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William Dodd

1869 - 1940


As Washington’s diplomatic mission in Germany required a staff to represent the United States in Berlin, Franklin Roosevelt chose William Edward Dodd to fill the ambassadorial position. Dodd arrived in Berlin in the early summer of 1933 with no experience in diplomacy, yet hoped to propagate the ideals of Woodrow Wilson and felt optimistic about developing close relations with the recently installed Nazi regime. He swore before leaving for Berlin that “Germany can hardly fail to realize the importance of friendly cooperation with the 120,000,000 people of the United States, and the United States can hardly fail to realize the value of economic and social cooperation with the land of Luther, Stein and Bismarck.”

When he first arrived in the German capital, Dodd became encouraged by the warm welcome then-President Paul von Hindenburg extended him, for the two exchanged speeches calling for cooperation and friendship between their countries. Soon, however, the brutality of the Nazis became obvious. Within Dodd’s first six months in Berlin, for example, over twenty cases were reported of Nazis assaulting U.S. citizens who refused to yield their salute. This—as well as Germany’s moratorium on debt repayments—disillusioned the former University of Chicago history professor. He spoke against Berlin’s political and economic policies, as well as attacks in the German press on New York Mayor La Guardia, U.S. women and the United States in general. His protests, however, meant little.

Having studied for his doctorate degree in Leipzig at the turn of the century, William Dodd had known a different, less menacing Germany. The angular-faced Dodd was born in October 1869 in Clayton, North Carolina into a family of landowners and clergy. In 1901 he married Martha Jones of Wake County, North Carolina. Dodd left the South after studying at undergraduate and graduate levels at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute, and teaching at Randolph-Macon College. In 1908 he joined the faculty at the University of Chicago. A scholarly man, Dodd served as president of the American Historical Association and a member of other historical and academic organizations. Dodd wrote on the lives of Jefferson Davis, Lincoln and Lee, as well as Woodrow Wilson: as ambassador to one of the world’s most powerful nations, from one of its most dynamic, his attention seemed more attuned to the past than with the present.

The Nazi regime not only embittered Dodd, but also strained his relations with Washington. After four frustrated years he resigned as the U.S. Ambassador to Germany. Dodd had become so openly critical of the Nazis that Hitler gave him no farewell audience, the German Foreign Minister omitted the customary dinner for departing diplomats and the German press did not even mention his departure. In a statement he made upon his return to the U.S., Dodd confessed that he had found representing the United States in Hitler’s Berlin a hopeless task. “In a vast region where religious freedom is denied, where intellectual initiative and discovery are not allowed, and where race hatreds are cultivated” he asked, “what can a representative of the United States do?”

The frustrated Dodd might have left Nazi Germany, but it would never leave him, as its long shadow would darken his days for the rest of his life. Returning to the United States after his resignation as the U.S. Ambassador to Germany in December 1937, for a short time Dodd spoke to audiences in the eastern seaboard and Canada about his experiences in Hitler’s Germany. He then attempted to resume his research on Southern history, but illness interrupted those efforts. His wife Martha (known as “Mattie”) died in May 1938 and that December he struck an African-American child with his car; the victim of his own bewilderment, Dodd subsequently was indicted with charges of leaving the scene of the accident. Although during the trial he claimed he had paid the child’s medical bills of over a thousand dollars, Dodd was fined two-hundred-fifty dollars plus court costs. Consumed with fatigue and disillusion, the former historian and ambassador died of pneumonia at his farm in Round Hill, Virginia in February 1940.

 First Impressions

Early in his new administration, in spring 1933 Franklin Roosevelt chose soft-spoken academician William E. Dodd over the customary tycoons and career diplomats for the ambassadorship in Germany because of Dodd’s extensive background in German cultural history and his fluency in German. While the patricians of rich U.S. American dynasties would have thrown lavish, impressive parties and career diplomats would have more closely guarded the interests of Wall Street bankers worried about the threat of German default on U.S. loans, few U.S. Americans knew Germany as Dodd did. A fan and scholar of both Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson, Dodd carried impressive liberal credentials. He displayed no more anti-Semitic sentiment than was customary in his day—a lack of obvious prejudice that appealed to leaders of the Jewish communities both in the United States and in Germany—and he seemed consistently conscientious and unusually frank.

As an austere, strict Baptist, Dodd also brought to the post a thrifty, no-nonsense seriousness to an assignment that would be difficult under any conditions—not to mention when representing a liberal democracy like the United States to a totalitarian regime like Hitler’s Germany. Shunning the posh suites offered him and his family on the luxurious Washington during the crossing of the Atlantic and at the Hotel Esplanade upon arriving in Berlin, Dodd demonstrated a style he would use in approaching diplomatic relations with Germany. Unaccustomed and unwilling to entertain what he saw as purposeless formality, the new U.S. Ambassador maintained a relatively low profile, yet availed himself to whatever needs his country and its citizens had of him in Germany. A rather innocent man who—unfamiliar with current German customs—was photographed at the New York dock giving what looked like a straight-armed Nazi salute, he stuck out in most official crowds and soon earned the scorn of both Germans and some of his compatriots in Berlin and Washington. Despite his inexperience with foreign service and its accompanying politics, however, he quickly and conscientiously undertook the various duties of his new post.

Soon after arriving in Germany Dodd met with individuals from the U.S. American community in Berlin—mostly journalists and business people—and important Germans. As Edgar Mowrer shook hands with Dodd after the ambassador’s first press conference with U.S. correspondents, Dodd expressed regret that the Nazi government had demanded Mowrer’s resignation from the presidency of the Foreign Press Association in Berlin because of his book Germany Puts the Clock Back. Within a few days, well-known journalists Sigrid Schultz from the Chicago Tribune, Frederick Oechsner of the United Press and Louis Lochner of the Associated Press all greeted the ambassador, as did German Ambassador to the United States Hans Luther. Luther—who was being recalled soon to Washington— interested Dodd by detailing his ideas of resettling unemployed Germans on the East African plains or in the wild Brazilian highlands. Luther also recommended relaxed tariffs between Germany and the United States as a means of restoring industrial prosperity. At no time during their talk did Luther suggest aggression towards France or German desires to annex the Polish Corridor.

