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Midwest Diplomats


Martha Dodd | William  Dodd

| George F. Kennan |

William E. Dodd—the U.S. Ambassador to Germany from June 1933 to December 1937—left the comfortable halls of academia to serve his country in the “New Germany,” only to find that position the most frustrating, hopeless assignment of his life. A naturally optimistic, decent man, Dodd failed to find effective ways to respond to Nazi tyranny and in the process he became the mockery of President Roosevelt’s State Department. His daughter Martha—an eager if not impetuous, naive young woman upon her accompanying her parents to Berlin in 1933—repeatedly found her views and values challenged by what she found in the Third Reich. Unable to any longer see life in simplistic terms, she discovered that as a U.S. American, she held a worldview mostly not shared in cultures other than her own—and that worldview would mark her for the rest of her life. George F. Kennan served in the U.S. Embassy in Berlin during the first two years of World War II. Having grown up in Socialist Milwaukee, the liberal Kennan found in Hitler’s Germany the antithesis of his most cherished values of human liberty, social well-being and respect for life. Curious about the existence of the underside of German society in the Third Reich, appalled by the German invasion of its neighbors and intrigued by several memorable exceptions to the “typical” Nazified German, Kennan found in Germany many reasons for cynicism about the human condition. Throughout his stay and eventual internment, however, he retained an unfailing belief in the ultimate goodness of people—a belief shared by many of his compatriots.

Background Essay:

The Setting: Germany, 1918-1933

          Germany’s fate following the end of the First World War hardly could have been any more different from that of the United States. While Britain, France, Czarist Russia, Austria, Italy and the other warring nations each played a role in spilling wholesale destruction on what had appeared to be a thoroughly civilized continent, Germany received the bulk of the blame for the mess when it was over. During four years of global war, the world’s major powers each slugged out their quests for supremacy in the trenches; in the end, however, Germany paid the highest price for a war that had essentially begun by “accident.”

Immediately following the First World War, Britain and France attempted a return to business as normal. Germany, however, enjoyed no such luxury. For almost a decade and a half following German capitulation, Germany’s economy staggered under an impossible debt assessed to it by the Allies as war reparations. In the vacuum created by the Kaiser’s fall, the citizenry sunk in a fierce struggle for power. Unused to genuine self-rule, a revolution broke out after a proposed constitutional monarchy failed at the war’s end and various political factions began an ugly match for control of the country. Finally, after complex politicking, Paul von Hindenburg—a member of the former royalist government—and Friedrich Ebert, a Social Democrat, formed the Weimarer Republic in February 1919.

The collapse of German national pride, street violence and crumbling parliamentary coalitions marked the early years of the precarious Weimarer Republic. At the Versailles treaty table, a helpless interim German government accepted the terms of a forced peace that left the German people indignant. Besides signing a war-guilt clause accepting complete responsibility for the war, the German delegation watched as the Allies seized all German colonies and carved off German territories with a combined population of over seven million people. Incredulous of the terms, the German people widely believed their government had been tricked into signing such a shameful armistice. Swayed by charges made by dejected monarchists and the military, many Germans believed the lie that the Kaiser’s army had never been defeated, but instead had been stabbed in the back by the “November criminals”: Republicans, Socialists and Jews. Guilty by association, the Weimarer regime never fully gained the confidence of the German people.

The Weimarer coalition government remained a shaky one for all of its brief life. Attacked from both the Left and the Right, it attempted to establish a liberal, capitalist democracy in a country with a traditionally conservative, authoritarian legacy. In the open-season climate of weak Weimarer rule, Communists and the Freikorps—Volunteer Corp—fought each other on the streets of Berlin. A coup d’etat failed in 1920, followed by political assassinations and revolving party mergers. The value of the Mark dropped precipitously, bread lines formed and civil war threatened to engulf Germany. Finally, a squawking little Austrian by the name of Adolf Hitler and his small Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei—National Socialist German Workers’ Party, or “Nazi”—movement staged an aborted revolt in Munich. The acting prime minister, Gustav Stresemann responded to the county’s crises by suppressing further coup attempts and issuing a new national currency, the Rentenmark.

