First Night

Martha continued to cry off and on for the better part of the next two days—“copiously and sentimentally,” as she put it. Not out of anxiety, for she had given little thought to what life in Hitler’s Germany might really be like. Rather she wept for all she was leaving behind, the people and places, her friends and job, the familiar comfort of the house on Blackstone Avenue, her lovely Carl, all of which composed the “inestimably precious” life she had led in Chicago. If she needed a reminder of what she stood to lose, the seating at her going-away party provided it. She sat between Sandburg and another close friend, Thornton Wilder.

Gradually her sorrow eased. The seas were calm, the days bright. She and Roosevelt’s son chummed around and danced and drank champagne. They examined each other’s passports—his identifying him succinctly as “son of the President of the United States,” hers a tad more pretentious: “daughter of William E. Dodd, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States to Germany.” Her father required that she and her brother come to his stateroom, number A-10, for at least an hour a day and listen to him read aloud in German so that they would gain a sense of how the language sounded. He seemed unusually solemn, and Martha sensed an unaccustomed nervousness.

For her, however, the prospect of the adventure ahead soon pushed aside her anxiety. She knew little of international politics and by her own admission did not appreciate the gravity of what was occurring in Germany. She saw Hitler as “a clown who looked like Charlie Chaplin.” Like many others in America at this time and elsewhere in the world, she could not imagine him lasting very long or being taken seriously. She was ambivalent about the Jewish situation. As a student at the University of Chicago she had experienced a “subtle and undercurrent propaganda among the undergraduates” that promulgated hostility toward Jews. Martha found “that even many of the college professors resented the brilliance of Jewish colleagues and students.” As for herself: “I was slightly anti-Semitic in this sense: I accepted the attitude that Jews were not as physically attractive as Gentiles and were less socially desirable.” She also found herself absorbing a view that Jews, while generally brilliant, were rich and pushy. In this she reflected the attitude of a surprising proportion of other Americans, as captured in the 1930s by practitioners of the then-emerging art of public-opinion polling. One poll found that 41 percent of those contacted believed Jews had “too much power in the United States”; another found that one-fifth wanted to “drive Jews out of the United States.” (A poll taken decades in the future, in 2009, would find that the total of Americans who believed Jews had too much power had shrunk to 13 percent.)

A classmate described Martha as Scarlett O’Hara and “an enchantress—luscious and blonde, with luminous blue eyes and pale, translucent skin.” She considered herself a writer and hoped eventually to make a career of writing short stories and novels. Sandburg urged her forward. “The personality is all there in you,” he wrote. “Time, solitude, toil are the main oldtime simple requisites for you; you’ve got just about everything else for the doing of whatever you want to do as a writer.” Shortly after the family’s departure for Berlin, Sandburg instructed her to keep notes on everything and anything and to “give way to every beckoning to write short things impressions sudden lyric sentences you have a gift for outpouring.” Above all, he urged, “find out what this man Hitler is made of, what makes his brain go round, what his bones and blood are made of.”

Thornton Wilder also offered some parting advice. He warned Martha to avoid writing for newspapers, because such “hackwork” would destroy the concentration she would need for serious writing. He did recommend that she keep a diary of “what things looked like—the rumors, and opinions of people during a political time.” In the future, he wrote, such a diary would be “of liveliest interest to you and—oh my God—to me.” Some of Martha’s friends believed she was romantically involved with him as well, though in fact his affinities lay elsewhere. Martha kept a picture of him in a locket.

ON DODD’S SECOND DAY at sea, as he strolled the deck of the Washington, he spotted a familiar face, Rabbi Wise, one of the Jewish leaders he had met in New York three days earlier. Over the week’s voyage that followed, they spoke together about Germany “half a dozen or more” times, Wise reported to a fellow Jewish leader, Julian W. Mack, a federal appellate judge. “He was most friendly and cordial, and indeed confidential.”

