House Hunting in the Third Reich

Ambassador Dodd at his desk (photo credit p2.1)



In her first few days in Berlin, Martha fell ill with a cold. As she lay convalescing at the Esplanade she received a visitor, an American woman named Sigrid Schultz, who for the preceding fourteen years had been a correspondent in Berlin for Martha’s former employer, the Chicago Tribune, and was now its correspondent in chief for Central Europe. Schultz was forty years old, five foot three—the same height as Martha—with blond hair and blue eyes. “A little pudgy,” as Martha put it, with “an abundance of golden hair.” Despite her size and cherub’s gleam, Schultz was known to fellow correspondents and Nazi officials alike as being tenacious, outspoken, and utterly fearless. She made every diplomat’s invitation list and was a regular at parties thrown by Goebbels, Göring, and other Nazi leaders. Göring took a perverse delight in calling her “the dragon from Chicago.”

Schultz and Martha chatted at first about innocuous things, but soon the conversation turned to the rapid transformation of Berlin during the six months since Hitler had become chancellor. Schultz told stories of violence against Jews, communists, and anyone the Nazis saw as unsympathetic to their revolution. In some cases the victims had been American citizens.

Martha countered that Germany was in the midst of a historic rebirth. Those incidents that did occur surely were only inadvertent expressions of the wild enthusiasm that had gripped the country. In the few days since her arrival Martha had seen nothing at all to corroborate Schultz’s tales.

But Schultz pressed on with stories of beatings and capricious imprisonments in the “wild” camps—ad hoc prisons that had sprung up throughout the country under the control of Nazi paramilitary forces—and in more formal prisons, known by now as concentration camps. The German word was Konzentrationslager, or KZ. The opening of one such camp had occurred on March 22, 1933, its existence revealed at a press conference held by a thirty-two-year-old former chicken farmer turned commander of the Munich police, Heinrich Himmler. The camp occupied an old munitions factory a brief train ride from Munich, just outside the charming village of Dachau, and now housed hundreds of prisoners, possibly thousands—no one knew—most arrested not on specific charges but rather for “protective custody.” These were not Jews, not yet, but communists and members of the liberal Social Democratic Party, all held in conditions of strict discipline.

Martha grew annoyed at Schultz’s effort to tarnish her rosy view, but she liked Schultz and saw that she would make a valuable friend, given her vast range of contacts among journalists and diplomats. They parted amicably, but with Martha unshaken in her view that the revolution unfolding around her was a heroic episode that could yield a new and healthy Germany.

“I didn’t believe all her stories,” Martha wrote later. “I thought she was exaggerating and a bit hysterical.”

When Martha left her hotel she witnessed no violence, saw no one cowering in fear, felt no oppression. The city was a delight. What Goebbels condemned she adored. A short walk from the hotel, to the right, away from the cool green of the Tiergarten, took her to Potsdamer Platz, one of the busiest intersections in the world, with its famous five-way streetlight, believed to have been the first-ever stoplight installed in Europe. Berlin had only 120,000 cars, but at any given moment all of them seemed to collect here, like bees to a hive. One could watch the whirl of cars and people from an outdoor table at the Josty Café. Here too stood Haus Vaterland, a five-story nightclub capable of serving six thousand diners in twelve restaurant milieus, including a Wild West bar, with waiters in immense cowboy hats, and the Rhineland Wine Terrace, where each hour guests experienced a brief indoor thunderstorm complete with lightning, thunder, and, to the chagrin of women wearing true silk, a sprinkling of rain. “What a youthful, carefree, won’t-go-home-till-morning, romantic, wonderful place!” one visitor wrote: “It is the jolliest place in Berlin.”

For a twenty-four-year-old woman unencumbered by job and financial concern and soon to be freed of a dead marriage, Berlin was endlessly compelling. Within days she found herself going on an afternoon “tea date” with a famous American correspondent, H. R. Knickerbocker—“Knick” to his friends—who filed stories for the New York Evening Post. He took her to the Eden Hotel, the notorious Eden, where communist firebrand Rosa Luxemburg had been beaten nearly to death in 1919 before being driven into the adjacent Tiergarten and killed.

Now, in the Eden’s tea room, Martha and Knick danced. He was skinny and short, with red hair and brown eyes, and led her across the floor with skill and grace. Inevitably, the conversation shifted to Germany. Like Sigrid Schultz, Knickerbocker tried to teach Martha a bit about the politics of the country and the character of its new leadership. Martha wasn’t interested, and the conversation drifted elsewhere. What enthralled her were the German men and women around her. She loved “their funny stiff dancing, listening to their incomprehensible and guttural tongue, and watching their simple gestures, natural behavior and childlike eagerness for life.”

She liked the Germans she had met thus far—more, certainly, than the French she had encountered during her studies in Paris. Unlike the French, she wrote, the Germans “weren’t thieves, they weren’t selfish, they weren’t impatient or cold and hard.”