After years of social turmoil, events in Germany finally calmed. A team of British and U.S. officials met to reschedule Germany’s war debt, and the signing of the Locarno Pact—in which Germany renounced claims to Alsace-Lorraine and other contested borders—opened the way for Germany’s entry into the League of Nations in 1928. Large foreign investments rejuvenated the German economy; wages rose and unemployment fell to one million. Centrist parties dominated the Reichstag and former agitants grew quiet.

Peace and prosperity, however, were short-lived. The crash of the New York Stock Exchange in late 1929 triggered a sudden global depression. Because Germany’s recovery had depended upon foreign credits, when they ceased and previous loans were called in, the German economy slumped: Germany’s foreign trade shriveled, industry sacked workers, wages shrunk and bankruptcies spread like mushrooms after a spring rain.

Overseeing the second national crisis to wreck Germany in a single decade, centrist pro-Weimarer parties could not sustain popular support, making way for Left and Right extremist parties to quickly ascend to power. While Communists rose to be the third largest party in Germany, the once-obscure Nazi Party ranked as the largest. The Nazis did not have a clear mandate to rule, but because the single-minded Nazis were better organized under Hitler’s strict leadership than the constantly bickering Communists, the clever Nazis managed by 1933 to take advantage of the liberal Weimarer regime’s own rules and almost effortlessly overthrow it.

Presenting itself in a time of exaggerated, desperate need, many Germans found in the Nazi Party a simplistic response to the country’s ills. Directed by Hitler’s masterful demagoguery, the Nazis represented an alternative to both the feeble “leadership” provided by Weimarer democrats and the prospect of a Soviet-sponsored dictatorship of the proletariat. Using as their Bible the twisted musings of their angry, hateful leader recorded in Mein Kampf, the Nazis appealed to the latent nationalism of the German people and manipulated their desire to reassert their collective power. The Nazis stressed the need for individual subordination to the state, but in return offered a paternalism promised to provide for the needs of all “true” Germans—a distinction which excluded Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, Communists and all others the regime decreed “enemies of the state.” Nazi leaders publicly decried pacifism, liberal democracy and humanitarianism; concurrently, they touted militarism, hatred against dissident elements, national territorial expansion and unquestioning obedience to Nazi tenets.

While Fascist movements occurred simultaneously in Italy, Spain and to lesser extents in France, Britain and the United States, National Socialism grew out of German cultural and political history. The eighteen-century Prussian kings Frederich the First and Frederich the Second cultivated a mystic of “Blut und Eisen”—“blood and iron.” They elevated militarism and the icons of Teutonic culture into veritable religions. In doing so, they established a tradition where the Prussian army provided a cultural model for German civic as well as private life. They reinforced a class system based largely on aristocratic and military lines where the monarchy, the army and the aims of the state scarcely could be distinguished. Ultimately—under the shrewd, autocratic direction of Kaiser Wilhelm the II and his main general, Otto von Bismarck—Prussian society would give birth in 1871 to a unified Germany. Where before Germanic peoples lived in hundreds of disjointed city-states and principalities, Bismarck founded the German nation.

Following the chauvinistic examples of Prussia’s Hohenzollern kings, nationalist philosophers such as Frankfurt’s Arthur Schopenhauer painted humanity in only the darkest light, reaffirming popular belief in the depravity of humankind and intimating the necessity for draconian rule. Meanwhile, Friedrich Nietzsche went on to name the underlying nihilistic Angst of the German soul and suggest the need for German cultural collectivism. Men like historian Oswald Spengler maintained that the “law of societies” involves cyclical rises and falls of nations; he concluded that western civilization had entered a period of decay which only those with clear vision could save through forceful action. His contemporary, cultural critic Arthur Moeller also prepared the intellectual ground for Nazism, as he christened the “Third Reich” and insisted on the existence of an innate German superiority over others based on unscientific psychological types.