            During Dodd’s first press conference with about twenty German journalists, he read auf Deutsch a brief statement concerning President Roosevelt’s recently proposed Recovery Act and its similarities with Minister of Economics Kurt Schmitt’s proposals for German economic recovery. So impressed were the Germans that the new United States Ambassador spoke their language, they published his statement the next day in all the major German newspapers. The reporters also questioned him later, however, about a statement printed in the Israelitisches Familienblatt—a Jewish newspaper in Hamburg—asserting that Dodd had come to Germany to correct injustices done to the Jews. Dodd read a denial of the paper’s claim, which the German press also printed verbatim—but used as an example of what it portrayed as an allegedly typical Jewish manipulation of the “truth.”

            Researching Schmitt’s work and meeting with the affable Minister for Foreign Affairs Freiherr Konstantin von Neurath, as well as several heads of the German military, Dodd soon became inspired by the professional manner in which German officials seemed to perform their duties. He admired their apparent efficiency and broad knowledge of their fields. At the same time, however, he was much less impressed with the receptions given for him by German and U.S. American socialites in Berlin. He characterized one dinner as being “very dull.” Of a tea given by the Henry Wood family at its Potsdam mansion and attended by some of the German aristocracy, he said “Everybody stood up in good Hohenzollern style,” but as far as conversation “the tone was quite Hitlerite.”

On a personal level, Dodd experienced considerable confusion and dissonance during his first weeks in the Third Reich between what he had known of Germany in an earlier, less menacing time and what ghastly excesses he encountered at present. One weekend, for instance, he and his wife Mat tie drove on the Potsdam highway to Wittenberg and Leipzig, arriving at Martin Luther’s church at forenoon. They could not enter it, however, because the doors were barred shut—unlike in the late 1890s when Dodd freely visited the ancient site of the Reformation’s ascribed birth while a graduate student in Leipzig.

Wittenberg was barely recognizable to Dodd, as it had become an industrial city and grown more than four times larger since he last saw it. While a Nazi parade filled the street, the Dodds roamed the heart of the old town, then drove on to Leipzig. Having had studied there for three years for his doctorate degree at the university, he toured the former palaces of the rich who lost their wealth during the World War. Dodd found in that cheerless part of town that “One great mansion after another was a solemn reminder of the follies the great men of 1914 allowed to be perpetrated.” Climbing to the top of the towering monument to the German victory in Leipzig over Napoleon 1813 and built a hundred years later by the Kaiser, the Dodds discovered Nazi propaganda in the observation deck boasting of “the power and heroism of the German people.”

            Torn between the romantic, even noble Germany of his youth and the ugly scenes of 1933, Dodd wrestled to integrate the New Germany with what he had known of the old one. At first optimistic that he could facilitate closer, more relaxed relations between Berlin and Washington, he soon stumbled over the disillusioning reality all around him. Case after case came to his attention concerning the safety of Jews in Hitler’s Germany who had ties—even obscure ones—with the U.S. and hoped to find help in escaping Nazi persecution. U.S.-based organizations like the Carnegie Foundation and the Oberlaender Trust worried about sending their students to Germany on scholarships. To the latter he recommended a continuation of its program, naively advising “the Jewish troubles may not continue.” Dodd seemed to take only an academic interest in Professor Coar’s description of his visit with Hitler, in which the Fuehrer promised to destroy all the Jews, rearm Germany, annex Austria and move the capital to Munich. Also, at a dinner one night Dodd criticized Mowrer for being as vehement in his criticisms of Hitler’s Germany as the Nazis were in their polemics. Somehow, Dodd just would not see the gravity of the threat posed by the Nazis to Germany and the world—until it was too late.


Adolf Hitler

Because of the nature of his work, political dynamics dominated William E. Dodd’s relationship with Adolf Hitler as soon as Dodd agreed to serve as the United States Ambassador to Germany. As an academician and a relative liberal, Dodd remained throughout his diplomatic service a loyal defender of personal freedom and the vulnerable world of ideas. When he assumed the position of ambassador, however, Dodd also consented—albeit half-heartedly—to guard the interests of U.S. bankers in Germany. This pressing preoccupation with Germany’s repayment of a mountainous debt, coupled with Dodd’s and President Roosevelt’s concerns over the treatment of U.S. citizens and—perhaps to a lesser extent—Jews in Nazi Germany, remained the central points of contact between Dodd and Adolf Hitler.

Dodd first met the German Fuehrer more than two months after he arrived in Berlin. At noon on Tuesday, 17 October 1933 Dodd arrived at Bismarck’s former palace. Climbing a set of wide stairs “guarded at every turn by Nazi soldiers with hands raised in the Caesar style,” the ambassador bowed as he made his way to Hitlers office. As he waited he chatted with a young man also waiting to see Hitler, Hans Thomsen. Soon, German Minister for Foreign Affairs von Neurath invited Dodd into the chancellor’s office, a room some fifty feet square with tables and chairs scattered about for group conferences. “The decorations on the ceiling and walls were beautiful but not so elaborate as in the great ballroom adjoining.” To Dodd’s surprise Hitler had dressed that morning in a “simple work-a-day suit, neat and erect” and looked better in person than he had appeared to the Baptist academic in newspaper photos.

Dodd reported later that he and the German dictator “rehearsed two subjects, the assaults upon Americans and the discriminations against American creditors.” While von Neurath rationalized that falling German exports had forced the Germans to repay some loans and not others, Hitler feigned agreement with everything Dodd requested. The German dictator even promised that he would personally assure that future attacks against U.S. Americans in Nazi Germany would be strictly punished and that he would issue decrees that foreigners were not obliged to offer the Nazi salute.