Dodd, true to character, spoke at length about American history and at one point told Rabbi Wise, “One cannot write the whole truth about Jefferson and Washington—people are not ready and must be prepared for it.”

This startled Wise, who called it “the only disturbing note of the week.” He explained: “If people must be prepared for the truth about Jefferson and Washington, what will [Dodd] do with the truth when he learns it about Hitler, in view of his official post?!”

Wise continued, “Whenever I suggested that the greatest service he could render his own country and Germany would be to tell the truth to the chancellor, to make clear to him how public opinion, including Christian opinion and political opinion, had turned against Germany … he answered again and again: ‘I cannot tell until I talk to Hitler: if I find I can do so, I will talk very frankly to him and tell him everything.’ ”

Their many talks aboard ship drew Wise to conclude “that W.E.D. feels himself deputized to cultivate American liberalism in Germany.” He quoted Dodd’s last remark: “ ‘It will be pretty serious if I fail—serious for liberalism and all the things for which the President stands, for which I, too, stand.’ ”

By this point, indeed, Dodd had come to envision his ambassadorial role as more than that of mere observer and reporter. He believed that through reason and example he ought to be able to exercise a moderating influence over Hitler and his government and, at the same time, help nudge America from its isolationist course toward more international engagement. The best approach, he believed, was to be as sympathetic and nonjudgmental as possible and try to understand Germany’s perception that it had been wronged by the world. To an extent, Dodd agreed. In his diary he wrote that the Treaty of Versailles, so loathed by Hitler, was “unfair at many points, like all treaties which end wars.” His daughter, Martha, in a memoir, put it more strongly, stating that Dodd had “deplored” the treaty.

Ever a student of history, Dodd had come to believe in the inherent rationality of men and that reason and persuasion would prevail, particularly with regard to halting Nazi persecution of Jews.

He told a friend, Assistant Secretary of State R. Walton Moore, that he would rather resign than “simply to remain a protocol and social figurehead.”

THE DODDS REACHED GERMANY on Thursday, July 13, 1933. Dodd had assumed erroneously that all arrangements for the family’s arrival were in place, but after a slow and tedious passage up the Elbe they disembarked in Hamburg to find that no one from the embassy had booked a train, let alone the customary private railcar, to take them to Berlin. An official, George Gordon, counselor of embassy, met them at the dock and hastily secured compartments on an old, conventional train, a far cry from the famous “Flying Hamburger,” which made the run to Berlin in just over two hours. The family Chevrolet posed another problem. Bill Jr. had planned to drive it to Berlin but had failed to fill out the advance paperwork needed to get it off the ship and onto Germany’s roads. Once this was resolved, Bill set off. Meanwhile, Dodd fielded questions from a group of reporters that included a writer for a Jewish newspaper, the Hamburger Israelitisches Familienblatt, which subsequently published an article implying that Dodd’s primary mission was to stop Nazi persecution of Jews—exactly the kind of distortion Dodd had hoped to avoid.

As the afternoon progressed, the Dodds developed a dislike for Counselor Gordon. He was second in command of the embassy and oversaw a cadre of first and second secretaries, stenographers, file and code clerks, and assorted other employees, about two dozen in all. He was stiff and arrogant and dressed like an aristocrat from the prior century. He carried a walking stick. His mustache was curled, his complexion ruddy and inflamed, a marker of what one official called his “very choleric temperament.” He spoke in a manner that Martha described as “clipped, polite, and definitely condescending.” He made no attempt to hide his disdain for the family’s simple appearance or his displeasure at the fact that they arrived alone, without a battalion of valets, maids, and chauffeurs. The previous ambassador, Sackett, had been much more Gordon’s kind of man, rich, with ten servants at his Berlin residence. Martha sensed that to Gordon her family represented a class of human being “the like of which he had not permitted himself to mingle with for perhaps most of his adult life.”

