Hidden Conflict

Dodd walked from the Esplanade to his office each morning, a fifteen-minute stroll along Tiergartenstrasse, the street that formed the southern boundary of the park. On the south side stood mansions with lush grounds and wrought-iron fences, many belonging to embassies and consulates; on the north sprawled the park itself, dense with trees and statuary, its paths inked with morning shade. Dodd called it “the most beautiful park I have ever seen,” and the walk quickly became his favorite part of the day. His office was in the embassy chancery on a street just off the park called Bendlerstrasse, which also contained the “Bendler Block,” a collection of squat, pale, rectangular buildings that served as the headquarters of the regular German army, the Reichswehr.

A photograph of Dodd at work in his office during his first week or so in Berlin shows him seated at a large, elaborately carved desk before a soaring tapestry hung on the wall behind him, with a large and complicated phone to his left at a reach of maybe five feet. There is something comical about the image: Dodd, slight of frame, his collar stiff and white, hair pomaded and severely parted, stares with a stern expression into the camera, utterly dwarfed by the opulence that surrounds him. The photograph caused a good deal of mirth back at the State Department among those who disapproved of Dodd’s appointment. Undersecretary Phillips closed a letter to Dodd: “A photograph of you seated at your desk in front of a gorgeous tapestry has had quite a wide circulation and looks most impressive.”

At every turn Dodd seemed to violate some aspect of embassy custom, at least in the eyes of his counselor of embassy, George Gordon. Dodd insisted on walking to meetings with government officials. Once, in paying a call on the nearby Spanish embassy, he made Gordon walk with him, both men dressed in morning coats and silk hats. In a letter to Thornton Wilder evoking the scene, Martha wrote that Gordon had “rolled in the gutter in an apoplectic fit.” When Dodd drove anywhere, he took the family’s Chevrolet, no match for the Opels and Mercedeses favored by senior Reich officials. He wore plain suits. He cracked wry jokes. On Monday, July 24, he committed a particularly egregious sin. Consul General Messersmith had invited him and Gordon to a meeting with a visiting U.S. congressman, to be held in Messersmith’s office at the American consulate, which occupied the first two floors of a building across the street from the Esplanade Hotel. Dodd arrived at Messersmith’s office before Gordon; a few minutes later the telephone rang. What Dodd gleaned from Messersmith’s end of the conversation was that Gordon was now refusing to come. The reason: pure pique. In Gordon’s view Dodd had “degraded” himself and his post by stooping to attend a meeting in the office of a man of inferior rank. Dodd observed in his diary, “Gordon is an industrious career man with punctilio developed to the nth degree.”

Dodd could not immediately present his credentials—his “Letters of Credence”—to President Hindenburg, as demanded by diplomatic protocol, for Hindenburg was unwell and had retreated to his estate at Neudeck in East Prussia to convalesce; he was not expected to return until the end of the summer. Dodd, therefore, was not yet officially recognized as ambassador and used this period of quiet to familiarize himself with such basic functions as the operation of the embassy phones, its telegraphic codes, and the typical departure times of diplomatic pouches. He met with a group of American correspondents and then with some twenty German reporters, who—as Dodd feared—had seen the report in the Jewish Hamburger Israelitisches Familienblatt claiming that he had “come to Germany to rectify the wrongs to the Jews.” Dodd read them what he described as a “brief disavowal.”

He quickly got a taste of life in the new Germany. On his first full day in Berlin, Hitler’s cabinet enacted a new law, to take effect January 1, 1934, called the Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases, which authorized the sterilization of individuals suffering various physical and mental handicaps. He also learned that staff at the embassy and at Messersmith’s consulate had become convinced that German authorities were intercepting incoming and outgoing mail and that this had prompted Messersmith to take extraordinary measures to ensure that the most sensitive correspondence reached America unopened. The consul general now dispatched messengers to hand such mail directly to the captains of ships bound for America, who would be met dockside by U.S. agents.