The conversation between Dodd and Hitler turned to Nazi Germany’s withdrawal the previous Saturday from the League of Nations—an action Dodd referred to as “the German thunderbolt.” In response Hitler “ranted about the Treaty of Versailles, the failure of the powers to keep their promises about disarmament and the indignity of keeping Germany in a defenseless status.” Dodd told Hitler he thought the French justified in their distrust of Germany, although he also weakly conceded that “defeat in war is always followed by injustice.” As an indelible Southerner, Dodd offered at that point the experience of the South following the Civil War as evidence to this. Dodd patly noted that Hitler “remained silent on this score.”

“After an exchange of niceties,” the ambassador asked Hitler whether or not an “incident” on the Polish, Austrian or French borders would be a cause for war, to which the Fuehrer responded “No, no.” [The German dictator’s response would prove, of course, to be a patent lie. As William L. Shirer later would write, for several seasons leading up to the summer of 1939, the Nazis used the threat of Polish “terrorists” to whip the Germans into a hateful hysteria, which climaxed that summer and handed Berlin an excuse to invade Poland: putting concentration camp prisoners in uniforms, then shooting them to make them look like Polish casualties during a staged “attack” on the German-language radio station at Gleiwitz (a provincial eastern-German border town), the SS provided a sham provocation for Germany’s launching—out of “self defense”—what became World War II.]

In the event that such a scenario would occur in the Ruhr valley, Dodd asked if the German leader would respond not in kind, but rather call a conference of the European powers. “That would be my purpose” Hitler further lied, “but we might not be able to restrain the German people.” Dodd inferred Hitler meant “the violent Nazis who he has trained to violence.” This venue continued briefly, then—after some forty-five minutes of discussion—Dodd left. Afterwards the U.S. ambassador’s most vivid impression after meeting Hitler in person consisted of the Fuehrer’s “belligerence and self-confidence.”

Dodd’s next encounter with Hitler took place on Monday, New Year’s Day 1934. “All the members of the diplomatic corps made a point to be in town today to pay their respects and good wishes” to the honorable German President Paul von Hindenburg. The esteemed last-guard of the Bismarckian era, von Hindenburg had held on—largely fruitlessly—past age eighty-six in hopes of guiding Germany back to moderacy. His death would virtually assure Hitler of complete rule over the country, as it would leave the political stage with no credible players of counterweight stature to effectively oppose the ambitions of the mad little Austrian. On that bittersweet day, Dodd drove to the Presidential Palace, where he was greeted by servants who gave the Nazi salute and directed him to a splendid reception hall. There, he visited with British Ambassador Sir Eric Phipps, French Ambassador Andre Francois-Poncet and Spanish Ambassador Luis de Zuluetta.

Soon von Hindenburg received the senior papal diplomat, who read in French a formal New Year’s greeting which neither the German president nor the U.S. Ambassador understood. The elderly von Hindenburg responded by reading a written speech. His address touted the revival of Germany and touched upon the significance of Hitlerian rule—“a subject” Dodd maintained, “for which hardly a member of the corps showed any sympathy.” After a few words with the papal representative, Francois-Poncet and Italian Ambassador Vittorio Cerruti, von Hindenburg shook hands with Dodd. He asked how Dodd’s son was faring at the university in Berlin and complimented the ambassador on his German, which Dodd described as “rather ready if inaccurate.”

“Then came Hitler” who, Dodd observed “seemed very much subdued, almost embarrassed.” Hitler offered Dodd “Happy New Year,” which the ambassador politely, if cooly returned. “Only the Italian Ambassador answered the Fuehrer’s official salute.” Dodd did ask Hitler if he had spent Christmas in Munich, the Fuehrer’s preferred German city. Dodd informed Hitler that he himself had spent two days in the Bavarian capital in early December and “had greatly enjoyed the visit.” Dodd naively added that he had met there with a skilled historian, a Professor Meyer who had studied at Leipzig at the same time he had: “Hitler was a little nonplused and indicated that he had never heard of Meyer” Dodd later recorded in his journal. “I mentioned other Munich University matters only to get no response, and he passed on, leaving the impression that he had never had contacts with the people I knew and respected.” Dodd complained that Hitler showed no personal interest in him, as von Hindenburg had done. He speculated that perhaps Hitler thought the scholarly ambassador was “trying to embarrass him a little. I was not.” He noted “There was, however, no diplomatic or political subject we could mention [in] these touchy times.”

On Wednesday, 7 March 1934, Dodd again met with the Fuehrer, this time in a secret meeting arranged by Ernst Hanfstaengl. Accompanied by a von Neurath who “was plainly a little peeved,” Dodd entered the German Chancellor’s office. Finding Hitler quite cordial, the two men sat at a table, “I with my back toward the room where von Neurath was supposed to be.” Acknowledging that perhaps a surveillance device was hidden in the walls, Dodd supposed that “no one heard what was said.” For almost an hour Dodd and Hitler discussed German-U.S. relations. When he asked if the German Chancellor had a message he wished to send with Dodd to Roosevelt on the ambassador’s upcoming trip to Washington, Hitler “was a little surprised, looked a moment at me and said: ‘Let me think it over and see you again’.”

Then, mindful of recent Nazi attempts to sway U.S. opinion toward the German regime, Dodd broached the subject of “disagreeable and harmful propaganda...saying that unwise propaganda in 1915-16 had done a great deal to bring the United States into the World War.” In turn Hitler feigned astonishment and asked for more details. Dodd resisted naming two of the most renowned German propagandists, as they had become Nazi officials. He did speak “of the pamphlets calling upon all Germans in the United States, as elsewhere, to remember that they are and must always remain Germans, almost like the law of 1913 claiming double allegiance for Germans” [who had emigrated]. Hitler immediately protested “Ach, that is all Jewish lies; if I find out who does that, I will put him out of the country at once.”

Dodd expressed concern for “the Jewish situation as existing in New York” and referred to a mock trial of Nazism. Hitler repeatedly interrupted, swearing “Damn the Jews” and promising that if foreign intervention continued on behalf of the Jews, “he would make an end of all Jews in Germany. He spoke of having saved Germany from the Communists and said 59 per cent of the officials of Russia were Jews.” Dodd feebly questioned Hitler’s figures, insisting that “Sovietism is no longer a menace.” When Hitler shook his head Dodd added that Communists had won few votes in U.S. elections in 1932. “Happy country” Hitler responded. “Your people seem to be so sensible in this respect.”