Martha and her mother rode in one compartment, among bouquets of flowers given to them in welcome at the dock. Mrs. Dodd—Mattie—was uneasy and downhearted, anticipating “the duties and change in life-patterns” that lay ahead, Martha recalled. Martha rested her head on her mother’s shoulder and soon fell asleep.

Dodd and Gordon sat together in a separate compartment discussing embassy matters and German politics. Gordon warned Dodd that his frugality and his resolve to live only within his State Department income would prove a barrier to establishing a relationship with Hitler’s government. Dodd was no longer a mere professor, Gordon reminded him. He was an important diplomat up against an arrogant regime that respected only strength. Dodd’s approach to daily life would have to change.

The train raced through pretty towns and forested glens bladed with afternoon light and in about three hours reached greater Berlin. At last it steamed into Berlin’s Lehrter Bahnhof, at a bend in the Spree where the river flowed through the heart of the city. One of Berlin’s five major rail portals, the station rose above its surroundings like a cathedral, with a barrel-vaulted ceiling and banks of arched windows.

On the platform, the Dodds encountered a crowd of Americans and Germans waiting to meet them, including officials from the German foreign office and reporters armed with cameras and flash apparatus known then as “flashlights.” An energetic-seeming man, midsized, about five feet six inches tall—“a dry, drawling, peppery man,” as historian and diplomat George Kennan later described him—stepped forward and introduced himself. This was George Messersmith, consul general, the Foreign Service officer whose lengthy dispatches Dodd had read while in Washington. Martha and her father liked him immediately, judging him to be a man of principle and candor and a likely friend, though this appraisal was destined for significant revision.

Messersmith returned this initial goodwill. “I liked Dodd from the outset,” Messersmith wrote. “He was a very simple man in his manner and in his approach.” He noted, however, that Dodd “gave the impression of being rather fragile.”

In the crowd of greeters the Dodds also encountered two women who over the next several years would play important roles in the family’s life, one a German, the other an American from Wisconsin who was married to a member of one of Germany’s loftiest scholarly dynasties.

The German woman was Bella Fromm—“Auntie Voss,” society columnist for a highly respected newspaper, the Vossische Zeitung, one of two hundred newspapers then still operating in Berlin and, unlike most of them, still capable of independent reportage. Fromm was full figured and handsome, with striking eyes—onyx under black gull-wing brows, her pupils partially curtained by upper lids in a manner that conveyed both intellect and skepticism. She was trusted by virtually all members of the city’s diplomatic community as well as by senior members of the Nazi Party, no small achievement considering that she was Jewish. She claimed to have a source high in Hitler’s government who gave her advance warning of future Reich actions. She was a close friend of Messersmith’s; her daughter, Gonny, called him “uncle.”

Fromm in her diary recorded her initial observations of the Dodds. Martha, she wrote, seemed “a perfect example of the intelligent young American female.” As for the ambassador, he “looks like a scholar. His dry humor attracted me. He is observant and precise. He learned to love Germany when he was a student in Leipzig, he said, and will dedicate his strength to build a sincere friendship between his country and Germany.”

She added: “I hope he and the President of the United States will not be too disappointed in their efforts.”

The second woman, the American, was Mildred Fish Harnack, a representative of the American Women’s Club in Berlin. She was Fromm’s physical opposite in every way—slender, blonde, ethereal, reserved. Martha and Mildred liked each other at once. Mildred wrote later that Martha “is clear and capable and has a real desire to understand the world. Therefore our interests touch.” She sensed that she had found a soul mate, “a woman who is seriously interested in writing. It’s a hindrance to be lonely and isolated in one’s work. Ideas stimulate ideas, and the love of writing is contagious.”

Martha in turn was impressed by Mildred. “I was drawn to her immediately,” she wrote. Mildred exhibited an appealing combination of strength and delicacy. “She was slow to speak and express opinions; she listened quietly, her large grey blue eyes serious … weighing, evaluating, trying to understand.”

