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A beacon of hope in a land of gathering darkness

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On July 13, 1933, about six months after Adolf Hitler ascended to power, William Dodd, 64, disembarked in Hamburg to take up his post as the first U.S. ambassador to Nazi Germany. He was accompanied by his wife and two grown children, Martha, who had been an assistant literary editor on a major metropolitan daily, and Bill, a history teacher.

For the Dodds, the posting would be a once-in-a-lifetime journey of discovery, transformation and disillusionment.

Dodd was in the process of writing a multi-volume history of the old American South when he reached out to his friend, the secretary of commerce in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, for an ambassadorship in Europe. Dodd, the chair of the University of Chicago’s history department, the biographer of former American president Woodrow Wilson and a Democratic party activist, sought out a quiet, undemanding sinecure that would enable him to finish his ambitious project. He was offered the ambassadorship in Germany, which had to be filled quickly.

Though not well versed in the niceties of diplomacy, Dodd was a respectable candidate.  He had earned his Ph.D. at the University of Leipzig, spoke German and knew Germany.

When he had completed his mission 4-1/2 years later, he was thoroughly disgusted with the new Germany, as was his daughter. Their odyssey, a cautionary tale, is told in Erik Larson’s captivating book, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin (Crown), which is due to be made into a Hollywood movie.   

Dodd’s mandate was to ensure that Germany did not default on its debts to U.S. banks and report on Germany’s maltreatment of its Jewish citizens.

Prior to his departure, he met Roosevelt and consulted with government officials and Jewish leaders. Although the president was appalled by the growing antisemitism in Germany, he had not condemned it publicly, fearing the political costs. Isolationists, for example, maintained that Nazi oppression of Jews was a domestic matter.

Mindful of these considerations, Roosevelt acknowledged that Germany was treating Jews “shamefully,” but instructed Dodd not to intervene in German affairs. Col. Edward House, Roosevelt’s close adviser, urged Dodd to “ameliorate Jewish sufferings,” but in a revealing caveat that implied that Jews were partly responsible for their troubles, he observed that German Jews should not be permitted “to dominate economic or intellectual life in Berlin, as they have done for a long time.”

American Jews urged Dodd to press Roosevelt for official intervention. He promised to “exert all possible personal influence against the unjust treatment of German Jews.”

As Larson suggests, Dodd himself was ambivalent about antisemitism. He decried “the ruthlessness that is being applied to Jews” in Germany, but thought that Germans had “a valid grievance” because Jews “held a great many more of the key positions in Germany than their numbers or their talents entitled them to.”

Martha Dodd, 24, displayed ambivalence toward Jews, too, admitting that she was “slightly antisemitic” in terms of her acceptance of the pervasive American attitude that they were neither as physically attractive or as socially desirable as gentiles.

When Dodd landed in Germany, he was already certain what his role as ambassador should be. Rather than being a mere observer, he believed, he should try to exercise a moderating influence over Hitler and his regime.

In seeking out a residence in central Berlin, from which he could leisurely walk to the U.S. embassy, Dodd chose a property immediately south of the Tiergarten, a magnificent park that, in literal translation, means “garden of the beasts.” Once a hunting preserve for royalty, the Tiergarten was and currently is a vast, peaceful preserve of woods, meadows, gardens and paths stretching from the Brandenburg Gate to the Charlottenburg district.

Dodd rented the house from its proprietor, Alfred Panofsky, a Jewish banker who reserved the top floor for himself and his mother, hoping that this arrangement would shield them from Nazi violence.

Dodd’s tenure in Berlin was stormy from the outset. One of his first tasks was to issue a formal protest to the foreign minister over attacks by Nazi goons on American visitors. In what must have come as a surprising admission, the minister agreed that Germany’s treatment of Jews was incorrect.

With the passage of time, Dodd’s attitude to the regime grew more critical, likening the Nazis to “half-educated statesmen.” In private, he was far more scathing, describing “the whole gang” around Hitler as “a horde of criminals.”

Dodd’s daughter, Martha, was not as critical. She was inclined to think the best of the new order in Germany and tried “to find excuses” for Nazi “excesses.” Blonde, attractive and flirtatious, she had an affair with the first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels, but the man she loved was Boris Winogradov, a Soviet diplomat who doubled as an intelligence agent of the NKVD, the precursor of the KGB.

Dodd’s outspokenness was less than appreciated in the U.S. State Department. His boss, William Phillips, urged him to keep a low profile and not “to give public expression to anything in the nature of criticism” of the regime.

In the first of his two meetings with Hitler, Dodd came away with the impression that he was sincerely peace loving. The embassy’s consul general, George Messersmith, warned him that Hitler desired peace only on his own terms. Eventually, Dodd adopted the position that Hitler wanted peace to prepare for war.

Dodd’s stance on the “Jewish problem” also evolved. Recalling a conversation with Hitler in which he threated to “make a complete end to all [Jews] in this country,” and observing the tide of antisemitism washing over Germany, he concluded that Nazi persecution was systematic. As for Martha, she would recognize that Nazi antisemitism was a national pastime and that “a heartbreaking system of terror ruled the country and repressed ... the people.”

Morally repulsed by the regime, Dodd stopped attending Nazi party rallies in Nuremberg, a move that unnerved his superiors in Washington and prompted them to call for his removal. The Nazis, in turn, regarded him as an intractable opponent.

Bowing to State Department pressure, Roosevelt concurred that Dodd should be recalled. His replacement, Hugh Wilson, was a career diplomat who, writes Larson, “sought to emphasize the positive aspects of Nazi Germany and carried on a one-man campaign of appeasement.”  

Returning to the United States in January 1938, Dodd hit the lecture circuit, delivered speeches warning of Germany’s hegemonic ambitions and of Hitler’s intention to murder Jews. In his memoir, Rabbi Stephen Wise, president of the Zionist Organization of America, wrote that “Dodd was years ahead of the State Department in his grasp of the political as well as of the moral implications of Hitlerism and paid the penalty of such understanding.”
In conclusion, Larson notes that he was “a lone beacon of American freedom and hope in a land of gathering darkness.”

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