In his parting remarks Dodd supported the cause of academic freedom in Germany and “pressed the point that by university contacts and free discussion of international relations we should solve many of our difficulties.” Hitler agreed, then switched attention to President Roosevelt’’s plan for increased economic relations between the two countries. As Dodd left Hitler’s office the German Minister of Education Rust entered. As it was he who had ordered drastic restrictions on academic freedom, Dodd stopped to remind Rust of the importance of freedom of expression in the relationship between the United States and Germany. To Dodd Rust seemed “never to have thought seriously of that phase of the subject.”

With his meeting with the Fuehrer much in mind, Dodd returned to the embassy and spent several pages of his journal considering the personal background of Hitler and those closest to him. He concluded: TThe Hitler regime is composed of...rather inexperienced and very dogmatic persons, all of whom have been more or less connected with murderous undertakings in the last eight or ten years. It is a combination of men who represent different groups of the present German majority, not an actual majority.” By this point of his stay in Nazi Germany, the U.S. ambassador had lost a bit of his naïveté. Concerning Hitler, Dodd wrote “He has definitely said on a number of occasions that a people survives by fighting and dies as a consequence of peaceful policies. His influence is and has been wholly belligerent... In the back of his mind is the old German idea of dominating Europe through warfare.” Dodd’s final realization of the threat posed by Hitler came too late, as by then he was unable to effectively use his post to urge Washington, London and Paris to oppose Hitler’s consolidation of control over Germany.

After the death of the ailing von Hindenburg, Hitler assumed the role of absolute dictator over the German Reich. In the early afternoon of Wednesday, 12 September 1934, Dodd appeared at the Presidential Palace on Wilhelmstrasse in full evening dress “to pay formal respects to the new self-made President, Adolf Hitler.” A few days earlier, the Spanish ambassador had expressed to Dodd that although he disliked the thought of shaking hands with Hitler, “he felt he would have to go... I agreed that we could not stay away... It was a government affair.” Dodd thought the British ambassador felt similarly, “though Hitler was most repulsive to him.”

            At the Palace Dodd found a courtyard surrounded by soldiers “stiffly at attention.” The entire diplomatic corps at arrived, including the Papal Nuncio, who had been in hospital for a month, and French Ambassador Francois-Poncet, whom Hitler had once declared he never again would see. After the corps of some 50 diplomats had assembled around the reception hall, Hitler entered the room, accompanied by von Neurath, von Buelow and von Bassewitz. The Nuncio read a customary congratulation to Hitler—the Vatican’s natural enemy—“upon his marvelous success in assuming the place of von Hindenburg.” The Nuncio did slip into his address, however, subtle warnings against war, which Dodd claimed “everybody here believes to be the main purpose of the present regime.”

            Hitler promised—in German—that Germany intended only good will and peace toward other nations. When Hitler concluded his lies, he stepped forward “in perfect form,” bowed and shook hands with Rome’s representative. “He might as well have embraced him” Dodd thought sarcastically, “as far as formal behavior went.” The gloating dictator then approached the French ambassador: “they appeared to be even more friendly. For a minute or two they gossiped together in German in a most amiable fashion.” Hitler’s reception of Cerruti seemed less warm, leading Dodd to note “The Italian has not the social savoir faire of the Frenchman. He cannot hide his dislikes and he hates the Nazi regime, as his wife, a distinguished Jewess from Hungary, also hates it.”

            When Hitler reached the Japanese ambassador—who stood to Dodd’s right—he pointedly thanked him for attending the previous fall’s Nazi Party rally in Nuernberg, apparently as a rebuke to the French, Italian, British, Spanish and U.S. ambassadors, all who had refused to appear at the last two rallies. Finally, Hitler greeted Dodd, who offered him a quick reminder of “the peace note in his speech to us and said that it would be approved [of] in the United States,” especially by President Roosevelt, who had asked Dodd to tell Hitler that the Fuehrer’s “peace speeches always interested him.” Hitler then bowed and spoke for a moment “as though he were a pacifist, a type he always damns in his public statements.” As Hitler passed to the Spanish and British ambassadors, Dodd worried that the new German President had not appreciated the irony in the ambassador’s comment: “He assumed that I actually believed what he had said!”

Dodd reported that he had never seen Hitler “quite so happy-looking as while he went down the line greeting the representatives of all foreign countries.” He added that von Neurath nor von Buelow “showed any sense of shame for their country.” The reception later ended and all the ambassadors returned to their compounds, “wondering as ever whether the most medieval regime known to Europe can endure.” Dodd seemed unsure yet uneasy, not knowing quite how to respond to the latest success in the spectacular ascendancy of Adolf Hitler. “Newspaper people who came in the afternoon were very anxious to get my impressions of the reception. I could say nothing more” Dodd resigned, “than that the keynote was peace and that all the Germans seem happy.”

Two days after this latest, repugnant encounter with Hitler, Dodd again saw the German Fuehrer as he and his wife attended Tannhaeuser at the Charlottenburg opera house as guests of the Foreign Office. Hitler, von Papen, Goebbels and Generals von Blomberg and von Fritsch sat in what previously had been the royal stalls of the German emperor. Next to the Dodds sat Ambassador and Madame Cerruti; across the hall sat Ambassador and Madame Francois-Poncet. “The boxes were all occupied by diplomatic people and the house was crowded.” Soon the music began “promptly after the German manner.”

           During the first intermission the audience on the main floor rose, faced Hitler and yielded the Nazi salute. This happened again at the second intermission. “The vast audience including the actors and singers were enthusiastic about the Chancellor’s presence, more, I was told, than was evidenced when the Hohenzollerns used to sit in the royal box.” Dodd saw that although rumors had been thick that Goebbels had tried to have Vice-Chancellor von Papen killed and that both men had formerly hated Hitler, they all sat together and appeared to be “intimate friends.”