COUNSELOR GORDON PLACED MARTHA in a car with a young protocol secretary assigned to accompany her to the hotel where the Dodds were to live until they could find a suitable house to lease. Her parents traveled separately with Gordon, Messersmith, and Messersmith’s wife. Martha’s car proceeded south over the Spree into the city.

She found long, straight boulevards that evoked the rigid grid of Chicago, but the similarity ended there. Unlike the skyscraper-forested landscape she had walked through every workday in Chicago, here most buildings were rather short, typically five stories or so, and these amplified the low, flat feel of the city. Most looked to be very old, but a few were jarringly new, with walls of glass, flat roofs, and curved facades, the offspring of Walter Gropius, Bruno Taut, and Erich Mendelsohn, all condemned by the Nazis as decadent, communist, and, inevitably, Jewish. The city was full of color and energy. There were double-decked omnibuses, S-Bahn trains, and brightly colored trams whose catenaries fired off brilliant blue sparks. Low-slung automobiles thrummed past, most painted black, but others red, cream, and deep blue, many of unfamiliar design: the adorable Opel 4/16 PS, the Horch with its lethal arrow-in-bow hood ornament, and the ubiquitous Mercedes, black, low, edged with chrome. Joseph Goebbels himself was moved to capture in prose the energy of the city as exhibited in one of its most popular shopping avenues, the Kurfürstendamm, albeit in an essay meant not to praise but to condemn, calling the street “the abscess” of the city. “The bells on the streetcars ring, buses clatter by honking their horns, stuffed full with people and more people; taxis and fancy private automobiles hum over the glassy asphalt,” he wrote. “The fragrance of heavy perfume floats by. Harlots smile from the artful pastels of fashionable women’s faces; so-called men stroll to and fro, monocles glinting; fake and precious stones sparkle.” Berlin was, he wrote, a “stone desert” filled with sin and corruption and inhabited by a populace “borne to the grave with a smile.”

The young protocol officer pointed out various landmarks. Martha asked question after question, oblivious to the fact that she was trying the officer’s patience. Early in their drive, they came to an open plaza dominated by an immense building of Silesian sandstone, with two-hundred-foot towers at each of its four corners, built in what one of Karl Baedeker’s famous guidebooks described as “florid Italian Renaissance style.” This was the Reichstagsgebäude, in which Germany’s legislative body, the Reichstag, had convened until the building was set afire four months earlier. A young Dutchman—a lapsed communist named Marinus van der Lubbe—was arrested and charged with the arson, along with four other suspects named as accomplices, though a widely endorsed rumor held that the Nazi regime itself had orchestrated the fire to stir fears of a Bolshevik uprising and thereby gain popular support for the suspension of civil liberties and the destruction of the Communist Party in Germany. The upcoming trial was the talk of Berlin.

But Martha was perplexed. Contrary to what news reports had led her to expect, the building seemed intact. The towers still stood and the facades appeared unmarked. “Oh, I thought it was burned down!” she exclaimed as the car passed the building. “It looks all right to me. Tell me what happened.”

After this and several other outbursts that Martha conceded were imprudent, the protocol officer leaned toward her and hissed, “Sssh! Young lady, you must learn to be seen and not heard. You mustn’t say so much and ask so many questions. This isn’t America and you can’t say all the things you think.”

She stayed quiet for the rest of the drive.

UPON REACHING THEIR HOTEL, the Esplanade, on the well-shaded and lovely Bellevuestrasse, Martha and her parents were shown the accommodations that Messersmith himself had arranged.

Dodd was appalled, Martha enchanted.