Kings and men of letters, however, weren’t the only ones to propagate German nationalism or blend it with empty dogma based on “race” .The composer Richard Wagner propounded the idea of a Nordic superhuman—the blonde “Aryan” of ancient Teutonic lore—and of a German Volk, a people set apart from all others by virtue of their “race” and history. In the early decades of the twentieth century, German youth leaders declared visions of Gemeinschaft—true community—as the foundations of a quasi-mystical rebirth of the nation. They enthusiastically sold to an eager public romantic images of leadership and camaraderie as antidotes to rationalism and stultifying bourgeois values. Capitalizing upon old prejudices against non-Aryans, nineteen-century German nationalists of all sorts pointed to an alleged “Jewish problem” and they claimed without reservation the right to expand Germany’s political boundaries over lands currently occupied by Slavs.

Europe in the late nineteen-century whirled with dizzying claims by proponents of various ideologies and political agenda. A social misfit with dubious ancestry and a childhood marked by abuse, Adolf Hitler’s encounter with some of the movements occurring at that time helped form the basis of what would become official Nazi ideology. An unsuccessful architect-turned-postcard-painter, Hitler drifted through prewar Viennese society and listened to the likes of Karl Luger, the organizer of an anti-capitalist and anti-Semitic movement for poor Catholic youth—a movement which was both politically radical yet loyal to the ruling Hapsburgs. Hitler also found inspiration in the form of Georg von Schoenerer’s pan-Germanic, anti-aristocratic rantings and the labor-organizing work of Schoenerer’s disciple Karl Hermann Wolf. Wolf founded a workers’ party for Sudeten Germans in the Czech state of Bohemia, which bore the name Deutsche National-Sozialistische Arbeiterpartei—the namesake for Hitler’s own subsequent party.

Out of the historical aggregate of German nationalism, anti-Semitism and political dogma, Hitler designed a peculiar ideology that suited his own grandiose ambitions. In the name of pan-Germanism and German superiority, he advanced his claims for territorial expansion and hegemony. Hitler courted restless Prussian military leaders who saw the Versailles Treaty as a mere obstacle to the German campaign for Lebensraum—living space—and fed the German people fanciful yet fanatical drivel about the purported “mission” of the German “master race.”

Hitler offered a badly beaten country an anesthetizing potion against frustrated national aims and an insidious inferiority complex—and in the process assured his own ascendancy to Germany’s leadership. Utilizing the brilliant propagandists and menacing ruffians who populated his party, the would-be Fuehrer pointed to a purported Bolshevik threat while at the same time plotting his own dictatorship. As the National Socialists gained increasing numbers of votes in German elections, Hitler used force to intimidate—and later completely silence—his opponents. Taking advantage of mass psychology and the new electronic media, Hitler apportioned all of Germany’s problems to one enemy—the easily targeted Jew—and embodied for the nation its desire to regain lost pride through full employment, stability, rearmament and international respect. Declaring Ein Volk, Ein Land, Ein Fuehrer (“one people, one country, one leader”), Hitler oversaw the transformation of his Nazis from a ragtag underground movement in Munich to supreme rulers looking out over a revitalized German Reich from the Berlin’s halls of government. Against formidable odds, the Nazis won absolute power in Germany.

Once the joke of both urban intellectuals and provincial officials, when Hitler took office in 1933 he seized the means to institutionalize what earlier had been mere political theorizing. After the fall of the Weimarer government, Germany underwent nothing less than a Nazi revolution. The Nazi Party and the regime became indistinguishable. The Nazis found in the people the support needed to practice their policies based on racism and megalomania, while the people found in the fully installed Nazis the means to restore their precious Ordnung—order—and express frustrated German nationalism.

          Giving the Schutzstaffeln (or “SS”) unlimited “freedom of the streets,” Hitler came to dominate every aspect of political life in Germany, as well as much of the private lives of its people. In the totalitarian police state that he and his thugs created, schools and universities, the media, theater and the arts became organs of the state. These bodies, along with the compulsory Hitler Youth, strove to indoctrinate the population—especially the children—with Nazism. Both Catholic and Protestant churches came under the scrutiny of the state-run German Church Organization. Initially under the guise of creating work brigades as an alternative to unemployment, the Nazis also began secretly rearming the country. With German society firm in hand and rearmament underway, then, Hitler began his brisk march toward war.


For a Thousand Years

          The Second World War affected human history as few other events have. While its ultimate cost in material resources and human lives (with a death toll of some 55 million) was devastating, the war determined much of the social, economic, technological and political conditions for the Modern Age—conditions which will shape a recently-wrought global culture well into the thousand years during which Hitler had promised the now-extinct Third Reich would rule.

