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Martha Dodd’s Shining Season

June 2024
5min read

It took a long time for the truth about Nazi Germany to sink in. And when it did, she learned the wrong lesson.

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.”

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.

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