1939 and The Third Reich at War: 1939–1945 are massive volumes lush with compelling, if appalling, detail.

A number of books that focused more closely on my particular parcel of ground proved very useful, among them Resisting Hitler: Mildred Harnack and the Red Orchestra, by Shareen Blair Brysac; The Haunted Wood, by KGB historians Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev; and Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America, by Vassiliev, John Earl Haynes, and Harvey Klehr.

Of particular, and obvious, value were Ambassador Dodd’s Diary, edited by Martha and Bill Jr., and Martha’s memoir, Through Embassy Eyes. Neither work is wholly trustworthy; both must be treated with care and used only in conjunction with other, corroborative sources. Martha’s memoir is necessarily her own rendering of the people and events she encountered and as such is indispensable as a window into her thoughts and feelings, but it contains interesting omissions. Nowhere, for example, does she refer by name to Mildred Fish Harnack or to Boris Winogradov, presumably because to have done so in a work published in 1939 would have placed both of them at grave risk. However, documents among Martha’s papers in the Library of Congress reveal by triangulation the points in her memoir where both Harnack and Winogradov make appearances. Her papers include her detailed and never-published accounts of her relationships with Boris and Mildred and correspondence from both. Boris wrote his letters in German, salted with English phrases and the occasional “Darling!” For translations of these, I turned to a fellow Seattle resident, Britta Hirsch, who also gamely translated lengthy portions of far more tedious documents, among them an old bill of sale for the house on Tiergartenstrasse and portions of Rudolf Diels’s memoir, Lucifer Ante Portas.

As for Ambassador Dodd’s diary, questions persist as to whether it is truly a diary as conventionally understood or rather a compendium of his writings pieced together in diary form by Martha and Bill. Martha always insisted the diary was real. Robert Dallek, biographer of presidents, wrestled with the question in his 1968 biography of Dodd, titled Democrat and Diplomat, and had the benefit of having received a letter from Martha herself in which she described its genesis. “It is absolutely authentic,” she told Dallek. “Dodd had a couple of dozen of black shiny medium size notebooks in which he wrote every night he could possibly do so, in his Berlin study before going to bed, and at other times as well.” These, she explained, formed the core of the diary, though she and her brother included elements of speeches, letters, and reports that they found appended to the pages within. The initial draft, Martha wrote, was a diary 1,200 pages long, pared down by a professional editor hired by the publisher. Dallek believed the diary to be “generally accurate.”

All I can add to the discussion are some little discoveries of my own. In my research at the Library of Congress, I found one leather-bound diary full of entries for the year 1932. At the very least, this testifies to Dodd’s inclination to keep such a record. It resides in Box 58. In Dodd’s other papers, I found oblique references to a more comprehensive and confidential diary. The most telling such reference appears in a letter dated March 10, 1938, from Mrs. Dodd to Martha, written shortly before the then-retired ambassador made a trip to New York. Mrs. Dodd tells Martha, “He is taking some of his diary for you to look over. Send them back by him as he will need them. Be careful what you quote.”

Finally, after having read Martha’s memoir, her Udet novel, and her papers, and after reading thousands of pages of Ambassador Dodd’s correspondence, telegrams, and reports, I can offer one of those intangible observations that comes only after long exposure to a given body of material, and that is that Dodd’s published diary sounds like Dodd, feels authentic, and expresses sentiments that are in perfect accord with his letters to Roosevelt, Hull, and others.

The National Archives branch in College Park, Maryland—known as National Archives II—proved to have an amazing collection of materials, twenty-seven boxes’ worth, relating to the Berlin embassy and consulate, including a count of all the dinnerware in each, down to the number of finger bowls. The Library of Congress, home to the papers of William and Martha Dodd, Cordell Hull, and Wilbur J. Carr, proved as always to be heaven’s gift to research. At the University of Delaware in Newark, I examined the papers of George Messersmith, one of the most beautifully archived collections I’ve ever come across, and had the pleasure while there of staying at the home of great friends Karen Kral and John Sherman and drinking far too much. At Harvard—which rejected my application to its undergraduate college some years ago, surely an oversight, and one that I have forgiven, mostly—I spent several delightful days scouring the papers of William Phillips and Jay Pierrepont Moffat, both Harvard men. The folks at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library were kind enough to raid their collection of Thornton Wilder’s papers and provide me with copies of letters sent to him by Martha Dodd. Other archives proved useful as well, especially the oral-history collections at both Columbia University and the New York Public Library.

I tend to distrust online resources but located several that proved extremely helpful, including a digitized collection of letters between Roosevelt and Dodd, courtesy of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, New York, and the notebooks of Alexander Vassiliev, the ex-KGB agent turned scholar, who graciously made them accessible to the public through the Web site of the Cold War International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. Anyone who wishes can also digitally thumb through the so-called Venona Intercepts, communications between Moscow Center and KGB agents in America intercepted and decoded by American intelligence officials, including missives involving Martha Dodd and Alfred Stern. Once one of America’s most closely guarded secrets, these materials now reside on the public Web site of the National Security Agency and reveal not only that America was rife with spies but that spying tended to be an excruciatingly mundane pursuit.

One challenge I faced in researching this book was how to gain a sense of the Tiergarten district of prewar Berlin, where Dodd and Martha spent so much of their time and which was in large part obliterated by Allied bombers and the final Russian assault on the city. I acquired a prewar Baedeker guide, which proved invaluable in helping me locate important landmarks, such as the Romanisches Café at Kurfürstendamm 238 and the Hotel Adlon at Unter den Linden 1. I read as many memoirs of the era as I could, mining them for insights into daily life in Berlin while keeping in mind that memoirs of the Nazi era tend to contain a good deal of self-engineering to make the author seem less complicit in the rise and rule of the Nazi Party than perhaps he or she truly was. The most glaring example of this must surely be Franz von Papen’s Memoirs, published in 1953, in which he claims that he prepared his Marburg speech “with great care,” a contention no one takes seriously. It was as big a surprise to him as it was to his audience.