          The United States emerged from the war not only undamaged, but invigorated by its own wartime mobilization and the collapse of British and French empires. The U.S. was the only great industrialized country to escape the war structurally intact, it experienced an incredible postwar boom that provided most of the wares for Europe’s initial reconstruction and further developed both domestic and foreign markets. In the decades following the war’s end, the U.S.’ economy greatly expanded, its people settled into the quiet realm of family life and personal business, and as a nation assumed a new role as a world superpower.

           As had the First World War, the Second World War vastly altered U.S. culture and history—but this time on an even larger, more lasting scale. Like the first armistice, the second end of hostilities found the U.S. economy injected with renewed vitality and the U.S. government as the inheritor of increased international status. In both instances, the populace generally sought psychological distance from the horrors of war and the intimidating responsibilities of world power. After the fall of the Nazi and Japanese empires, however, a complete return to the prewar status quo was impossible. While isolationism affected domestic U.S. politics, it did not dictate the government’s foreign policy as it did after the First World War: This time there would be no chance to return to “business as usual,” as the United States agreed to play a primary role in the newly-created United Nations. Further, the invention of the atomic bomb made a 1918-variety of isolation extremely unwise and U.S. business became married to global markets.

More pervasive than economics or politics alone, cultural developments facilitated by the Second World War radically changed life in the United States. During the war the dramatic shift from an agrarian to an urban society accelerated as millions of rural people moved to military bases as army personnel or to cities as industrial or administrative workers. This change in demographics happened swiftly. Between 1940 and 1950 the percentage of the nation’s rural population fell from forty-five percent to forty percent. No longer as isolated in the nation’s vast rural areas, U.S. Americans became more exposed to the diversity and complexity typical of city life. New ideas and differing lifestyles expanded the cultural context from which individuals could operate. Although an obvious conformity dominated mainstream U.S. society in the postwar years, social experimentation was no longer restricted to Greenwich Village Bohemians, but soon the testy domain of Beatniks, punks and politicos scattered from the Big Apple to L.A.

In addition to urbanization, black migration northward also grew as dispossessed Southern blacks found work in Northern factories: before World War I approximately eight-five percent of all blacks lived south of the Mason-Dixon Line; after World War II almost one-third lived north of it. Further removed from Klan terrorism and no longer secluded in backroad hollows, the urbanization and growing prosperity of U.S. blacks encouraged demands for better living conditions and civil rights. Before the Second World War, white Anglo dominated U.S. society and black submission was assumed. From the late nineteen-forties onward the existence of people of color and their rejection of racial oppression could no longer be ignored.

Unexpectedly, wartime restructuring of civilian society also led to a revolution in gender relations and sexual politics. As they had in the First World War, women again left the home to replace men called to the battle front—except this time they did not so easily return to the kitchen and nursery after the war ended. In the years following the Second World War’s end, female intellectuals and activists questioned the assumed privileges of men. Challenging sexism and male dominance, feminists began the women’s rights movement of the 1960s and ‘70s. Even after the decline of radical feminism, cultural assumptions about what was acceptable in gender roles and in male-female relationships would remain predispositioned toward finding greater equality.

While some historians point to the social effects of mobilization as the seedbeds of the postwar black civil rights and feminist movements, another sort of social reform movement also found its birth in wartime settings. As thousands of men and women met in huge camps and naval ports, formerly isolated homosexuals—who otherwise led invisible lives beyond the attention of the mainstream—discovered others who shared their sexual and emotional orientation. These contacts led an emerging identity as a people with a common bond. While previously such individuals feared reprimand from a disapproving status quo, after the war they found enough strength in numbers to create the first homophile groups—the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis. Eventually, despite the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s harassment and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s homophobic tirades, the pioneering efforts by a few homosexual activists led to a gay liberation movement during the Vietnam War and to the formation of a gay subculture. As did feminism, the gay-rights movement indelibly redrew the former boundaries of sexual politics in the United States.

