The title reveals of the book reveals what Erick Larsen thinks of Hitler and his henchmen. The subtitle “Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin” begins to explain the content of the book. William E. Dodd, his wife Martha or “Mattie,” daughter Martha, and son William Jr. “Bill” was the American family, and William Senior was appointed to be ambassador to Nazi Germany in 1933 after several others had turned down the position. The Dodds arrived in Berlin believing initially that the mistreatment of Jews might have some understandable basis. Daughter Martha commented, “We sort of don’t like the Jews anyway.” Dodd clung to the idea Hitler wanted peace for several months.
By the time the Dodds left they had become disgusted with the Nazis and concerned that the German people had been drawn into the clutches of monsters. The outside world did not understand Hitler was merely playing for time while he consolidated power and built a military machine that he intended would dominate the world. It should have been quite easy to understand Hitler’s motives. He announced that Germany was withdrawing from the League of Nations and the disarmament conference underway in Geneva. Consul General Foreign Service officer George Messersmith was filing frequent reports to warn about what he was observing. He wrote that “What they most want to do, however, definitely is to make Germany the most capable instrument of war that has ever existed.” He called the Nazis “a global threat.”
The book was recommended to me by my wife. She knew I would be fascinated with the content. She also knows I am a fan of any book that refers to the Venona project and the uncovering of the massive espionage network established by the Soviet Union in the United States during World War II. (The Venona project was the subject of the first book review I posted on this web site.)The two Dodd children and Martha’s second husband Alfred Stern make it into the Venona list of 349 Americans and U.S. residents who had covert relationships with Soviet intelligence agencies.
It is easy to understand why the first choices for the German ambassador position refused the appointment. The primary assignment of the new ambassador was to see that the $1.2 billion dollars owed by Germany to American creditors was repaid, and that must have been considered an impossible task in the midst of the Great Depression. Also, the atmosphere in Germany was anything but diplomatic. The brown-shirted Sturmabteilung, Storm Troopers or SA, had launched brutal state-condoned violence and were arresting, beating, and murdering Jews, Socialists, and Communists. Dealing with Hitler would not be a prize assignment. The Gestapo and SA are described as being attractive to sadists.
Dodd was not the typical diplomat. Most were wealthy and lived extravagantly. Dodd was not wealthy and strongly believed that frugal living was appropriate. That attitude gained him many enemies in the State Department who decided to think of him simple and shallow instead of frugal. I will admit that I became a fan of Dodd’s as I read the book, so I didn’t think highly of the people in Washington D.C. who undermined Dodd’s reputation and the advice he was giving Roosevelt. His detractors called themselves the “pretty good club,” and Dodd was not a member. At least one member of the club called him “Ambassador Dud.” Germans who dealt with Dodd referred to him as kind, brilliant, and willing to accept open discussion of difficult issues.
Ambassador Dodd and his wife were the picture of proper decorum and daughter Martha was not. She had numerous affairs in the U.S., including one that ended in a failed marriage, and with dignitaries including Carl Sandberg. In Germany she has affairs with several senior Nazi officials, and at one point she was even suggested as a mistress for Hitler. Hitler, proving his reputation of being ambivalent about women, wasn’t interested. She did have a lengthy romantic relationship with the first secretary of the Soviet embassy who was also an “operative” of the NKVD. (He was eventually executed in one of Stalin’s innumerable purges after being forced to write Martha a farewell letter designed “…to keep his death from destroying her sympathy for the Soviet cause.”) One of the staff members of the U.S. embassy referred to it as a house of ill repute. Martha made many other friends, and not all survived the Nazis.
The American reaction to the treatment of Jews is difficult to comprehend with the advantage of historical hindsight. Roosevelt and most State Department officials were eager to avoid any direct statement of condemnation regardless of any inhuman and outrageous behavior reported to them. There was a baffling policy that only a small percentage of the visas available were issued to Jews desperate to escape. Even more baffling is the large number of Jews who did not try to escape. They apparently believed they could “ride out the storm” with careful behavior. Germany’s economy was improving in late 1933 and Hitler seemed to be moderating his hatred. Some Jews actually returned to Germany.
The book has many interesting details and asides. As an example, there is a description of the “bold, black broken cross, or Kakenkeuz” that later became known as the “swastika.” I found it quite odd that Hitler’s favorite movie was said to be King Kong.
Ambassador Dodd rented the bottom floors of a mansion for a very low price by a Jewish family who retained the top floor. Dodd did not understand that the family was buying their safety by having the American ambassador living under them. Daughter Martha especially enjoyed the library’s large brown leather sofa as an asset to her romantic life.
The Dodds began to be swayed against the Nazis by attacks against U.S. citizens who failed to give the Nazi salute as they casually watched parades. Ambassador Dodd said he had hoped to find decent people around Hitler. He then wrote, “I am horrified to discover that the whole gang is nothing but a horde of criminals and cowards.” The State Department reacted to comments such as those by criticizing Dodd. Martha was the slowest to change, saying that she was in the early days intoxicated with the spectacle of the Nazis. “I Heiled as vigorously as any Nazi.”
The trial of five people accused of the Reichstag fire, which Hitler blamed on Communists despite the evidence to the contrary, has a central place in the book. Marinus van der Lubbe insisted he was the only person responsible for the fire, but the prosecution presented massive amounts of evidence there had to be several people involved. Only van der Lubbe was convicted, and he was beheaded by guillotine.
The greatest risk to Hitler was internal. One Nazi observed “There is nobody among the officials of the national Socialists party who would not cheerfully cut the throat of every other official in order to further his own advancement. The commander of the SA Ernst Rohm wanted to take control of the military. Hitler responded by publically praising Rohm while beginning to plan for the murder of Rohm and several hundred other SA members in the “Night of the Long Knives” under the code name ” Kolibri,” or “Hummingbird.” Official Nazi reports said there were under a hundred people executed, but other reports were that as many as fifteen thousand were arrested and several hundred disappeared. All doubt the Dodds had about the possibility that Hitler might have a peaceful nature was eliminated as they noted numerous people who had attended various diplomatic functions had been removed by imprisonment or execution. Dodd hoped the murders would outrage the German people and Hitler would be overthrown. Hitler’s power instead increased. No country filed a protest and the populace did not rise in revulsion. Hitler assumed the position of president as well as chancellor when Hindenburg died, and the world was doomed to endure a long and brutal war.
Dodd’s critics in the State Department finally won their quest to have him ousted. Hull sent Dodd a letter in November 1937 saying that Roosevelt was “requesting” that he leave Berlin. Dodd embarked on a tour giving speeches warning of the German threat that brought protests from Germany. Hull responded that Dodd was a private citizen and could say whatever he wanted. Dodd died a hero to many Germans.
I have violated my guideline of keeping reviews to two pages or less. There are enough interesting and important facts described in the book that would fill more pages. I recommend reading the book to learn how much I left out.