MARTHA’S CHEERY VIEW of things was widely shared by outsiders visiting Germany and especially Berlin. The fact was that on most days in most neighborhoods the city looked and functioned as it always had. The cigar peddler in front of the Hotel Adlon, at Unter den Linden 1, continued to sell cigars as always (and Hitler continued to shun the hotel, preferring instead the nearby Kaiserhof). Every morning Germans crowded the Tiergarten, many on horseback, as thousands of others commuted into the city center on trains and trams from such neighborhoods as Wedding and Onkel Toms Hütte. Nicely dressed men and women sat in the Romanisches Café, drinking coffee and wine, and smoking cigarettes and cigars, and exercising the sharp wit for which Berliners were famed—the Berliner Schnauze, or “Berlin snout.” At the Katakombe cabaret, Werner Finck continued poking fun at the new regime, despite the risk of arrest. During one show a member of the audience called him a “lousy yid,” to which he responded, “I’m not Jewish. I only look intelligent.” The audience laughed with gusto.

Nice days were still nice. “The sun shines,” wrote Christopher Isherwood in his Berlin Stories, “and Hitler is the master of this city. The sun shines, and dozens of my friends … are in prison, possibly dead.” The prevailing normalcy was seductive. “I catch sight of my face in the mirror of a shop, and am shocked to see that I am smiling,” Isherwood wrote. “You can’t help smiling, in such beautiful weather.” The trams moved as usual, as did the pedestrians passing on the street; everything around him had “an air of curious familiarity, of striking resemblance to something one remembers as normal and pleasant in the past—like a very good photograph.”

Beneath the surface, however, Germany had undergone a rapid and sweeping revolution that reached deep into the fabric of daily life. It had occurred quietly and largely out of easy view. At its core was a government campaign called Gleichschaltung—meaning “Coordination”—to bring citizens, government ministries, universities, and cultural and social institutions in line with National Socialist beliefs and attitudes.

“Coordination” occurred with astonishing speed, even in sectors of life not directly targeted by specific laws, as Germans willingly placed themselves under the sway of Nazi rule, a phenomenon that became known as Selbstgleichschaltung, or “self-coordination.” Change came to Germany so quickly and across such a wide front that German citizens who left the country for business or travel returned to find everything around them altered, as if they were characters in a horror movie who come back to find that people who once were their friends, clients, patients, and customers have become different in ways hard to discern. Gerda Laufer, a socialist, wrote that she felt “deeply shaken that people whom one regarded as friends, who were known for a long time, from one hour to the next transformed themselves.”

Neighbors turned surly; petty jealousies flared into denunciations made to the SA—the Storm Troopers—or to the newly founded Geheime Staatspolizei, only just becoming known by its acronym, Gestapo (GEheime STAatsPOlizei), coined by a post office clerk seeking a less cumbersome way of identifying the agency. The Gestapo’s reputation for omniscience and malevolence arose from a confluence of two phenomena: first, a political climate in which merely criticizing the government could get one arrested, and second, the existence of a populace eager not just to step in line and become coordinated but also to use Nazi sensitivities to satisfy individual needs and salve jealousies. One study of Nazi records found that of a sample of 213 denunciations, 37 percent arose not from heartfelt political belief but from private conflicts, with the trigger often breathtakingly trivial. In October 1933, for example, the clerk at a grocery store turned in a cranky customer who had stubbornly insisted on receiving three pfennigs in change. The clerk accused her of failure to pay taxes. Germans denounced one another with such gusto that senior Nazi officials urged the populace to be more discriminating as to what circumstances might justify a report to the police. Hitler himself acknowledged, in a remark to his minister of justice, “we are living at present in a sea of denunciations and human meanness.”

A central element of Coordination was the insertion into Germany’s civil service law of the “Aryan clause,” which effectively banned Jews from government jobs. Additional regulations and local animosities severely restricted Jews from practicing medicine and becoming lawyers. As onerous and dramatic as these restrictions were for Jews, they made little impression on tourists and other casual observers, partly because so few Jews lived in Germany. As of January 1933 only about 1 percent of Germany’s sixty-five million people were Jewish, and most lived in major cities, leaving a negligible presence throughout the rest of the country. Nearly a third—just over 160,000—lived in Berlin alone, but they constituted less than 4 percent of the city’s overall population of 4.2 million, and many lived in close-knit neighborhoods not typically included on visitors’ itineraries.

Yet even many Jewish residents failed to grasp the true meaning of what was occurring. Fifty thousand did see, and left Germany within weeks of Hitler’s ascension to chancellor, but most stayed. “Hardly anyone thought that the threats against the Jews were meant seriously,” wrote Carl Zuckmayer, a Jewish writer. “Even many Jews considered the savage anti-Semitic rantings of the Nazis merely a propaganda device, a line the Nazis would drop as soon as they won governmental power and were entrusted with public responsibilities.” Although a song popular among Storm Troopers bore the title “When Jewish Blood Spurts from My Knife,” by the time of the Dodds’ arrival violence against Jews had begun to wane. Incidents were sporadic, isolated. “It was easy to be reassured,” wrote historian John Dippel in a study of why many Jews decided to stay in Germany. “On the surface, much of daily life remained as it had been before Hitler came to power. Nazi attacks on the Jews were like summer thunderstorms that came and went quickly, leaving an eerie calm.”