The hotel was one of Berlin’s finest, with gigantic chandeliers and fireplaces and two glass-roofed courtyards, one of which—the Palm Courtyard—was famous for its tea dances and as the place where Berliners had gotten their first opportunity to dance the Charleston. Greta Garbo had once been a guest, as had Charlie Chaplin. Messersmith had booked the Imperial Suite, a collection of rooms that included a large double-bedded room with private bath, two single bedrooms also with private baths, one drawing room, and one conference room, all arrayed along the even-numbered side of a hall, from room 116 through room 124. Two reception rooms had walls covered with satin brocade. The suite was suffused with a springlike scent imparted by flowers sent by well-wishers, so many flowers, Martha recalled, “that there was scarcely space to move in—orchids and rare scented lilies, flowers of all colors and descriptions.” Upon entering the suite, she wrote, “we gasped at its magnificence.”

But such opulence abraded every principle of the Jeffersonian ideal that Dodd had embraced throughout his life. Dodd had made it known before his arrival that he wanted “modest quarters in a modest hotel,” Messersmith wrote. While Messersmith understood Dodd’s desire to live “most inconspicuously and modestly,” he also knew “that the German officials and German people would not understand it.”

There was another factor. U.S. diplomats and State Department officials had always stayed at the Esplanade. To do otherwise would have constituted an egregious breach of protocol and tradition.

THE FAMILY SETTLED IN. Bill Jr. and the Chevrolet were not expected to arrive for a while yet. Dodd retired to a bedroom with a book. Martha found it all hard to grasp. Cards from well-wishers continued to arrive, accompanied by still more flowers. She and her mother sat in awe of the luxury around them, “wondering desperately how all this was to be paid for without mortgaging our souls.”

Later that evening the family rallied and went down to the hotel restaurant for dinner, where Dodd dusted off his decades-old German and in his dry manner tried to joke with the waiters. He was, Martha wrote, “in magnificent humor.” The waiters, more accustomed to the imperious behavior of world dignitaries and Nazi officials, were unsure how to respond and adopted a level of politeness that Martha found almost obsequious. The food was good, she judged, but heavy, classically German, and demanded an after-dinner walk.

Outside, the Dodds turned left and walked along Bellevuestrasse through the shadows of trees and the penumbrae of streetlamps. The dim lighting evoked for Martha the somnolence of rural American towns very late at night. She saw no soldiers, no police. The night was soft and lovely; “everything,” she wrote, “was peaceful, romantic, strange, nostalgic.”

They continued on to the end of the street and crossed a small square into the Tiergarten, Berlin’s equivalent of Central Park. The name, in literal translation, meant “animal garden” or “garden of the beasts,” which harked back to its deeper past, when it was a hunting preserve for royalty. Now it was 630 acres of trees, walkways, riding paths and statuary that spread west from the Brandenburg Gate to the wealthy residential and shopping district of Charlottenburg. The Spree ran along its northern boundary; the city’s famous zoo stood at its southwest corner. At night the park was especially alluring. “In the Tiergarten,” a British diplomat wrote, “the little lamps flicker among the little trees, and the grass is starred with the fireflies of a thousand cigarettes.”

The Dodds entered the Siegesallee—Avenue of Victory—lined with ninety-six statues and busts of past Prussian leaders, among them Frederick the Great, various lesser Fredericks, and such once-bright stars as Albert the Bear, Henry the Child, and Otho the Lazy. Berliners called them Puppen—dolls. Dodd held forth on the history of each, revealing the detailed knowledge of Germany he had acquired in Leipzig three decades earlier. Martha could tell that his sense of foreboding had dissipated. “I am sure this was one of the happiest evenings we spent in Germany,” she wrote. “All of us were full of joy and peace.”

Her father had loved Germany ever since his tenure in Leipzig, when each day a young woman brought fresh violets for his room. Now on this first night, as they walked along the Avenue of Victory, Martha too felt a rush of affection for the country. The city, the overall atmosphere, was nothing like what news reports back home had led her to expect. “I felt the press had badly maligned the country and I wanted to proclaim the warmth and friendliness of the people, the soft summer night with its fragrance of trees and flowers, the serenity of the streets.”

This was July 13, 1933.

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