The memoirlike novels of Christopher Isherwood, namely The Last of Mr. Norris and Goodbye to Berlin, proved especially useful for their observations about the look and feel of the city in the years immediately preceding Hitler’s rise, when Isherwood was himself a resident of Berlin. I took great delight in now and then visiting to search for old film footage of Berlin and found quite a bit, including the 1927 silent film Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, which sought to capture one full day of Berlin life. I was especially pleased to find a 1935 propaganda film, Miracle of Flight, intended to attract young men to the Luftwaffe, in which Martha’s onetime lover Ernst Udet stars as himself and even shows off his Berlin apartment, which looks very much the way Martha described it in her memoir.

I found the State Historical Society of Wisconsin to be a trove of relevant materials that conveyed a sense of the woof and weave of life in Hitler’s Berlin. There, in one locale, I found the papers of Sigrid Schultz, Hans V. Kaltenborn, and Louis Lochner. A short and lovely walk away, in the library of the University of Wisconsin, I found as well a supply of materials on the only UW alumna to be guillotined at Hitler’s command, Mildred Fish Harnack.

Most important, however, was my experience of Berlin itself. Enough of the city remains to provide a sense of the overall layout of things. Oddly enough the buildings of Göring’s Air Ministry survived the war largely intact, as did those of army headquarters, the Bendler Block. What I found most striking was how close everything was to the Dodds’ home, with every major government office an easy walk away, including Gestapo headquarters and Hitler’s chancellery, neither of which exists today. Where the Dodds’ home at Tiergartenstrasse 27a once stood there is now a vacant, overgrown lot surrounded by a chain-link fence. The Bendler Block is visible in the background.

I owe special thanks to Gianna Sommi Panofsky and her husband, Hans, son of Alfred Panofsky, the Dodds’ landlord in Berlin. The couple settled in Evanston, Illinois; Hans taught at Northwestern University. Mrs. Panofsky graciously provided me with the original floor plans for the house on Tiergartenstrasse (which a Northwestern journalism graduate student, Ashley Keyser, carefully secured and copied on my behalf). Mrs. Panofsky was a delight to talk to. Sadly, she died in early 2010 of colon cancer.

Above all, I thank my loyal early readers Carrie Dolan and her husband, Ryan Russell; my daughters, Kristen, Lauren, and Erin; and, as always, my wife and secret weapon, Christine Gleason, whose margin notes—complete with crying faces and trailing lines of zzzzzzz’s—once again proved indispensable. Thanks to my daughters also for their increasingly astute critiques of my manner of dress. I owe a huge debt to Betty Prashker, my editor of nearly two decades, and to John Glusman, whose deft hand guided this book to publication. Thanks also to Domenica Alioto for taking on tasks she should not have to take on, and Jacob Bronstein, who so ably straddles the boundary between Web and world. An extra huzzah to Penny Simon for her friendship and expertise at getting me to do things I don’t want to do; to Tina Constable for her confidence; and to David Black, my longtime agent, wine adviser, and great friend. Finally, a long, long hug to Molly, our lovely, sweet dog, who succumbed to liver cancer at the age of ten as my work on this book neared its end. In her last weeks, however, she did manage to catch a rabbit, something she had sought unsuccessfully to do for years. We miss her every day.

WHEN I WAS IN BERLIN a strange thing happened, one of those odd little moments of space-time congruity that always seem to occur when I’m most deeply immersed in researching a book. I stayed at the Ritz-Carlton near the Tiergarten, not because it was a Ritz but because it was a brand-new Ritz offering rooms at compellingly low come-hither rates. That the month was February helped also. On my first morning, too jet-lagged to do anything terribly ambitious, I set out for a walk and headed for the Tiergarten, with the vague idea that I’d walk until I found the Dodds’ address, unless I froze to death first. It was an icy, blustery morning, marked by the occasional appearance of flecks of snow falling at oblique angles. As I walked, I came upon a particularly interesting bit of architectural preservation—a large portion of the facade of an old bullet-pocked building standing behind a giant wall of glass. A bridgelike deck spanned the top of this facade and supported several stories of modern luxury apartments. Out of random curiosity, I walked to an informational plaque that identified the facade. It belonged to the Hotel Esplanade, where the Dodds stayed when they first arrived in Berlin. Here as well, also behind glass, was an inside wall of the Esplanade’s breakfast room restored to original condition. It was strange to see these architectural artifacts lodged behind glass, like giant, immobile fish, but also revelatory. For an instant I could see Dodd and Martha setting off to begin their days, Dodd heading north at a brisk clip to the Tiergarten for his walk to the embassy offices on Bendlerstrasse, Martha rushing south to meet Rudolf Diels at the old art school on Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse before a quiet lunch in some discreet locale.

The following notes are by no means exhaustive. I have been careful always to credit material quoted from other works and to annotate those facts and observations that for one reason or another cry out for attribution, such as Ian Kershaw’s revelation—Hubris, page 485—that one of Hitler’s favorite movies was King Kong. As always, for those readers who like reading footnotes—and there are many of you—I have included little stories and facts that did not fit the main narrative but that struck me as too interesting or compelling to omit. For this indulgence, forgive me.

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