The most visible marker of the Coordination campaign was the sudden appearance of the Hitler salute, or Hitlergruss. It was sufficiently new to the outside world that Consul General Messersmith devoted an entire dispatch to the subject, dated August 8, 1933. The salute, he wrote, had no modern precedent, save for the more narrowly required salute of soldiers in the presence of superior officers. What made the practice unique was that everyone was expected to salute, even in the most mundane of encounters. Shopkeepers saluted customers. Children were required to salute their teachers several times a day. At the close of theatrical performances, a newly established custom demanded that audiences stand and salute as they sang first the German national anthem, “Deutschland über Alles,” and second the Storm Trooper anthem, the “Horst Wessel Lied,” or “Horst Wessel Song,” named for its composer, an SA thug killed by communists but whom Nazi propaganda subsequently transformed into a hero. The German public had so avidly embraced the salute as to make the act of incessantly saluting almost comical, especially in the corridors of public buildings where everyone from the lowliest messenger to the loftiest official saluted and Heiled one another, turning a walk to the men’s room into an exhausting affair.

Messersmith refused to salute and merely stood at attention, but he understood that for ordinary Germans that would not have sufficed. At times even he felt real pressure to conform. At the close of a luncheon he attended in the port city of Kiel, all the guests stood and with right arms extended sang the national anthem and the “Horst Wessel Song.” Messersmith stood respectfully, as he would have in America for the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Many of the other guests, including a number of Storm Troopers, glared at him and whispered among themselves as if trying to divine his identity. “I felt really quite fortunate that the incident took place within doors and among on the whole intelligent people,” he wrote, “for if it had been in a street gathering or in an outdoor demonstration, no questions would have been asked as to who I was, and that I would have been mishandled is almost unquestionable.” Messersmith recommended that American visitors try to anticipate when the songs and salute would be required and leave early.

He did not think it funny when now and then Ambassador Dodd threw him a mock salute.

DURING HER SECOND WEEK in Berlin, Martha discovered that she had not shed her past as completely as she had hoped.

Bassett, her husband, arrived in the city on what he privately called his “Mission to Berlin,” hoping to win Martha back.

He checked in at the Hotel Adlon. They saw each other several times, but Bassett did not get the tear-filled rapprochement he had hoped for. Rather, he found a cordial indifference. “You remember our bicycle ride through the park,” he wrote later. “You were friendly, but I sensed a difference between us.”

To make matters worse, toward the end of his stay Bassett caught a severe cold. It laid him flat, just in time for Martha’s last visit before his departure.

He knew that his Mission to Berlin had failed the moment Martha arrived in his room. She had brought her brother, Bill.

It was a moment of casual cruelty. She knew Bassett would interpret it correctly. She was tired. She had loved him once, but their relationship had been too fraught with misunderstandings and conflicting imperatives. Where there had been love, as Martha later put it, there were now only “embers,” and these were not enough.

Bassett understood. “You had had it,” he wrote. “And who could blame you!”

He sent her flowers, acknowledging defeat. The card that accompanied them began, “To my charming and lovely ex-wife.”

He left for America, for Larchmont, New York, and a suburban life of lawn mowing and tending the copper beech in his backyard and evening drinks and potlucks and a train commute to his job at the bank. He wrote later, “I’m not at all sure you would have been happy as the wife of a bank economist, preoccupied with the Bank Letter, bringing up a family of children, PTA, and all that.”

MARTHA’S CONNECTION WITH Sigrid Schultz soon began to pay off. Schultz threw a welcome party for Martha on July 23, 1933, and invited a number of her closest friends, among them still another correspondent, Quentin Reynolds, who wrote for the Hearst News Service. Martha and Reynolds hit it off instantly. He was big and cheerful, with curly hair and eyes that always seemed to convey a sense of impending laughter—though he had a reputation, as well, for being hard-nosed, skeptical, and smart.

They met again five days later in the bar at the Esplanade, along with her brother, Bill. Like Schultz, Reynolds knew everyone and had managed to befriend a number of Nazi officials, including a confidant of Hitler with the tongue-twisting name Ernst Franz Sedgwick Hanfstaengl. A Harvard graduate with an American-born mother, Hanfstaengl was known to play piano for Hitler late at night to soothe the dictator’s nerves. No Mozart or Bach. Mostly Wagner and Verdi, Liszt and Grieg, some Strauss and Chopin.

Martha wanted to meet him; Reynolds knew of a party to be thrown by a fellow correspondent where Hanfstaengl was expected to be a guest and offered to bring her along.

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