ONE OF THE EARLIEST TASKS that Dodd assigned himself was to gain a grasp of the talents and deficits of the embassy’s officers, known as first and second secretaries, and the various clerks, stenographers, and other employees who worked out of the chancery. From the start Dodd found their work habits to be less than desirable. His more senior people came in each day at whatever hour seemed to please them and periodically disappeared to hunt or play golf. Almost all, he found, were members of a golf club in the Wannsee district southwest of central Berlin. Many were independently wealthy, in keeping with the traditions of the Foreign Service, and spent money with abandon, their own and the embassy’s. Dodd was particularly appalled at how much they spent on international cables. The messages were long and rambling and thus needlessly expensive.

In notes for a personnel report, he wrote brief descriptions of key people. He observed that Counselor Gordon’s wife had a “large income” and that Gordon tended to be temperamental. “Emotional. Too hostile to Germans … his irritations have been many and exasperating.” In his sketch of one of the embassy’s first secretaries, also wealthy, Dodd jotted the shorthand observation that he “loves to pass upon [the] color of men’s socks.” Dodd noted that the woman who ran the embassy reception room, Julia Swope Lewin, was ill suited to the task, as she was “very anti-German” and this was “not good for receiving German callers.”

Dodd also learned the contours of the political landscape beyond the embassy’s walls. The world of Messersmith’s dispatches now came alive outside his windows under the bright sky of a summer’s day. There were banners everywhere in a striking arrangement of colors: red background, white circle, and always a bold, black “broken cross,” or Hakenkreuz, at the center. The word “swastika” was not yet the term of choice within the embassy. Dodd learned the significance of the various colors worn by the men he encountered during his walks. Brown uniforms, seemingly omnipresent, were worn by the Storm Troopers of the SA; black, by a smaller, more elite force called the Schutzstaffel, or SS; blue, by the regular police. Dodd learned as well about the mounting power of the Gestapo and its young chief, Rudolf Diels. He was slender, dark, and considered handsome despite an array of facial scars accumulated when, as a university student, he had engaged in the bare-blade dueling once practiced by young German men seeking to prove their manhood. Although his appearance was as sinister as that of a villain in a campy film, Diels had proved thus far—according to Messersmith—to be a man of integrity, helpful and rational where his superiors, Hitler, Göring, and Goebbels, most decidedly were not.

In many other ways, as well, this new world was proving to be far more nuanced and complex than Dodd had expected.

Deep fault lines ran through Hitler’s government. Hitler had been chancellor since January 30, 1933, when he was appointed to the post by President Hindenburg as part of a deal crafted by senior conservative politicians who believed they could keep him under control, a notion that by the time of Dodd’s arrival had been proved delusional. Hindenburg—known widely as the Old Gentleman—remained the last counterbalance to Hitler’s power and several days before Dodd’s departure had made a public declaration of displeasure at Hitler’s attempts to suppress the Protestant Church. Declaring himself an “Evangelical Christian,” Hindenburg in a published letter to Hitler warned of growing “anxiety for the inner freedom of the church” and that if things continued as they had, “the gravest damage must result to our people and fatherland, as well as injury to national unity.” In addition to holding the constitutional authority to appoint a new chancellor, Hindenburg commanded the loyalty of the regular army, the Reichswehr. Hitler understood that if the nation began falling back into chaos, Hindenburg might feel compelled to replace the government and declare martial law. He also recognized that the most likely source of future instability was the SA, commanded by his friend and longtime ally, Captain Ernst Röhm. Increasingly Hitler saw the SA as an undisciplined and radical force that had outlasted its purpose. Röhm thought otherwise: he and his Storm Troopers had been pivotal in bringing about the National Socialist revolution and now, for their reward, wanted control of all the nation’s military, including the Reichswehr. The army found this prospect loathsome. Fat, surly, admittedly homosexual, and thoroughly dissipated, Röhm had none of the soldierly bearing the army revered. He did, however, command a fast-growing legion of over one million men. The regular army was only one-tenth the size but far better trained and armed. The conflict simmered.

