- Historic Sites
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
The only complaint Martha Dodd had about her father as she grew up was that sometimes he’d start going on to the family about the Bible and history and economics, politics, and social problems. Too boring. She wanted to be a poet and writer, and such discussions held no interest for her. At the University of Chicago, where her father taught history and she majored in English, she ran with a crowd talking literature and art, poetry and painting.
After college she got a job doing book reviews for the Chicago Tribune . One day her mother called. Her father, Prof. William E. Dodd, had been asked by the new President of the United States to become the American ambassador to the government headed by the new chancellor of Germany. Professor Dodd had nearly thirty-five years earlier received his Ph.D. at Leipzig and retained sentimental memories of his young days there. He knew German literature and traditions and, it seemed to President Roosevelt, would be seen as a scholarly historian- diplomat. That would be appealing to those of the old German culture with whom Dodd might join as a moderating force upon an Adolf Hitler whose pre-chancellorship years and early days in office showed anything but moderation.
Ambassador and Mrs. Dodd and their son, William, Jr., who had been a graduate student and was teaching at American University in Washington, D.C., and Martha, who gave up her Tribune job, arrived in Germany in the summer of 1933. The ambassador’s daughter was a very good-looking young woman in her early twenties, with a delightfully charming grin and manner. “Pretty, vivacious,” noted the foreign correspondent William L. Shirer. The Chicago Tribune ’s correspondent Sigrid Schultz called on her former colleague and told her fearful things about the country in which she had just arrived. Exaggeration, “and a bit hysterical” at that, Miss Dodd decided. In fact, she quickly concluded, Germany was wonderful. She had been in France a few years earlier to find the people impatient, cold, hard, overly mannered. Germans, she thought, were more genuine and honest, sympathetic to her primitive use of their language, kindly, simple, natural.
She enjoyed the tea dances at the Eden Hotel and the good German beer, the glamorous diplomatic receptions, walking trips through groomed forests outside the capital, swimming in the lovely lakes, being sent flowers and notes by the politely heel-clicking young Reichswehr officers whose acquaintance she made. She found deeply impressive the enthusiasm of the brownshirted SA men and the black-shirted SS ones for the leader, the Führer who, they told her, was giving the country back its self-respect and offering a future. A month after their arrival she and her brother, Bill, went on a motor trip. Seeing a low-number license plate from Berlin, people took them for high officials and flung up their hands in the Heil Hitler salute. She heiled back, “vigorously.” They came to a crowd brutally shoving about a young woman with a placard hanging around her neck. The words on it were translated for the brother and sister: “I have offered myself to a Jew.”
A disturbing matter, yes, certainly, the ambassador’s daughter thought, yet an “isolated case” and not really important, as it “did not reveal actually what was going on in Germany” and had nothing to do with the “constructive work” being done, the important accomplishments. She heard of other excesses but found excuses for them. Her father “gently label[ed] me a young Nazi.” That made her defensive, and “I became temporarily an ardent defender of everything going on,” the “glowing and inspiring faith in Hitler, the good that was being done for the unemployed.” She wrote home that the rebirth of the country was as exciting as any thing she had ever seen, that press stories and atrocity reports were blown up out of proportion. Berlin was clean and orderly, the people warm and openhearted. When the reporter Edgar Ansel Mowrer told her that “all the decencies had been violated in Germany” and that the German soul was being “crippled and distorted,” she speculated that perhaps he was a Jew. (He wasn’t.) Hitler’s eyes captured Dodd: “They are unforgettable, intense and unwavering.” But he was “gentle and modest.”