Madame Cerruti approached Dodd during one of the intermissions and—“after observing the pretended diplomatic intimacies”—reminded the by-now cynical ambassador of an earlier meeting they had. “Of course” thought Dodd, “the Cerrutis know I have no more liking for their dictator than I do for the German autocrat.” He added “As I meditate upon the problems and the ills of our civilization, I wonder whether the United States should not recall me. I would be willing to go.”

Dodd’s disenchantment with serving as the United States Ambassador, however, only grew. In late 1935 he noted that he had not talked with Hitler since 6 February 1934 or with Hermann Goering since early June of that same year—about the same time that Joseph Goebbels had hosted Dodd and his wife as official dinner guests. “It is rather difficult to remain in my position here and never have any of the triumvirate with us socially. They are the governors of Germany and I represent the United States here. But it is so humiliating to me to shake hands with known and confessed murderers. I am inclined to do the same as the Dutch Minister [a close acquaintance]” and quit the formidable task of serving as ambassador to Nazi Germany. Dodd’s desire to resign, however, remained recessant for a while longer.

On Friday, 10 January 1936 Dodd again appeared at Hitler’s annual diplomatic corp reception. Once more he honored formalities, even attending the embarrassing event in full dress. “Practically every ambassador and minister was present, all dressed in formal style, some with old-time hats and wonderful gilt-finished clothes,” he recounted. “It reminded me of the eighteenth century.” Hitler arrived half an hour late. “The Italian Ambassador was the only one who seemed embarrassed, the Soviet man simply keeping still unless approached by others.”

As in previous years the Papal Nuncio read in French a formal notice of congratulations which—Dodd again noticed—“Hitler did not understand any better than I did.” This time the Fuehrer issued a brief reply, citing low unemployment as his regime’s great triumph the preceding year—“not explaining” Dodd noted, “that nearly all the relief was due to the armament boom.” Once more, Hitler made his way along the diplomats. He did talk about Church history at some length with the Nuncio. He asked the French ambassador about the recent flooding of the Seine in Paris, then turned to Dodd, who said that seeing the Fuehrer’s conversation with the Nuncio led him to wonder if the German leader did not “read history with real interest.” To this Hitler replied “Yes, history is far better for me than politics, which wears me out.” After the reception and his affected amiability with the dictator, Dodd confessed “While it is regarded as necessary, this kind of show seems to me useless.”

Despite his loathing for such theatrics, Dodd appeared a year later, on Monday, 11 January 1937, at his last diplomatic reception thrown by Adolf Hitler. During the fifteen minutes that the diplomatic corps stood talking as they waited for Hitler to appear, however, Dodd noticed that a disintegration of relations between various diplomatic figures had taken place over the interceding year. “The Italian seemed the least sought after by others. He was...aloof to me...and I reciprocated.” British Ambassador Sir Phipps was ‘”as discreet as ever, but he revealed more sympathy for the Fascist crowd in Spain that I had noted before.” Dodd had come to see the British ambassador as being “almost a Fascist”—as he similarly suspected Stanley Baldwin, a Tory Party official and Anthony Eden, the British Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to be. The Soviet ambassador seemed calm to Dodd and “undisturbed as if his country had not been denounced here every day since last September.” None of the diplomats or ministers said “anything revealing, although I twitted the Englishman a bit about their treaty with the greatest Machiavelli of modern decades. He smiled but would say nothing.”

Hitler finally arrived, but as the Papal Nuncio had become ill the French ambassador headed the diplomatic lineup, followed by Dodd and the British, Turkish and Soviet ambassadors—their order being based according to each one’s length of service in Berlin. “The Fuehrer looked somewhat embarrassed as he came in” Dodd thought, “red in the face.” As Hitler faced him, the French ambassador read a welcoming address prepared by the Nuncio. “Nothing serious was said or suggested” Dodd later remarked. After that the Fuehrer read his reply, “also saying nothing, which rather surprised me since the international situation is so dangerous.” Dodd had expected Hitler to issue hints to the British and French representatives. Instead, Hitler offered “not one word” of relevance.

Following his reading of official greetings, Hitler shook hands with the French ambassador. Dodd could not decipher the quiet words they exchanged, but could imagine “the Frenchman complained at the German attacks on France today in all the papers because Hitler alluded to the French press in a slightly critical tone.”

Then, Hitler addressed Dodd and “pretended to be very cordial.” Dodd referred to the deteriorating economic relations between the United States and Germany. In turn Hitler complimented President Roosevelt on his landslide victory in the last election and on his “constructive measures.” Dodd agreed, saying he was glad Hitler had read the President’s addresses. Hitler replied he had, yet Dodd doubted him. The conversation soon ended, the pretentious posing over for yet another year.

Ambassador Dodd, however, would not be back for future diplomatic pageants. As 1937 passed he became only more frustrated and angry, as well as disillusioned with being of any real service to the U.S. in the Third Reich. In July of that year he returned to the U.S. to confer with President Roosevelt and various heads of the State Department. Despite their requesting him to stay, Dodd issued notice that—after two years of wanting to do so—he was finally resigning as the U.S. Ambassador to Germany.

As a personal favor, he granted President Roosevelt’s request that Dodd serve to the end of the year. Making a brief visit at Round Hill Farm, his beloved retreat near Ashland, Virginia to check the crops, attend to roadwork and move the farm’s smokehouse to a better location, Dodd returned to Berlin in late October. By now, however, Dodd merely oversaw the execution of official embassy business until Joseph E. Davies, the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, could replace him. Upon reaching the German capital, Dodd confided in his journal “In Berlin once more. What can I do?”


Jewish Persecution

            The place of Jews in German society had been precarious long before the rise of National Socialism. For centuries they had fallen into and out of favor both with the rulers and the people of what eventually would become the country known to the English-speaking world as “Germany.” Under the Nazi regime, however, Jews slipped to the absolute bottom of the social order; with each passing year after Hitler’s inauguration in 1933, they suffered increasingly severe discrimination and persecution. While U.S. Americans and other foreigners inside the Third Reich personally witnessed some of the tragic treatment cast upon Jews by the Nazis, only after German defeat in 1945 would the world fully know the incredible horrors of the holocaust committed against them.