Elsewhere in the government, Dodd thought he detected a new and decidedly moderate bent, at least by comparison to Hitler, Göring, and Goebbels, whom he described as “adolescents in the great game of international leadership.” It was in the next tier down, the ministries, that he found cause for hope. “These men wish to stop all Jewish persecution, to co-operate with remnants of German Liberalism,” he wrote, and added: “Since the day of our arrival here there has been a struggle between these groups.”

Dodd’s assessment arose in large part from an early encounter with Germany’s minister of foreign affairs, Konstantin Freiherr von Neurath, whom Dodd—at least for now—perceived to be a member of the moderate camp.

On Saturday, July 15, Dodd paid a visit to Neurath at his ministry on Wilhelmstrasse, a boulevard that paralleled the eastern edge of the Tiergarten. So many key Reich offices lined the street that Wilhelmstrasse became a shorthand means of referring to the German government.

Neurath was a handsome man whose silver-gray hair, dark eyebrows, and close-trimmed gray mustache gave him the look of an actor who played fatherly roles. Martha would soon meet him as well and be struck by his ability to mask his interior emotions: “his face,” she wrote, “was utterly expressionless—the proverbial poker-face.” Like Dodd, Neurath enjoyed taking walks and began each day with a stroll through the Tiergarten.

Neurath saw himself as a sobering force in the government and believed he could help control Hitler and his party. As one peer put it, “He was trying to train the Nazis and turn them into really serviceable partners in a moderate nationalist regime.” But Neurath also thought it likely that Hitler’s government eventually would do itself in. “He always believed,” one of his aides wrote, “that if he would only stay in office, do his duty, and preserve foreign contacts, one fine day he would wake up and find the Nazis gone.”

Dodd thought him “most agreeable,” a judgment that affirmed Dodd’s resolve to be as objective as possible about all that was occurring in Germany. Dodd assumed that Hitler must have other officials of the same caliber. In a letter to a friend he wrote, “Hitler will fall into line with these wiser men and ease up on a tense situation.”

THE VERY NEXT DAY, at about 1:30 p.m. in Leipzig, the city where Dodd had gotten his doctorate, a young American by the name of Philip Zuckerman was taking a Sunday stroll with his German wife and her father and sister. Given that they were Jews, this was perhaps an imprudent thing to do on that particular weekend, when some 140,000 Storm Troopers had flooded the town for one of the SA’s frequent orgies of marching, drilling, and, inevitably, drinking. That Sunday afternoon a massive parade began surging through the heart of the city, under Nazi banners of red, white, and black that fluttered seemingly from every building. At one thirty a company of these SA men broke off from the main formation and veered into an intersecting avenue, Nikolaistrasse, where the Zuckermans happened to be walking.

As the SA detachment moved past, a group of men at the rear of the column decided the Zuckermans and kin had to be Jews and without warning surrounded them, knocked them to the ground, and launched upon them a cyclone of furious kicks and punches. Eventually the Storm Troopers moved on.

Zuckerman and his wife were severely injured, enough so that both had to be hospitalized, first in Leipzig and then again in Berlin, where the U.S. consulate got involved. “It is not unlikely that [Zuckerman] has suffered serious internal injuries from which he may never altogether recover,” Consul General Messersmith wrote in a dispatch to Washington about the attack. He warned that the United States might be compelled to seek monetary damages for Zuckerman but pointed out that nothing could be done officially on his wife’s behalf because she was not an American. Messersmith added, “It is interesting to note that she was obliged, as the result of the attack made on her at the same time, to go to a hospital where her baby of some months had to be removed.” As a result of the operation, he wrote, Mrs. Zuckerman would never be able to bear another child.

Attacks of this nature were supposed to have come to an end; government decrees had urged restraint. The Storm Troopers appeared not to have paid attention.