The demographic changes and various movements which occurred following World War II for social reform indelibly altered the cultural fabric of the United States. Before the First World War, U.S. Americans had pre-occupied themselves with settling a continent in record time and concurrently fashioning cultural institutions largely borrowed from Northern Europe. In the prewar United States, national myths of Manifest Destiny and of being a “melting pot” in which individual differences yielded to an invincible Anglo/Protestant-ruled social order seemed justified: the economy for the most part grew, immigrants seemed content to Anglicize their names and strive to become more “American” than the natives, minorities mostly accepted the cultural domination of white Christian males and an implicit national consensus appeared to glue the country together politically.

          Although Jews, Blacks, Slavs, Asians, Hispanics, native Americans and homosexuals could be found throughout the nation, until the middle part of the twentieth century U.S. leaders and media touted a largely undisputed “American Dream” which largely excluded each of them. Because selling empty images came much more easily than embarking on an honest, collective search for authentic cultural identity, the majority of U.S. Americans largely swallowed without question the sanitized facades peddled by Madison Avenue and Hollywood. Instead of fully understanding what the country’s history and social makeup meant to daily life in the U.S.— how individuals related to each other, their culture and themselves in the context of past experiences—the culture too often distracted itself with the pursuit of wealth and power. The resulting insecurity borne of unfamiliarity with what it means to be an U.S. Americans perpetuated the cultural restlessness that permeated the nation’s history long before unexpectedly becoming a world superpower.

           The quest of defining the “American experience” admittedly is not an easy one. Trendy expatriates living in Paris between the world wars found this out early. Perhaps it was the utterly demanding nature of genuine introspection that led many of them home before Wall Street ever came close to crashing. Coming from the confident, booming United States of the Twenties, they rather flippantly ricocheted through life in Gay Paris until they had talked through endless nights, drunk themselves silly, painted grotesque portraits, written angry essays and finally slipped back to the U.S. with only somewhat clearer ideas of who they were as a people. The unruly children of an adolescent culture, they were the immature scouts of a nation only beginning to see itself as an entity separate from its roots.

          More than the rebellious Bohemians who populated Paris to escape the stultifying blandness of Babbittry, more ordinary U.S. Americans who ventured into the world of the nineteen-thirties represented the mostly adult-life experiences of U.S. Americans abroad. While the expatriate cliques in 1920s Paris served as a rich introduction to U.S. culture as seen from a different perspective, their experiences were like the people who had them: unorthodox, unfocused and often tragically pathetic. In the sober face of Fascism, a worldwide Depression and the rumblings of another global war, however, the ante was upped and U.S. Americans living abroad had more pressing matters on their minds than which parties to attend, who was sleeping with whom, what writer was the latest rage and when to hold the next gallery opening.

The U.S. Americans in the Third Reich lived in a peculiar era. The bubble of the intoxicating Twenties had burst, but the post-World War II internationalism which stressed multinational corporations, cross-cultural exchanges and myriad military or economic blocs had not rooted yet either. After 1945 U.S. hegemony over war-torn Europe and Asia, as well as U.S. cultural influence could not be questioned; in the 1930s, however, such prominence in international affairs was not foreseen and U.S. Americans continued to play a relatively minor role in the world. Because of their obscurity, it was during the decade between Wall Street’s crash and Hitler’s invasion of Poland that U.S. Americans could explore their “American-ness” abroad with the least amount of distortion or bias. No longer unsophisticates from the New World dabbling with artful innovation and not yet hailed as Western Europe’s heroic liberator from Nazi terror, U.S. Americans in Nazi Germany lived unique lives in an unusually anxious time under a terrifying, bizarre regime. The experiences they encountered were early, valuable contributions to that on-going search for cultural identity.

          No doubt the cultural background of U.S. Americans in the Third Reich colored their experiences—and those experiences differed from those of other nationalities during the same time. The outstanding question, however, is how did their experiences help them better understand themselves and their country in new and different ways? The answers remain difficult to assess because of the intangible nature of socialization and the particular perceptions of each subject. In general, though, U.S. Americans in Nazi Germany struggled most with the differences between the optimistic individualism characteristic of their native land and the grim authoritarianism of Nazi Germany. Perhaps more than any other value, they discovered that their belief in the worth and potential of the individual became a mere mockery in the face of German Fascism.


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