While under Hitler’s direction they perfected it, the Germans did not invent anti-Semitism. Even before he left New York in the early summer of 1933 to take the post of the U.S. Ambassador to Germany, William E. Dodd encountered the ugly face of prejudice based on religion and “race.” He recorded in his journal that he and his family had been hosted in Gotham City by a Charles R. Crane—in a Park Avenue apartment which contained “a marvelous display of Russian and Asiatic works of art.” Besides being well-traveled and extremely rich, of interest to Dodd was that Crane had endowed the University of Chicago History Department for several years and had donated a million dollars to the Institute of Current World Affairs. Despite Crane’s surface “enlightenment,” however, Dodd found him “still bitter against the Soviet revolutionists in Russia and enthusiastic about the Hitler regime in Germany. Jews are anathema to him” the newly-appointed ambassador reported, “and he hopes to see them put in their place.” The bigoted Crane advised Dodd to “Let Hitler have is way.”

Dodd found himself enmeshed in the Jewish “problem” literally as soon as he arrived in Germany. When a reporter from a Jewish paper, the Hamburger Israelitisches Familienblatt pressed him for a statement regarding the official U.S. position on the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany, the German press distorted the incident and exaggerated it as an example of the deceitful manipulation “typical” of Jews. Following that initial, uncomfortable diplomatic mess, Dodd’s relationship with the Hitler government continued only to deteriorate.

Immediately upon manning his post, Dodd struggled to find a clear, effective response to Nazi persecution of the Jews. Fritz Haber, one of Germany’s most accomplished chemists, came to Dodd with a letter of introduction from New York’s Henry Morganthau. With a serious heart ailment at the age of sixty-five, Haber had been removed from his position without pension—although by pre-Nazi law he was fully entitled to one. Hoping for special consideration as an accomplished scientist, he appealed to Dodd to emigrate to the United States and seek refuge. The ambassador promised to inquire about the possibility with the Department of Labor, but said that emigration quotas already had been filled. As Haber left he insisted Dodd be discrete about his request for fear of Nazi reprisal and said he would try to visit Spain in the event he might be allowed to move there. “Poor old man” thought Dodd, who felt much pity for him. Yet Haber’s visit only hinted at what helpless situations were yet to come to the ambassador’s attention. Despite the fanfare and rank of his office, Dodd would soon discover he had very little meaningful power. His stay as ambassador then, was to be a lesson in abject frustration.

Early in his stay in Berlin, Ambassador Dodd received in his office R.G. Harrison, a Yale University professor who felt great concern for the safety of a “distinguished woman professor of Berlin University, who had been under strict United States Government surveillance at Yale during the [First World War] as a possible German spy.” The Nazis had arrested the woman as a Jew and dismissed her from teaching. Dodd reported that Harrison “thought so well of her that he asked whether I could intervene.” As the woman was a German citizen, however, Dodd considered his position irrelevant: “I could make no move” he maintained.

On 10 August David Levinson—“a Jewish layer from Philadelphia who looks definitely Jewish and who has played a role in civil liberties cases in the United States”—called on the ambassador. As the defense attorney in the famous Reichstag trial, he asked Dodd to provide a letter to “some German authority which he might use in his application for a place on the defense side of the trial.” The cautious professor-come-diplomat declined to offer Levinson any commitment of support. The reticent Dodd recounted “I could not give him the letter but suggested that he call on Louis P. Lochner,” the Associated Press’ longtime Berlin correspondent.

While Dodd hesitated to involve himself or his government in the ugly drama consuming German Jewry, the matter would resurface repeatedly in the course of his term as U.S. Ambassador to Germany. Always aware that Hitler repeatedly had announced that “all Jews must be wiped off the earth,” Dodd frequently expressed to Nazi officials his “dislike of German brutality methods” and warned them “You cannot expect world opinion of your conduct to moderate so long as eminent [German] leaders” denounced Jews.

Despite the ambassador’s public—albeit decidedly muffled—criticism of Nazi policies and his genuine sympathy for the Jews in the face of political oppression and Nazi thuggery, Dodd consistently avoided pressing German authorities with official statements of U.S. displeasure at the Nazis’ behavior. As the representative of Washington in Berlin, however, he continued to receive endless requests to intervene on behalf of U.S. American or European Jews. Reimer Koch-Weser, for example, the son of a former German Minister of Justice who “studied in New England and has a position in a New York law firm, came to beg me to use what influence I could to procure restoration of his father to his former rights as a practicing lawyer in Berlin.”

Koch-Weser’s great-grandfather was a Jew, yet even such a removed Jewish connection constituted reason enough for the Hitler regime to forbid the father to practice law. Dodd still refused to intervene, however, arguing “I have no authority at all to approach any German official about such a matter. [Koch-Weser] hoped I could find occasion, unofficially, to mention the subject and bring a little pressure to bear. I saw no immediate prospect” he said, “harsh as the ruling against the family seemed.”

When Jews he did not know appealed to Ambassador Dodd to act on their behalf, he struggled to do so, yet invariably informed them that he thought his opinion to be non grata with the Nazis. The pitiful plight of the Jews seemed even more excruciatingly uncomfortable to him, however, when Jewish friends of his own family were affected. The ambassador’s son had stayed with the Richters for “some months...to learn German, and also to study history” in 1935. Dodd considered the father of the family—who was “one-half or one-fourth Jew” and had been dismissed as a professor from the university of Berlin in 1934—“a very able man interested mainly in the history of German literature.” On 26 March 1936 Herr Richter stopped by the ambassador’s office “to say farewell”; he was moving his family to Baden, “about two miles from Basle, Switzerland, where he wishes to send his children to school,” as Jewish children had been barred from German schools. Dodd admitted after the man left “I was depressed by the story he told. But” he feebly added, “such conditions are reported to me nearly every day.”