In another dispatch on the case, Messersmith wrote, “It has been a favorite pastime of the SA men to attack the Jews and one cannot avoid the plain language of stating that they do not like to be deprived of their prey.”

It was his insider’s understanding of this and other phenomena of the new Germany that made him so frustrated with the failure of visitors to grasp the true character of Hitler’s regime. Many American tourists returned home perplexed by the dissonance between the horrors they had read about in their hometown newspapers—the beatings and arrests of the preceding spring, the book pyres and concentration camps—and the pleasant times they actually experienced while touring Germany. One such visitor was a radio commentator named H. V. Kaltenborn—born Hans von Kaltenborn in Milwaukee—who soon after Dodd’s arrival passed through Berlin with his wife, daughter, and son. Known as the “dean of commentators,” Kaltenborn reported for the Columbia Broadcasting Service and had become famous throughout America, so famous that in later years he would have cameo roles as himself in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and the science-fiction thriller The Day the Earth Stood Still. Before his departure for Germany, Kaltenborn had stopped in at the State Department and been allowed to read some of Consul General Messersmith’s dispatches. At the time he believed them to be exaggerated. Now, after four or five days in Berlin, he told Messersmith that he stood by his original conclusion and called the dispatches “inaccurate and overdrawn.” He suggested that Messersmith must have relied on faulty sources.

Messersmith was shocked. He had no doubt that Kaltenborn was sincere but attributed the commentator’s view to the fact that he “was a German by origin and he couldn’t believe that Germans could carry on and do things that were happening every day and every hour in Berlin and all over the country.”

It was a problem Messersmith had noticed time and again. Those who lived in Germany and who paid attention understood that something fundamental had changed and that a darkness had settled over the landscape. Visitors failed to see it. In part, Messersmith wrote in a dispatch, this was because the German government had begun a campaign “to influence Americans coming to Germany in forming a favorable opinion concerning happenings in the country.” He saw evidence of this in the curious behavior of Samuel Bossard, an American attacked on August 31 by members of the Hitler Youth. Bossard had promptly filed an affidavit with the U.S. consulate and had spoken angrily about the incident to a number of correspondents in Berlin. Then, suddenly, he stopped speaking. Messersmith called him just before his return to America to ask how he was doing and found him unwilling to discuss the incident. Suspicious, Messersmith made inquiries and learned that the Ministry of Propaganda had toured Bossard through Berlin and Potsdam and otherwise showered him with courtesy and attention. The effort appeared to have paid off, Messersmith noted. Upon Bossard’s arrival in New York, according to a news report, Bossard declared “that if Americans in Germany are subject to any kind of attacks, it can only be due to misunderstandings.… Many Americans do not seem to understand the changes which have taken place in Germany and through their awkwardness [have] acted in such a way as to invite attacks.” He vowed to return to Germany the following year.

Messersmith sensed an especially deft hand behind the government’s decision to cancel a ban on Rotary Clubs in Germany. Not only could the clubs continue; more remarkably, they were allowed to retain their Jewish members. Messersmith himself belonged to the Berlin Rotary. “The fact that Jews are permitted to continue membership in Rotary is being used as propaganda among the Rotary clubs throughout the world,” he wrote. The underlying reality was that many of those Jewish members had lost their jobs or were finding their ability to practice within their professions severely limited. In his dispatches Messersmith reprised one theme again and again: how impossible it was for casual visitors to understand what was really happening in this new Germany. “The Americans coming to Germany will find themselves surrounded by influences of the Government and their time so taken up by pleasant entertainment, that they will have little opportunity to learn what the real situation is.”

Messersmith urged Kaltenborn to get in touch with some of the American correspondents in Berlin, who would provide ample confirmation of his dispatches.

Kaltenborn dismissed the idea. He knew a lot of these correspondents. They were prejudiced, he claimed, and so was Messersmith.

He continued his journey, though in short order he would be forced in a most compelling way to reevaluate his views.

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