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Martha Dodd’s Shining Season
It took a long time for the truth about Nazi Germany to sink in. And when it did, she learned the wrong lesson.
July/August 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 4
She moved in high circles, attending teas, lunches, dinners, balls, and receptions, went to movies and nightclubs, was often at the Potsdam palace of the crown prince, whose father, the former kaiser, had fled to the Netherlands. Prince Louis Ferdinand, the crown prince’s son and heir to the throne after his father, became one of her closest friends. The Führer’s aide Ernst (“Putzi”) Hanfstängl, said, “Hitler needs a woman. Hitler should have an American woman— a lovely woman could change the whole destiny of Europe. Martha, you are the woman!” He took her to tea with the Führer, who kissed her hand. She had expected “a glamorous and brilliant personality who must have great power and charm” but found instead someone “excessively gentle and modest in his manners” with “almost a tenderness of speech and glance.” He kissed her hand again when they parted. Ambassador Dodd sardonically told his daughter she ought not to wash the site of the kisses. “He said I should remember the exact spot and if I must wash, could wash carefully round it.” Her father had come to hate the new Germany of Nazi flags, shouts, singing, military parades, the blaring display of what he considered medieval concepts. Hitler’s eyes had captured his daughter— “They are unforgettable, intense and unwavering”—but the Hitler-Martha romance Putzi had envisioned did not take.
Yet it began to come to her that not everything was happy and carefree and constructive in Germany. People she had met suddenly vanished into concentration camps to emerge months later, if at all, with broken bodies and spirits. They had, they whispered to her, been forced to stand at attention for days on end until their legs and feet swelled and they could not walk. They had been beaten with clubs in which nails were embedded. Human waste had been flung on them, in their mouths. “I was sobered and silenced.”
In June of 1934 there came what was called the Night of the Long Knives, when Hitler dispatched without indictment or trial anyone who might present him with a problem. A prominent victim was one of his most intimate associates in the days of his rise of power, Ernst Röhm. Martha Dodd had been to a party at Röhm’s house a week earlier.
No one was now safe in Germany. People came broken and tragic to plead for help from the American ambassador. He could do little. At soirees Martha Dodd moved among people pale, jumpy, preoccupied, frightened, with deep circles under their swollen eyes, while Gestapo agents took note of what was said by everybody—including the ambassador and his family, whose mail was tampered with, whose phones were tapped. Their servants were spies. “We lost even the faintest resemblance to a normal American family. Whenever we wanted to talk we had to look around corners and behind doors, watch for the telephone and speak in whispers.”
Ambassador Dodd could hardly bear to shake hands with murderers, as his work required, and although she liked Frau Goering personally and found Frau Goebbels highly intelligent, Mrs. Dodd’s health declined from the strain of living amid fear, rumors, the sense of great threat everywhere. Martha’s illusions about Germany vanished. “She got into a nervous state that almost bordered on the hysterical [and] had terrible nightmares,” according to her mother. At the 1936 Olympics she sat very near Hitler. He had changed, she saw, his bearing become arrogant, face harsh, voice hard. He was a distorted, diseased, terrifying creature, she felt.
After four and a half years in what he thought of as a hell, Ambassador Dodd resigned his position. The family left Europe on the last day of 1937. Mrs. Dodd was dead within five months, the ambassador following a little less than two years later. Martha Dodd married a investment broker, Alfred K. Stern. In 1957 she and her husband were indicted as members of a Soviet espionage ring. They fled to Czechoslovakia, where she said the United States persecuted the progressive-minded. A decade passed and the Prague Spring came, and the invasion of Warsaw Pact forces; another decade passed, and the Sterns remained part of an expatriate group of people who could not go home, exiled leftists, Greeks who had been on the Communist side of their country’s civil war. Life had turned out oddly for a girl who hadn’t wanted to hear her father talk about history and politics.