Not all of the Jewish-related cases that came to Ambassador Dodd’s attention involved Jews seeking help to leave Germany or have their rights or property restored to them. In one incident the wife of a German diplomat stationed in the Balkans called on Dodd one morning in October 1934 to request his help in documenting the “purity” of her and her husband’s blood. Based upon the criteria established by the stringent “Blood Laws,” Nazi Party Deputy Leader Rudolf Hess had ordered the couple to prove that none of their ancestors were Jews. As she had been born of U.S. American and German parents, the diplomat’s wife handed the ambassador “a document which merely showed that her family had been citizens of the United States.” Predictably, he recounted “Of course I could do nothing; but I referred her to Consul Geist, thinking he might say a friendly word to some German official and possibly ease her situation.” He dutifully noted that “The woman revealed no sign of non-Aryan blood.” He added: “This illustrates the German anti-Jewish policy.”

In addition to trying even nominally to ease the pressure on Jews in Germany by quietly reminding the Nazis that Washington knew and cared about the Jews’ plight, the U.S. embassy also endeavored to seek asylum for a limited number of German Jews outside of the country. On 7 February 1934 Dodd received James G. McDonald, the League of Nations’ High Commissioner for German Refugees. McDonald’s task included seeking a haven for the persecuted Jews in the United States, Latin America or elsewhere. Working out of a League of Nations’ office in Lausanne, Switzerland, McDonald traveled extensively on behalf of Jews within the Third Reich.

McDonald impressed Dodd “as not very much enamored of his new and difficult position, though his work as planned seems to me very important, for Hitler is never going to cease trying to ban all Jews from the Reich.” McDonald had raised half a million pounds Sterling from British Jews who were “not enthusiastic and did not wish many German Jews to enter England.” Also, McDonald found in the United States that...there is much interest in limited circles but no enthusiasm for taking persecuted Jews into the country.” Conscious of Depression-era realities, Dodd explained “These people must have clerical, professional or financial jobs wherever they migrate and there are few such positions available anywhere.”

Dodd listened as McDonald described his plan “to arrange with the Germans for a ten-year plan for the removal of Jews and the transfer of German property for their initial support. [German Minister for Foreign Affairs] von Neurath is not opposed to this plan” Dodd qualified, “but unable to give any promises. To remove over 600,000 people” he explained, “most of whom are fairly well-to-do, from any country, is not an easy task. To expel them, as has been tried the last twelve months” he predicted, “would arouse intense hostility.”

During the four and a half years Dodd served as the U.S. Ambassador in Berlin, Jews’ living conditions continually declined and individual freedoms eroded. In addition to the already existent decrees banning Jews from owning property, practicing professions, engaging in business with gentiles and “mixing” with other Germans, he reported in April 1937 that “Stricter observation and punishment of Jews is evident. They cannot hold meetings of any sort, except church service. They cannot play tennis, football, enjoy river sports, canoeing or swimming. This ancient realm of religious liberty is becoming a terrible autocracy” Dodd declared. “Perhaps one-third of the masses are enthusiastic for a system which denies every man his personal liberty.”

Rather than responding generously to the dire need of German Jews for safe removal from Hitler’s reach, the United States largely responded out of fear and further isolated Germany’s unwanted citizens. While the Great Depression prompted a protectionist attitude on the part of many to secure professional jobs, housing and limited government public assistance for those people already living in the United States, much of the public’s sentiment arose from simmering anti-Semitism. Ironically, however, such exclusivity threatened the very freedoms many U.S. Americans clamored so reactively to “protect.” Although he had missed many opportunities to assist German Jews himself, Ambassador Dodd realized that U.S. Americans’ failure to help the Jews would likely compromise the quality of life in the United States. He warned: “With all the troubles people have in Europe, the United States also shows rather sad evidence of abuses there which may, after a while, lead to troubles for the democracy which all of us hoped to achieve, and which we actually believed in though it has not been really practiced on a national scale.”


Parting Glances

William E. Dodd’s enthusiasm to work with the officials of the German government under Hitler paled early in his career as the United States Ambassador to Germany. Repeatedly throughout his stay in Berlin he considered leaving his post, feeling frustrated at his seeming inability to affect the Nazi regime or represent the United States as he saw fitting. Finally, he no longer could bear to stay in the Third Reich and in late July of 1937 sailed for the United States to confer with President Roosevelt about his wish to resign, visit a number of important public officials, attend the funeral of a longtime academic colleague and see how the crops fared that year at Round Hill, the Dodds’ beloved farmland retreat in Virginia.

Dodd stayed in the United States that visit for two and a half months, returning to Hitler’s Germany only when he could no longer avoid attending to diplomatic duties. On Friday 29 October he noted with resignation in his journal: “In Berlin once more. What can I do?” With little choice but to immerse himself back into the work which had led him away from his professorship at the University of Chicago in 1933, Dodd soon recorded “I have had three busy days reading documents and recent newspapers to get the drift of things”.

On 3 November Dodd reported that although he had asked to be “relieved” on 1 September 1937, President Roosevelt strongly requested him remain in Berlin until 1 March 1938. He confessed “I feel I must go because of the unbearable tension of Nazi Germany, my increasing years, and the difficulty of writing the other volumes of my Old South [a historical series] if I wait much longer.” Dodd summarily executed his duties—receiving other foreign diplomats, attending receptions and official parties, meeting various dignitaries—yet he counted the days until he could leave Fascist Germany. A decent, idealistic man detained in a country he no longer could tolerate because of loyalty to his own land and conflicting ideology, Dodd struggled to maintain public appearances, often meeting with German officials yet secretly loathing doing so. At an annual bar association ball, for example, he met a “quite interesting Judge of the People’s Court,” yet to avoid debate “We talked German history, since present conditions cannot easily be discussed.”

In what would be his last autumn in Germany, Dodd became aware of heightened efforts by the Hitler regime to be part of a worldwide Fascist network and of such a pact’s threat to the rest of the world. Chinese Ambassador Cheng, as well as the Swiss and Chilean ambassadors approached Dodd with concerns about Germany’s overtures toward Japan, Switzerland and rightist elements within Latin America; so fervent were Nazi propaganda efforts in South America that Dodd quipped “the Chilean Government expects to be a German colony in a year or two.” Although it was more half a year before the Nazi Anschluss of Austria and a year before German annexation of the Sudetenland, Dodd foresaw trouble. “With so many efforts to make a solid Fascist front from Rome to Tokyo and similar efforts to swing Latin America into alliances with these Berlin-Rome dictators” Dodd explained, “it seems to me that real cooperation between the United States, England, France and Russia is the only way to maintain world peace.”

            The increasingly wary ambassador warned “One thing seems to me certain: there will come a complete totalitarian domination of Europe and Asia if democratic countries continue their popular isolation policies. All peoples are so afraid of another war” Dodd maintained, “that Hitler and Mussolini think they can keep everybody scared and seize what areas they want. I am afraid they are right in their appraisals. If things go on in this way” he continued, “England and the United States are going to find their economic conditions worse than ever. Although one cannot agree that Communism is better than Fascism, it would be a great thing for the United States, England, and France to unite with Russia and simply say certain things must cease to be done.”

Ironically, some four and a half years into his term as U.S. ambassador, Dodd became more aware and publicly critical of the diabolical menace posed by Hitler, yet at the same time became more unpopular with individuals within the U.S. State Department. Although President Roosevelt had pleaded Dodd to stay longer than the aging professor wished, by late November Roosevelt yielded to the low opinion Under-Secretary Surnner Welles had of Dodd and agreed to request Dodd’s retirement, effective December 1937. Dodd wrote an understated response to this development: “I have recently seen signs of opposition to everything I have recommended ... Since last spring, Welles has had a controlling influence inside the Department of State. It is well known” Dodd claimed, “that he is violently opposed to my policies in regard to public service.”

During the late autumn months during which the drama involving Dodd’s “retirement” unfolded, the ambassador developed an unusually frank friendship with Hjalmar Horace Greeley Schacht, the U.S.-educated German Minister of Economics and president of the Reichsbank. Although he had served in the Weimarer Republic, Schacht had resigned from it in 1930 and supported Hitler’s ascendancy. By late 1937, however, he became unpopular within Nazi ranks and even considered secretly emigrating to the United States. In early December he informed Dodd that he considered the ambassador to be “very popular with the German people, especially among the educated and professional people. I have seen considerable evidence of this” Dodd purported, “particularly in the invitations from German universities to deliver lectures.”

Effectively a lame-duck bureaucrat, Dodd led an increasingly passive role in U.S. diplomatic affairs in Germany during his last months in office. More than acting decisively on official business, he took to reviewing current international relations in Europe and around the world and assessing the chances for peace. Despite his concern, however, conditions continued to deteriorate rapidly. On 14 December he protested “How our modern civilization drifts backward towards medievalism!” He noted the growing threat of armed conflict between Germany and Czechoslovakia, China and Japan and the “helplessness” of the Soviet Union. Aware of what might happen should China fall to Japanese occupation, Dodd said of his visit with the Chinese ambassador: “We parted sadly, he saying his country might have to be subjugated and I acknowledging that modern civilization seemed to be on the verge of disaster.” Dodd in turn sent a message to President Roosevelt warning of the danger of Japanese control over China and advising a boycott, yet he suspected his warning would be categorically ignored.

Amidst the growing fears of global war the ambassador remained committed to execute his official obligations. As he recorded on 19 December, “The last few days of luncheons and dinners have been almost unbearable to me, being busy all the time in the Embassy office. And” he observed, “we have declined more than we could accept.” At least at several of the functions he attended, the customary “Heil Hitler” and the wearing of Nazi badges were missing. And, at his alma mater the University of Leipzig, Dodd successfully requested that “no Party demonstrations” such as pictures of “men in Hitler uniforms,” Nazi salutes or a Nazi flag decorate the platform on which he delivered a lecture on George Washington—upon the university’s insistence, in English. Impressed by the reception his talk received, Dodd commented “More people in Germany speak and understand English than anywhere else I have ever been where English is not the native language.”

After his address at the University of Leipzig, Dodd attended a dinner in his honor where “once more people talked freely to me and even to one another. Leipzig University professors are not satisfied with their situation” he found, “even less satisfied than Berlin professors seem to be.” Having made a special effort to visit his former scholarly hometown soon after arriving in Germany in 1933, the soon-to-depart Dodd took notice of Leipzig again, this time at the end of his stay in the New Germany. “I was glad to see once more the old university where I first learned history in a critical manner” he recounted. “The old part of the city was much as it used to be when I was there.”

Soon before Christmas the Dodds called on French Ambassador and Madame Francois-Poncet. While the Madame said she thought “the Hohenzollerns and the conservatives in general are restless and more bitter than ever,” her ambassador husband advised Dodd “You are going away at a good time. One main reason is that Mussolini’s situation in Italy is so bad that he will resort to war to save himself. He wants control of the Mediterranean and all of the French and Spanish possessions in North Africa” Poncet stated. “In order to get these, Germany will be called on to help him, and Germany will be given Austria and Czechoslovakia.” The French ambassador reasoned “all the Danube peoples are more nervous than ever and closer to France than ever before. If Italy and Germany go to war for these areas” he explained, “we shall have to attack them and England will support us.”

            With the prospect of war looming ever larger on the horizon, Ambassador Dodd and his wife boarded the U.S. American steamer Manhattan on 29 December in Hamburg. Expectedly, Dodd found that “more than half of the second-class passengers were Germans hoping to locate in the United States. More than half of these were Jews. But at our table in the dining room” he added, “there were several Nazis or Nazi sympathizers.” On board that ship crowded with both Germany’s disenfranchised Jews and some of Hitler’s faithful supporters, Dodd sailed back to the United States—still frustrated, disillusioned and unaware that within months political as well as personal tragedies would punctuate the two years that remained of his life. Having arrived in Germany optimistic that he successfully could champion a better climate between the United States and Germany, he left exceptionally bitter and tired, a victim of the debilitating cynicism characteristic of the Nazis he had worked so hard, so long to counter.

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First Impressions

Adolf Hitler


Parting Glances